Daniel O'Donnell tells Liadan Hynes about his concerts at nursing homes and how his attitude to life has helped him cope with lockdown
In case you missed it, social media last week was flooded with videos of Daniel O'Donnell outside a local hospital and nursing home, singing for the residents. The boot of his car open to allow for his portable speaker, Daniel can be seen walking up to the open windows, joking with those inside, their laughter in return clearly audible. It's moving stuff.
"You do what you can," he says. "I mean I'm not doing somersaults in what I'm doing. I'm putting the speaker into the car, taking my phone with me, plugging in a backing track, and singing. I can do it with my eyes shut."
Covid-19 has not always brought out the best in celebrities. Lectures on staying at home delivered from cavernous kitchens are hard to swallow. That is not the O'Donnell way. The idea to take to the road and do his bit was his own.
"I was just sitting here one day, and I said to Majella, 'you know, if I had a wee speaker and a mic, I would go up to the hospital in Dungloe and sing for the residents'. I know the hospital, because it's our local hospital. It's more like a residential hospital. I sing at the Mass at Christmas for the residents.
"I got a wee speaker after a bit of searching. I phoned and they said, 'yeah, you can come up, stay in the garden'. And that day too I phoned the nursing home in Gweedore and they were pleased for me to come too."
He has since visited a number of other nursing homes, and plans to continue doing so, weather permitting.
"The thing that's happening now, in all homes and hospitals, is that their day is very, very mundane. One day leads into the other, there's no difference. I suppose doing this gives a diversion. And I think for the staff too they get a bit of a kick out of it. Ach, listen, it's easy for me to do."
His first speaker broke down, he recalls with a chuckle, so he and Majella went on the internet to source a replacement. "I'm self-sufficient now," he laughs, adding: "I enjoy singing at the nursing home as much as I'd enjoy the Albert Hall. As long as people are enjoying it, and I'm enjoying what I'm doing."
In general, the couple have been coping well with the restrictions in Donegal.
"Ah sure, we're doing fine. We live in a lovely place here. We've been doing a lot of gardening, something we never really did. And then we can get out and walk."
Both Daniel and his wife Majella have spoken in the past about her struggles with depression.
"It's important that you do things," Daniel says of anyone whose mental health might be suffering, particularly during lockdown. "That you don't just get into this situation of, if you have no reason to get up, not getting up, you know? That's important. But it's also important that you're not rocking the world.
"Some people are just so productive. And sometimes that can be counter-productive for the people that struggle a bit. They can think, 'I'm not doing anything. Look at what they're doing, and I'm doing nothing.' You need to be good to yourself. If you're not able to do something, don't expect too much from yourself either. Those who are doing are able to do. And if you can do something, do it. But don't be pressured. Don't let whatever you're doing be a pressure to you."
If it's a difficult day, go with that, he advises. "If you get up and think 'what'll I do today?' and you think 'well, I'll just sit today and have a day doing nothing', well then, that's what you need to do."
Is sitting still, doing nothing, something that comes easily to him?
"Oh, I can," he laughs gently. "Listen, I'm very fortunate. I don't struggle at all with any issues. And Majella is in great form, I have to say, too. Majella is very, very active; she's a very active individual, and always doing things. She's very hands-on, doing bits and pieces round the house. But… I'm just blessed. I don't feel in any way down."
This sense of mental wellbeing is helped, he speculates, by an ability to easily accept things. "I'm very accepting, you know, of situations. And I just think 'this is how it is'. Ach, I'm very fortunate, in how I approach things with my mind."
Despite being used to work that is by its nature highly social, he has not so far found the isolation too challenging.
"I don't think I'm very extroverted," he reflects. "I'm a kind of contradiction I think, in that I go on stage, and do what I do, but then I'm very quiet off stage.
"I don't know how to describe myself really. I'm quiet and yet I'm not quiet. I don't need to be active all the time. I must say I've enjoyed the time at home. I haven't had this long at home in many years."
Typically, his life at home would involve socialising with friends locally; for 50 years he has played whist in the local halls. Now, he plays bridge most evenings online. Like many of us, his work engagements for the next few months have been put on hold or cancelled. "We really are not in control. We just don't have the answer. We have no step forward I think until there's a vaccine found. Now, we will have to have some kind of normality in the abnormality of the situation.
"We are going to have to start going out, and I suppose wearing your mask and being very careful, and not being too interactive with people. But as far as going forward, and the music business and theatre and all that, anybody who's depending on a live audience, that is very much in the future. I don't know how that will be done."
Much has been said about the difficulty of being creative in these days - but Daniel has just co-written a single for charity.
"I just think don't pressure yourself," he says to anyone who might be struggling in this regard. "Allow things to come to you. If you're a writer, how did it come before? Probably very naturally. And that will come back again. This too shall pass."
This kind of attitude, knowing we will come through, stems from experience in Daniel's case.
"There's a lot of people who've been through incredibly hard times. Majella's illness, it was tough - tougher on Majella than on me - but her way of dealing with it certainly helped me. Because she was so… I suppose she just felt she was going to get through it, and that was it."
Social isolation can be harder on men of Daniel's age (he is 58) than women, I suggest, given that men can be less likely to reach out or have the social networks a woman might. "It's essential that you don't suffer this on your own," Daniel urges. "If you are suffering, you owe it to yourself, as hard as it may be. Whoever you can reach out to, even if it's to pick up the phone and look up the number of some organisation. Anybody. If you're telling somebody, you're actually telling yourself. Nothing is ever as bad as it is in our own heads."
Being able to get out and help others is also helpful for mental wellbeing.
"There's no greater gift for me to have than to be able to go out and make a difference. Even if you only make a difference for one person. And you know, everybody has a gift. No matter what that is, even if it's lifting up the phone to talk to someone. You might think 'what can I do?' You could talk to somebody. Even your next-door neighbour."
Undoubtedly Daniel makes a difference for more than one person, but there is one person he is particularly thinking of right now.
His single Don't Let the Music Die, to be released later this month, is part of a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for baby Livie (Olivia), a Donegal child who has a rare and serious genetic condition called spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) type 1.
Without treatment, it is likely her condition will deteriorate and she will not live beyond her second birthday. The best treatment option is only available in the US, and costs $2,100,000.
"People are so kind and generous at the moment. It's heartbreaking," Daniel says. "There's times when everybody needs lifting up, and this family need lifting up now. And if enough fans reach out, they can be lifted to the sky."
Words for us to live by.
To help raise funds for baby Olivia, see gofundme.com A Better Life for Livie