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Majella: How I’ve emerged from the shadow of depression and cancer into the prime of my life

By Una Brankin

Published 31/10/2015

Majella and Daniel O'Donnell
Majella and Daniel O'Donnell
Daniel and Majella O'Donnell
Majella and Daniel O’Donnell on their brand new UTV programme, Daniel and Majella’s B&B Road Trip
Majella with her granddaughter Olivia

In a candid interview, Majella O'Donnell talks about her battles with illness, family life with husband Daniel and how the couple enjoyed filming their new UTV show, Daniel and Majella's B&B Road Trip.

When Majella O'Donnell published her memoir, It's All In The Head, several reviewers got it all wrong. They attributed her recovery from long-term depression to her changing of the negative thought patterns that had dogged her since her sensitive childhood. Anyone who has suffered from the unrelenting psychological torture of depression, or who understands the insidious nature of it, knows that is a simplistic conclusion to reach.

Majella suffers from clinical depression, brought on by a chemical imbalance in the brain, rather than reactive depression - as in a response to mental trauma. She has had plenty of those - a troubled early relationship with her once distant father; an unfaithful first husband; untreated post-natal depression - but even now, at one of the happiest times of her life, she still depends on a daily dose of a high-strength selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) anti-depressant, to stabilise her mood.

It was - and is - this medication, along with self-help books and counselling, that has ended the numbness and nihilism of clinical depression and enabled her to keep thinking positively.

"It was very helpful especially when I had cancer; I was so low. It's hereditary - I don't want to say from which side of my family, or I'll be in trouble," she says, rolling her vivid blue eyes, "but my daughter, Siobhan, is affected by it now, too.

"It's like, when everything is right in your life and you've absolutely nothing to be depressed about, that's when it hits."

Hands upturned, she shrugs resignedly but with a casual acceptance, rather than defeatism. We're having tea in a light-filled upstairs bar of a Dublin hotel, when a PR girl brings over a huge tray of chocolate croissants, in anticipation of the queue of journalists to follow.

"Are those all for me?" exclaims Mrs Daniel O'Donnell in her Tipperary lilt. A trim size 10-12, she doesn't look like she over-indulges in such treats, although she admits she found it "hard to resist" the cooked breakfasts featured on Daniel and Majella's B&B Road Trip, which is currently running on UTV on Monday nights at 8pm.

Nor - in jeans and a flattering sweater - does she look like your average granny. Her dark gamine haircut makes those bright blue eyes 'pop' (as make-up artists say) from her attractive, vivacious face, and she has a lovely warm smile, her perfectly even teeth as sparkling as her engagement ring - a big solitaire perched up on a band studded with smaller diamonds.

A youthful 55, Majella became a grandmother for the first time recently, when her London-based daughter gave birth to Olivia, the apple of her step-grandad's eye. Earlier this year, Majella spoke of not being able to conceive with Daniel, despite 10 years with no contraception. She minded more than he did at the time, although she's relieved not to have an adolescent on her hand in her fifties. And, as she takes her smart phone from the table to show me photographs of the very cute baby laughing into Daniel's adoring face, as they lie on a bed, it's clear that Olivia is making up for their own lost efforts.

"She's just beautiful. Daniel's mad about her, more than I thought he'd be," Majella smiles. "She's just like my daughter as a baby."

My mother has a framed photo of me, as a reporter in Dublin, with Daniel, taken in a recording studio about 20 years ago. He had a five o'clock shadow and was wearing a denim shirt, and was a lot less slick and more low-key than I'd expected him to be; shy, even. Before Majella met him in her parent's café-bar in Tenerife in 1999 - and as someone who preferred James Taylor and The Eagles to country music - she'd expected him to be a bit of a "boring mammy's boy", but found him surprisingly easy to talk to.

"He is shy at first, if he doesn't know you," she agrees. "Actually, we're real opposites. I'm quite bubbly and Daniel's quieter but he has a wicked sense of humour."

(He once plastered pictures of his own face over Eminem's on his step-daughter's wall of posters, and hides in the wardrobe if he and his wife are arguing).

"He used to have great craic with [the late Radio Ulster presenter] Gerry Anderson. He didn't mind the ribbing he got at all."

A former Glasgow-based hotel manager, Majella endured her first husband's infidelity for many years while their children, Siobhan (now 25) and Michael (now 22), were at boarding school. In her memoir, she reflects that it took her a further 10 years to get over the collapse if their marriage - but it didn't put her off announcing to Daniel, half-jokingly, on their second date, that she could see herself married to him one day. "It felt like a premonition; he must have thought I was a bunny boiler," she said in a previous interview.

The unlikely couple - he at 38, and she 40 - continued to date for a while before he broke it off, in the belief that the relationship would never work. As a divorced mother-of two, Majella accepted there would always be those who'd wonder why their idol didn't choose "a lovely fresh Irish girl". She settled for a friendship with him instead of a romance, but, unbeknown to Majella at the time, Daniel was getting a little nudge from a spiritual direction.

He was - and remains - a fan of the mystic writer Lorna Byrne, and wrote a forward to her first bestseller, Angels In My Hair.

"Lorna told Daniel some very interesting things about me before I was on the horizon," Majella recalls, trying to remember the writer's exact words. "My memory since the chemo is terrible ... she said something like, 'If this blonde lady doesn't capture your heart, no-one will'.

"I think Lorna has a special gift; I would never ridicule her. I have faith, not so much religious but I do believe in a higher power, and I do believe that if you put out your thoughts to the universe, it will deliver. I'm a bit of a hippy that way."

That faith helped Majella through her breast cancer diagnosis and her father's death in 2013, 11 years after her marriage to Daniel.

