Daniel O'Donnell: 'Majella had periods of depression, but she copes really well with it ... when she has it you just have to help her get through it'
Daniel O'Donnell opens his heart to Barry Egan about losing his father when he was six, his mother's grief and loneliness, his wife Majella's depression, his faith and what makes him laugh
Daniel O'Donnell is 57 years of age. He says that "the strange thing about it is I feel really young. I actually sometimes feel that people who are younger than me must be older than me. Not because of how they look, but because maybe the job that they have. You know? And then I realise, Jesus, I'm not younger than them at all! [Laughs] I don't know if you ever get to feel that you are not in control. Do you ever feel that way?
"If I'm able to manage; and if I'm able to be compos mentis. I'd like to be able to play cards. If I could play cards at 96, I'd be very happy. If I could play whist and bridge at 96, I would be delighted.
"There is a man in Killarney called Michael O'Connor from Kerry. He was in that documentary Older Than Ireland. I'm sure he's still alive, because I would have heard.
"He was at our concert last Christmas in Killarney at 105 years of age. He was playing still. I called out his name at the concert and he was up on the side balcony. I chatted to him. He is just a great man. I said to him, "Are you still driving?" 'No, I stopped. I'll rephrase that: they stopped me driving me'."
I ask Daniel what he drives.
"Well, we have a BMW and we have a Hyundai. I'm not big into cars, but we have a lovely car; obviously, if you have a BMW. When we are together, Majella drives pretty much all the time, unless we are going to the pub; and I drive home then."
How far is the pub from their house? "It depends where you go."
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Politics being a place he rarely, if ever goes, The Daniel doesn't tell me - apropos his famous Gas Networks Ireland ad on the telly - "I want you to leave" when I bring up the subject of The Donald. He lets loose a mischievous cackle instead.
"I suppose I was shocked when he got in, but not as shocked as he was!" Daniel Francis Noel O'Donnell says of Donald John Trump's move to the White House on November 8, 2016.
"Trump's presidency is very divisive," he continues. "It depends where you are in America. Those who support Trump believe in him; and those that don't, don't believe in him. And you can't knock either. And they're entitled to their [opposing] views. That's a democracy.
"I wouldn't be giving opinions on politics, period, really, I think the minute that you get involved in politics the focus comes off the music and singing. My focus should be singing. I'm not out to preach and I'm not out to dictate."
Daniel lives in Co Donegal's Meenbanad, about 70 kilometres from Strabane on the border. I'm curious what he thinks of Brexit. Does he have concerns?
"We don't know what Brexit is going to be, or what it is going to bring, or what it is going to take away. We really do not know. I don't think anyone knows what is going to happen, or how it is going to happen; even though it seems imminent."
Would that worry him?
"It is such an unsure scenario, and you know what? You can't be worrying about what might happen because you might be wasting your time. You have to worry about what is happening, not what might happen, because what might happen might never happen. I really don't know what is going to happen. All I know is that it needs to be settled, for a way forward, for everybody."
The woman Daniel lives with in Meenbanad is his lovely wife Majella, whom he married on November 4, 2002. Would he serenade her every night before dinner?
"Listen, you!" he hoots with a divilish smile. "C'mon, c'mon, come out of that fog now!" he laughs.
I ask him to give me some happy moments that stand out over the years. "Oh, loads of happy moments. Getting married to Majella. Dancing with Majella for the first time," Daniel says, referring to their meeting up on the dance floor 18 years ago in Majella's parents' bar in Tenerife. (Majella told me in an interview a few years ago: "And as we were dancing, he leaned over and he kissed me!")
"Majella and I have lots of fun," continues Daniel.
Do they go out to the movies? "We go very seldom to the movies. We go out and have a meal sometimes."
Does it inspire tendon-snapping rubbernecking and cartoon-like double-takes when Daniel O'Donnell and Majella suddenly sit down next to diners in a Donegal restaurant?
Is it surreal sometimes to see people's reactions to him?
"You just accept it. You accept over a period that people are going to speak to you and you speak back to them. It is no big deal." Daniel tells me he and Majella were at a gig in Meenaleck, Crolly, a few nights ago to hear Moya Brennan sing. "Moya had a couple of local singers on. Young people. She is great for the youth, Moya. Moya is brilliant." So, clearly, is Daniel's wife. "She's amazing," he says. "We have a great time."
