Abbii Badmus

First Published December 2021

OFFALY’S MISS UNIVERSE HISTORY-MAKER

On December 12th Katherine Walker from Belfast will represent Ireland at the 2021 Miss Universe final in Israel. Katherine, a nurse, is the fourth Miss Universe Ireland of Brittany Mason’s ‘Moxie’ era, following on from Cailín Toibín in 2017, Grainne Gallanagh in 2018, Fionnaghuala O’ Reilly in 2019, and Nadia Sayers last year.

While Katherine sets her sights on writing her name into the record books by bringing home the biggest prize in world pageantry, the same ‘Moxie’era has given Offaly its own history maker in the shape of Edenderry’s ABBII BADMUS, who became the first black woman to hold the MISS UNIVERSE OFFALY title in 2020.

For Abbii and her Miss Universe Ireland (MUI) class of 2020, the opportunity to be part of one of the planet’s most prestigious pageants was certainly a little bit different. Under normal circumstances, the weeks leading up to the aforementioned gala Grand Final in the famous and historic Round Room of Dublin’s Mansion House would be filled with glitter and glam filled events, with flashbulbs and champagne corks often popping in equal measure.

These events usually give all of the contestants –  including Abbii who was one of 2020’s twelve finalists – a chance to get to know each other as they share in what has always been a line-up of unforgettable experiences organised by Brittany Mason and her MUI team. Covid-19, however, changed all of that in 2020, with the entire MUI competition taking place online.

While the 2020 crown eventually went to Nadia Sayers, Abbii has flown the Faithful flag high and proud, proving herself to be as outstanding a representative of the county as we could ever have wished for on a national stage.

And, as Covid continues to cast its cloud of confusion across the world, and with restrictions preventing the MUI organisation from holding its annual Grand Final for a second year, Abbii is still – at the time of writing at the end of November 2021 – our Miss Universe Offaly.

And that title couldn’t be in better hands.

A few weeks back, I had the pleasure of catching up with Abbii – one of the loveliest souls you could ever meet – and I began our chat by asking how her time as Miss Universe Offaly has been?

“Oh, my time has been amazing! I’ve loved every single moment of it. From the very start, even until now, everywhere I go people are like, ‘Oh, you’re Miss Universe Offaly.’ So you’re part of the whole Miss Universe Ireland crew, that gang, the sisterhood, and I think that’s something that’s very common. Pageantry is not something that’s very common in Ireland, but that’s really starting to change. So I’m delighted that I have the title Miss Universe Offaly, and that I’ve been able to represent the country very well. Everywhere I go people are always like, ‘You’re such an Offaly girl’, and I’m like, excuse you, my name is Miss Universe Offaly [laughs]. But yeah, it’s been amazing, it’s been a great year.”

For Abbii, and her fellow 2020 contestants, it was a very different Miss Universe Ireland competition, with everything happening entirely online. But since restrictions had begun to ease, I wondered if Abbii had finally had a chance to meet any of the other Miss Universe queens from around the country?

“No, I haven’t actually met any of the girls that were finalists with myself. And yeah, obviously our year was very different with the pandemic, so everything we did during the year was virtual. But at least now restrictions are lifting bit by bit, which is great to know because if the competition does go ahead again this year, it can be in real-life. But because it was virtual last year, we all met each other through Teams, and Skype. But it didn’t feel like we were doing things virtually, because we were still able to get so much out of it, and with some of the girls, we’ve become like friends for life now, sisters for life! I’ve made closer friendships with some of those girls than I have with some people I see in my life on a daily basis! [Laughs]. And that’s so great to have.”

So why was getting involved with the Miss Universe Ireland organisation something that Abbii wanted to do in the first place?

“The reason why I wanted to get involved was that I wanted to make a difference in the world, and I still want to make a difference. I believe that the Miss Universe Ireland title should be mine [laughs]. That’s something that I’m very, very passionate about. So, behind closed doors, I’m still practising. For people that don’t know, it takes a lot of work! And obviously last year was my first year running in pageants, so I didn’t expect to go and win it first time around. And some of our previous winners have run twice.  It just takes practise and experience. I’m a woman who’s true to herself, and I love sharing my experience, and being able to meet new people, and representing my county, and my country. I carry that responsibility with me everywhere I go.”