"I don't like the gym but six weeks before I was diagnosed with cancer, I had a personal trainer and was at my fittest ever. It was just a fluke. Daniel was on an 18-month tour and dad had died suddenly. He was in good health but he had a fall. He had got mellower and my relationship with him had improved as he'd got older, thankfully. You really don't know what's around the corner."

Daniel asked his legions of fans to pray for his wife. She underwent a double mastectomy and reconstruction surgery before an arduous course of chemotherapy.

No-one who saw Majella have her head shaved, live on RTE's The Late Late Show, to raise money for the Irish Cancer Society, can ever forget her bravery and admirable lack of vanity, at a most vulnerable time in her life. She raised £600,000 and set up a mental health charity in Donegal.

"I've a colour in my hair now but it came back much darker than I thought," she remarks. "I always had it highlighted before and when it was long, it was a nightmare. It's so fine and I had to really work at it to get it to sit.

"At the start, it came back chemo-white, my eyebrows too. I have pencilled over them now but I did get them tattooed. I got plenty of numbing cream on before the therapist started. It's not permanent; it's very handy in the mornings."

How did she manage to keep her skin from drying out?

"I just used a lot of that e stuff - what do you call it? That's my memory again ..."

E45?

"Yes. It's cheap but it's the best and it has no smell or no colour. Oh, and coconut oil. It comes in this solid lump that melts."

Anxious to do all she could to prevent the cancer returning, Majella gave up wine, tea, coffee and stuck to a "miserable diet of boring organic food". That changed swiftly, after a chat with her young American oncologist.

"She's from Pittsburg and she's very knowledgeable. I was wondering about all these things like coffee enemas and giving up dairy and so on - and she said, straight, that we still don't know what causes cancer. She told me three things: not to use plastic in the microwave, that green tea was beneficial, and that exercise is the most important thing; to keep moving.

"I try to keep active and get a walk most days. Not every day, I have to admit. And I still don't like the gym! What I'd say to anyone that has been diagnosed, is always to have hope and be hopeful. Take every single day at a time; don't be thinking you might die.

"I went onto those forums for survivors but I didn't like it. It was over, done and dusted, and I didn't want to go through it all over again. I just wanted to move on."

She's tired, having flown in from London earlier, but doesn't look it. She was over there for Daniel's Strictly stint, which has won him a new set of fans, including fellow contestant Peter Andre: "I love Daniel; I'm sad to see him go," he said of O'Donnell's departure.

Majella, however, is visibly relieved that it's all over.

"I was very nervous for him, watching it," she concedes. "He found it very, very stressful. We dance together but it's more free style! I didn't practice with him at all.

"That first night, he was so nervous he couldn't speak. It was his time to go last week. We're looking forward to taking it a bit easier now and we're going on world cruise in January, starting in Florida and ending in Dubai. I promised myself when I got sick I'd do it, one day. I'm not a sun-worshipper - not with this freckly skin, but Daniel loves it."

Nerves also played their part in Majella's performing life, during the her brief singing career. An average student at school, she had a good voice and starred in local musical productions. Her talent was never encouraged, however, and it was only after Daniel heard her sing She Moved Through The Fair, at the family café-bar in Tenerife, that the seeds were sown for her 2011 country album, At Last.

"I never wanted a singing career," she asserts, shaking her head. "I enjoy singing and I did a couple of albums. I wanted to; I thought it would be nice for the kids. Daniel gets me up to sing the odd time but it's nerve-wracking for me - I forget the words. It's not worth the stress. It's all right when I've had a couple of drinks in the pub, but not as a career."

She doesn't show any nervousness in front of the camera on the Road Trip, which takes in the Willow House, Enniskillen, and Abbey Dean in Newtownabbey. She and Daniel make charming, easy-going guests - there are no diva demands or sniffing the mattresses to check for pongs.

"It's a celebration of these wonderful places; not a critique. It's not like staying in a hotel, which can be so impersonal. All the B&Bs we stayed in were so warm and friendly, and they all over-fed us - it was always 'Have more, have more'. We had that lovely Fermanagh Black Bacon in Enniskillen and plenty of home-baked scones. And we had good fun in this rock and roller's place near Belfast - Newtownabbey. He has a massive record collection - he even has some of Daniel's.

"We like the north - we've lots of friends in Derry. We don't see a difference between the north and south. We're an island."

So, how did she and Daniel get on, being in each other's pockets, for the duration of the filming? "We got on fine - although we're real opposites. I'm quite bubbly and Daniel's quieter. We'd have to do the same thing over again if the producers needed a bigger reaction from us about something. Daniel would react exactly the same; I'd be even more effusive and OTT."

She whoops and throws her arms akimbo to demonstrate, attracting the attention of the ever-vigilant UTV Ireland PR girl, a few tables away.

"But we can spend time together and not get on each other's nerves. Daniel makes me laugh - he's very deadpan. And the production team got us to do things to make a fool out of ourselves on the show, so you'll get a laugh."

The PR girl is looking at her watch. I remember to give Majella the regards of a friend of mine, whom she has met in TV3, and tell her that we're off to meet a reputable medium for a Halloween feature.

"Oooh, I love all that," she whispers conspiratorially. "I'd nearly come with ye (sic) if I hadn't all these interviews to do."

I've no doubt she would have, and we'd have enjoyed having her along for the ride. No doubt about it, Daniel is a lucky man to have this lady at his side.

For exclusive behind-the-scenes footage, competitions and to follow conversations about the series, use the hashtag #BnBRoadTrip. If you missed the first edition on Monday past, there's a catch-up service on utv.ie and on the UTV Player, available to download on smart devices. For further information, go to utv.ie or follow on Twitter and Facebook

Belfast Telegraph

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