In 2014, Majella told Gay Byrne on The Meaning of Life that dealing with cancer (which she was diagnosed with in 2013) was "a piece of cake in comparison with depression". She added that depression is "far worse than cancer" which you can "whack [cancer] with chemo", she added.
What is it like for Daniel sometimes living with Majella? "It's great. She is very well, though, and has been for a good while. She is very fortunate at the minute.
"She had periods of depression, but, you know, she copes really well with it. If she has it [depression] - and touch wood, she hasn't had a bout for a long time - you just have to help her get through it. You really can't even say to her, 'Do you want a cup of tea?' Because she cannot answer it. But if you leave the tea there and she drinks it, that's fine. It's hard to understand it," Daniel says.
Daniel is an unreconstructed old school gentleman. We were supposed to meet at his house in Donegal. But I am not a good flier and said I would drive. He came back to me a few hours later and said it was too long of a drive.
Daniel flew up to Dublin (he could fit me in after an appointment with the eye doctor) where the Donegal deity - whom the Daily Telegraph called a cultural icon in his native Ireland - held forth charismatically on a thousand subjects.
He is on a sold-out nationwide Irish tour at the moment. As well as his much-loved songs, Daniel will also bring with him his particular brand of humour.
Asked what makes him laugh, he says without hesitating: "People like [the late] Brendan Grace make me laugh. I love Hyacinth Bucket. I love Keeping up Appearances. Are You Being Served? That kind of thing. Last of the Summer Wine. What makes me laugh is situations, funny situations... The strangest thing ever that happened out of that ad," he says, referring to the aforementioned Gas Networks Ireland advert on the box where Daniel offers to fix a woman's boiler in her house. "This fella came on the phone one day. He said: 'Hello. I wonder would you come and have a look at me boiler. Will you?'
"I said [incredulously] 'What?' He says, 'I need the boiler done'. I said, 'Who's this?' He said who he was. He had genuinely phoned me and he was genuinely looking for somebody to fix his boiler in Donegal. I said, 'Are you having me on? 'He said, 'Is that Daniel?' I said, 'Yes.' He must have dialled a wrong digit but it happened to be me and I answered."
And can he fix a boiler? "No, I can't! I can hardly boil the kettle!" he laughs.
Is he any good around the house?
"I'm alright. I iron. I mean, I put in some clothes to be washed this morning. I get the colours right. I put in a colour-catcher. Do you know the colour-catchers? Buy a colour-catcher and you can wash anything.
"Now, you won't put blacks in with whites, but you can put colours in. You get them in any supermarket. You put it in and then you won't be worrying about colours running."
Apart from colours running in the wash, what would Daniel worry about in life?
"Not very much. I don't unduly worry. But I would hate if anyone belonging to you was sick. That is the only thing you need to worry about.
"I'm not going to fix the world. I'm not here to fix it. I'm here to sing a song and maybe make it better for someone by singing a song..."
The master entertainer, the national treasure, can switch from colour-catchers in the wash to existential dread in a blink of a eye (he had his eyesight corrected and they have an extra-sparkle in them today).
Before you know it, he can switch again to tennis ("I've never played with Cliff. He is brilliant") to cards ("I would play cards from morning until night") to keeping fit. "Golf - that's my exercise. It amazes me that I am able to hit the ball. I get better if I play a wee bit. Now I'm not as good as a lot of people are, but I can get an odd fiver [laughs] when I'm out."
The singing superstar, who grew up in a house with no toilet in the Donegal fishing village of Kincasslagh, says he has no recollection of his father, Francis, who died when he was a young child. "No. No. Not at all. I have no real memories of my father. I have more memories of his death than his life, you know? And that's just because I suppose it was a very traumatic thing around me."
How did he cope with the trauma? "I was only six. So, I wasn't really affected. The older ones were affected. I was too young."
Did the older ones take him under their wing? "Well, they were all good by the time I was 10. My next brother, James, was 14 and he went away to be a chef. Kathleen finished school and she was a waitress. And Margaret was singing. And John used to drive Margaret. So it was only me and my mother at home a lot of the time," he emphasises, "not all of the time, but a lot of the time".