What has been Abbii’s favourite moment of her time as Miss Universe Offaly so far?

“My favourite thing in the world is just having the title! That just means so much to me. I’m someone who has so much potential, but so many things in life can hold me back. It could be yourself, could be friends, could be family. Things can hold you back, but I believe that if you want to do something and want to achieve something, you need to have the right mindset. And when I ran last year, I wasn’t in the best state of mind during the whole competition. But what I’ve realised is that even while not being in the best state of mind, I was still able to achieve something. That just shows that if you really put your mind to something, and believe, it can be yours. So I enjoy every single moment of this. I still have my title, and everywhere I go, people are always pointing that out.”

At the time of our chat, one of Abbii’s fellow Miss Universe Ireland 2020 queens, Laura Nolan – who wore the Miss Universe Leinster crown – was killing it on RTE’s hit show, Ultimate Hell Week. I asked Abbii if she’d been following Laura’s progress, and if she could ever see herself following in Laura’s footsteps on a show like that?

“I actually haven’t been following the show because I have so many things going on right now. Outside of the whole Miss Universe side of things, you get so many opportunities that arise from that, so many people reach out to you because you’ve been part of the MUI organisation. You do get that advantage from it. So I haven’t been following the show, but I keep up with Laura on Instagram, and it’s so great for me. And it’s so great to see that someone can get so much, and gain so much, from the M.U.I. experience, and I would love to be in Laura’s shows one day!

What kind of opportunities have come Abbii’s way from being involved with Miss Universe Ireland?

“I’ve become involved in modelling, with the ‘Not Another Agency’, I work with them. Lots of photographers reach out to you as well to work with them. Because of being involved with something like Miss Universe Ireland, everybody sees your social media and even just walking by people, the feedback is great. And sometimes someone would say to me, ‘I can see that you’re gonna make it!’ So that’s what I’m hoping to do, and to help others along the way as well.”

Has getting involved in modelling been something that Abbii enjoys?

“I do! I love modelling! But I’m shy, and I need to grow legs! [Laughs]. I need longer legs, I’m only 5 ‘ 4’’ [laughs].”

But even at just 5’ 4’’, Abbii has never been afraid of a challenge, and, lest anyone doubt it for a moment, has always proud of her country, having donned the famous green, white, and gold to represent Offaly in Gaelic football…

“Yeah, I played county for Offaly, I loved it. That’s one thing that actually weighs on my mind daily, and it’s something that I regret, giving up football. Every single day I say to myself, I’m gonna take up football again. I go for training the odd time, with some of the lads or whatever, but I need to actually find a club down here [in Galway, where Abbii is living and working right now] and join up. I was going to this year, but then the championship finished so quick, before I even opened my eyes! [Laughs].”

Although Abbii has since changed career-paths, back in the early days of the pandemic she was working with a medical devices company in Galway. I wondered what it was like being in a job that was important to begin with, but suddenly, as everything in the world changed so dramatically, she found herself in a job that would potentially become one of the most vital on the frontline?

“Yeah, back at the beginning of the pandemic, when we didn’t really know where we stood, that’s where I was working. We were making ventilators and shipping them worldwide. That’s what we were always doing, but then the pandemic struck and we became very, very busy. And as a frontline worker, what else could you do except go into work each day, get your head down, and work hard. We knew we were making a difference, not just here in Ireland, in our own country, but worldwide as well. And that was great to know. We were caring for others in a kind of a way. We weren’t physically, in person able to help, but we were making ventilators to help keep people alive around the world.”