Was it difficult for his mother?
"Sure, it must have been. It must have been. She must have been very lonely - the grief of it all. But she was very strong too."
Looking back, can Daniel remember seeing the grief in his mother?
"I can't remember it. I remember, I suppose, that she would have talked about it years later. So, I don't know if I am remembering her story or remembering my version of it. It's hard."
Daniel says he doesn't think that losing your father at six years of age had any affect on him emotionally growing up. Even when he grew up without a father figure?
"You know, it is very hard to say. Would you be any different if you had a father? It is like picking up a hand of cards. You can't play anything, other than what is in front of you. And that is the reality of it. There is no point in saying, it was this or it was that."
Did Daniel ask his mother for stories for clues, to find out what his dad was like? "I had very little discussion around him."
I ask why.
"I think because she always seemed upset when she referred to him. I would deliberately not talk about him, because it wasn't necessary. I didn't need to know."
Asked what his family life was like, Daniel says he was "very happy growing up. I think my mother was very upset for about six months; and I think, then maybe, she thought, 'I have to get on with this'. I think that's how it must have been, when she decided to swim rather than sink. Now that doesn't mean that, even until the day she died at almost 95, that she didn't miss him. At the anniversary time, there would be tears a lot. She was a widow for 46 years."
Did she ever meet anyone else? "I don't think she even opened up to meet anybody."
Spending a couple of hours with Daniel is a singular experience in itself. I find him fascinating to talk to on so many levels.
When he mentions that he was recording a song for Songs of Praise, this leads to a conversation that the only other person you could imagine having the same conversation with is perhaps Bono.
“I like the spiritual stuff,” Daniel says, to which I say that one of my favourite Elvis songs is You Gave Me a Mountain.
“Great song,” Daniel says. “I’ve done gospel and I’ve done hymns as well. I’ve sung loads of hymns, starting off in the chapel when I was young.”
What age was he? “Ah, sure, I must have been singing in the choir when I was only a wee thing, six or seven.”
Was he an altar boy? “I was never an altar boy. I went to the choir. And, sure, I am still singing in the choir.”
Did he enjoy the Mass as a child? Mass is almost like theatre with the priest and the scents and the music, I say. “I suppose years ago there was more theatre in it than there is now. There isn’t maybe so much of that. Although at the funeral you have the incense and all that.”
Does Daniel still go to Mass? “I do. Oh, God, I do.” The numbers are going down, I say.
“They are going down, unfortunately. But I was at Mass on Sunday. There was a good crowd.”
There are a lot of negative things about the Catholic Church in Ireland, but does he think there is a lot of good too and we wouldn’t be who we are without religion, I ask.
“There is a lot of negative, of course. I suppose you take out of it what you want to take,” he says.
“If there is something good, you keep going. Of course, you take the good out of it, but can’t not, you know, accept all that has been negative too. But I suppose you go to church for your own reasons.”
What are his reasons? “I go to church because I feel I want to be a part of what the church gives me.”
When he prays, does Daniel feel he is having a conversation with a higher power?
“I hope so. I pray away. I try to pray every day. I’m praying for other people. Sometimes you pray to give you the ability to do whatever you have to do. Whatever that is. And it is not that I want to do something. I don’t pray that way. But sometimes it is about doing the best you can.”
Daniel was only a child when he sang Little Cabin Home on the Hill at the hall in Kincasslagh. In February 1983, he recorded his first single, My Donegal Shore, and he is now one of the biggest names in Ireland and beyond (he is off to England, then America after his Irish tour).
Does he feel blessed with his life and his career? “Oh, God, I do. If I didn’t, I should be shot. I feel very, very privileged, I suppose, to have got to do all I have done and enjoyed it all, and if I look back, when I started I never thought... well, I didn’t know where it was going anyway. But I had the faith to keep going. I must have had a kind of tunnel vision for a while in the early days.”
Where did that come from?
“I don’t know, because I’m not ruthless. I don’t live ruthlessly,” Daniel says, as he gets up to catch his plane home to Maj in Meenbanad.
- For Daniel’s tour dates go to www.danielodonnell.org/tour-dates/