However, Abbii recently changed jobs and returned to the world of finance, something she studied in college…

“Yeah, I recently – well, back a while now – started this new job. So basically what happened is that after working so hard in that medical devices company, things then went a little bit quiet, because there’s only so many ventilators you can make and ship out, because they last for years and years and years. So a lot of us were made redundant, and to go out and look for a job – because there was so many of us, and because the pandemic was still going on – was very difficult. Personally, I decided I was going to take a couple of weeks out to rebuild myself because the last few months up to that had been very, very tough. Obviously the competition was on, I was going to work full-time, and I was dealing with my own mental health as well. But then I actually got sick for a few months, and I couldn’t work for a few months. But health is wealth, so I had to take care of myself. Before I realised I was that fragile, I was still going into work for a long time. But when May came, I started looking for a job, and because I studied accounting in college – in GMIT – I decided to start working in what I actually studied again. I had been in a finance job before the medical devices company, and I needed to get back to that. So now, I ‘m working with AIB, and it’s very cool because it’s obviously one of the big banks in Ireland. I just love coming into work here, I love everybody. The team I’ve met, I can’t thank them enough, and they’re really great people. It’s not every day that you meet people like that. I’m so happy that I’m in a job that I love, and where I’m happy.”

This year, Miss Ireland has its first black queen in Pamela Uba, but that was a milestone that the Miss Universe Ireland organisation reached back in 2019 when Fionnghuala (‘Fig’) O’ Reilly took the crown. But Abbii, as the first ever black Miss Universe Offaly, is also a history maker. What does it mean to her to have that honour, and to be that role-model?

“To me, honestly, it means so much! As you said, I am the first black person to be crowned Miss Universe Offaly. Watching Fig be crowned Miss Universe Ireland in 2019, she has literally set the way for black people. I’ll speak for my generation growing up. As a black person, as a minority to be honest, our opportunities are limited. So this – what Fig has done, what I’m doing – this sets the bar for what can be done. Because even now some people are still just beginning to realise that there is such a thing as Miss Universe Ireland, AND black people can actually be part of that, and earn that title. The Miss Universe Ireland organisation is very, very fair in that, and I do hope that we can have more black people crowned, and different cultures, too. And that’s great, because at the end of the day, we’re all Irish!”

Abbii continued, “If anyone wants to do something, you need to do it, you can’t let anyone stop you. That’s one thing I’ve realised, and that I’ve learned so much from last year. When I ran last year, I wasn’t letting my whole self go, be seen, there was so much that I hid. It’s only now I realise that there’s so much more I could have given. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very, very proud of what I’ve achieved so far, and what I’ve gained from being part of the Miss Universe Ireland family. But sometimes, as a black person, even that can hold you back because you might be afraid to post things on your social media because of the culture. At the end of the day, I’m still black, and I want to respect my culture. And I’m still Irish, and I want to respect that culture as well. But it has to be about what YOU want to do. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Focus on yourself. Build yourself. “

~ You can follow Abbii (@abbi_badmus), the official Miss Universe Ireland account (@missuniverseireland), and Miss Universe Ireland 2021 Katherine Walker (@katwalker21) on Instagram. 

ENDS

Garth Brooks

First Published July 2014

FOR BROOKS SAKE

Firstly, as the last chance of any possible resolution to the Garth Brooks concert fiasco finally fades away into an epic failure of Craggy Island proportions (minus any funny side!), and the nightmare scenario of complete cancellation begins to unfold, let me be straight up about the fact that I still write this piece as a Garth Brooks fan.

Have always been one and will always be one.

Secondly, let’s be clear about this, also: no-one in their right mind is suggesting that this is a disaster such as the Stardust tragedy say, or a wrongdoing akin to Bloody Sunday. Of course not.

However, in the context of what this could have been, what it was planned to be, and what it has now become, this certainly is an unmitigated disaster and a mess-up of unrivaled folly.

A shortage of time and space mean I can only touch on some aspects of this crazy episode today, but as the fall-out begins there are some points which, I for one, feel must be made.

From the moment this shambles of a century first blind-sided our summer, far too many people have been quick to take aim and open fire on both Brooks and Aiken Promotions, painting them as everything from greedy to petulant to irresponsible. Exactly the kind of outbursts you’d expect when people engage their mouths before involving their heads – or enough of the facts – in any part of their thought construction process.

One ‘ramble’ worth dismantling is the notion that Brooks should somehow have been happy to play three shows and just get on with it, because it was only two to begin with anyway.

Listen folks, Garth Brooks didn’t ride into town and demand Croke Park for five nights. Tickets went on sale for two and when he heard that those had sold-out but there were still many more fans that had missed out on tickets, he simply said, well, let’s play for those guys too! And that’s what happened with shows four and five as well. The fans wanted to see him, and as long as they did, he wanted to play for them. Simple.

Brooks wasn’t making demands, he was in-demand. Big difference. Famously, Brooks spent twenty-three hours shaking hands and signing autographs for fans at Fan Fair in Nashville in 1996. He waited until every last fan who had queued up to see him and say hi had done just that. Brooks, you see, doesn’t just talk about taking care of his fans, he follows through. Hence his problem with not being able to treat all ticket holders for these shows the same way.

Remember too, that this was not Peter Aiken’s first rodeo. He has, working within the constraints of the licensing system as it stands, brought stars like Springsteen, Young, Dylan and more to our shores. The man is a professional whose reputation for doing things right has been hard-earned and is well deserved. To always wait for a license to be granted before putting tickets on sale would have one sure and certain result, that of Ireland fast becoming a venue of little interest to big acts. Big acts need to plan ahead. You can’t plan ahead if you have to have every last i dotted and t crossed before the wheels start turning. Not as things stand at the moment. If no big acts were able to work Ireland into their plans, you’d have the very same people now hollering that no tickets should have been sold without a license, screaming for an element of flexibility so that Irish fans wouldn’t miss out.

This has never happened to Garth Brooks before. It’s never happened to Aiken Promotions before.

So, what other variables are involved here? The G.A.A. (who knew they had an agreement with local residents), Dublin City Council (fronted by a man who once sanctioned the build of a cycle track around a roundabout!), and the residents groups (whose complaints have now been determined to include up to 40% forgeries).

Looking for someone to blame for the shambles of a century? Don’t look at Garth Brooks or Peter Aiken, folks. 

ENDS

Garth Brooks

First Published January 2014

MORE THAN A MEMORY…AGAIN

The door of the walk-in closet in my old bedroom at home in Lusmagh is kind of like a scrapbook of my life up to a certain point. Little reminders of people, places and times in the shape of stickers, photos, pictures cut from magazines and newspapers, and tickets to various events, all act like an always visible time capsule of sorts!

Looking back now from a distance of almost two decades, it’s funny, but somewhat reassuring too in their familiarity, to see who and what mattered most in those ‘bygone’ days.

There’s the newspaper cutting of a smiling Eric Cantona on the day he joined Manchester United from our then great rivals, Leeds. Similarly, there’s one of Roy Keane in one of his earliest appearances for the Red Devils. There are stickers of Mick McCarthy, Ireland’s captain at Italia ’90, and of Andy Townsend, the man who led us out in the U.S.A. 4 years later. As a keeper myself back in the day, pride of place was also afforded to images of the net-minders I strove to match for madness; Peter Schemeichel, Neville Southall, Peter Shilton, Tony Coton and, of course, our own Packie Bonner and Shay Given.

Resting among all of those is the reason why the New England Patriots are the NFL team with first call on my heart when the search is on for Super Bowl glory: a giant, bright silver foil sticker of the team crest that came in a Christmas stocking from my grandad back when my birthdays were still in single figures!

And, in the middle of all those sporting bits and pieces, a sticker of….Madonna! I guess her, ahem…music, had a big influence on me when I hit my teens!

In the late summer and early autumn of the nineties last year, I fulfilled a dream by paying a visit to Nashville, THE place to go or be for any country music fan. While there I had the opportunity to visit the Grand Ole Opry twice, once for a regular Saturday night show and then again for the final dress rehearsal of that years 33rd annual CMA Awards, where I sat transfixed as I watched the likes of George Strait, Alan Jackson, Shania Twain and Brooks & Dunn go through their set ahead of that evening’s live televised show. Tickets to both those nights are still treasures that bring back so many memories every time I glance at that door in my old room.

But, there’s one more ticket on there, one that simply stands miles and miles of memories ahead of all else. It’s fairly faded now, as you’d expect, I guess, after 17 years of daylight shining in on it. But if you stand close enough you can still quite clearly read what it says: GARTH BROOKS, CROKE PARK, PITCH STANDING, SAT. 17TH MAY 1997.

Now folks, if you were to go by some peoples’ reaction to the recent news that the above-mentioned Mr. Brooks is set to return to these very shores this summer, you’d swear it was the second coming they were expecting. Which, of course, it isn’t…

Because it will, in fact, as any dedicated and true disciple of Garth will know, be the third coming!!

Due in no small part to his own self-imposed retirement so that he could spend more time with his children while they were still young and growing up, it’s now been a long 17 years since the Oklahoma native last tipped his hat to an Irish audience. Back then, in an Ireland that was only just beginning to hear the first stirrings of a murmur from the Celtic Tiger that would be allowed grow up to devour us, Garth held court over 3 glorious nights that have since gone down in legend! A sea of Stetson wearing, stars ‘n’ stripes waving fans greeted him with a welcome on the Richter scale and, when they weren’t hanging on his every word, they were singing along to every word with him!

Even though he’d experienced these same phenomena during his run of 8 sell-out nights at The Point, the effect of it on a scale as large as Croke Park genuinely seemed to surprise and move him. So much so, that he promised if we’d wait for him, then when the re-development of Croker was a done job, he’d come back to us again for more of the same! Few at the time – himself included in all likelihood – could have imagined that wait would turn out to be the larger part of two decades.

But now that the wait is nearly over, none of that matters. No-one is looking back anymore. Since last Monday week all eyes are focused forward and the countdown to 2 nights in July has well and truly begun. Garth is becoming more than a memory again.

That fading ticket pinned on my closet door is so much more than just a reminder of a concert. Not least of all because it was my very first time in Croke Park (I know, I know, shame on me as an Offaly man, I can hear some of you tut to yourselves! Well, don’t worry. I’ve been back since…once, for Take That a couple of years ago! Another never to be forgotten musical extravaganza! So mock at will, I’ll take the blows, it was worth it!). Another reason is because it was just 2 days after my 21st birthday, so in more ways than one that May night was a milestone event for me. A Garth Brooks show, you see, is so much more than just a concert! It’s more like a big party with the kind of host who just wants to make sure that EVERYONE there has fun and goes home smiling and hoarse! And yet, it’s even more than that too…

For me back then, as a young ‘wannabe’ songwriter (as opposed to now, say, and being a somewhat older ‘wannabe’ songwriter!), the moment that defines the memory of the night came when Garth walked out to a little platform a ways out from the main stage and more in the middle of the crowd, and sang Unanswered Prayers and If Tomorrow Never Comes by himself with just his guitar for accompaniment.

One man. One voice. One guitar. And over 80,000 people held in the palm of his hand.

To this day I have never witnessed as masterly an example of the power of music. On one level, of course, it was a professional entertainer at work. But on another, it was what it was, and no more than that: a dude who loves to sing, singing some truly beautifully crafted songs. And that, I’ve always believed, is the key to ‘getting’ Garth Brooks. To him the songs really matter. They come first, always. They have to. And from there everything else, whatever it may be or become, has a chance to happen.

He said on this subject once, “If I’m driving down the road and something comes on the radio and it makes me think, and it upsets me – that’s good! If you’re upset after a song, that’s good. It’s as good as crying after a song, or it’s as good as changing your life after a song. As long as it brings an emotion then you know you’re living.”

Sometime, somewhere, I want to see someone hold 80,000 fans under a spell while singing a song I wrote. That’s a dream that was born that night back in ’97, one I owe to Garth. That’s the power of music, a power Garth knows he has.

Speaking even before his first Irish shows at The Point, he stressed that, “Music is a very, very powerful thing. Passion and emotion. So even though this thing, my career, could all end tomorrow – and I must live it like it might – I also have to rely on my first goal, and that is to consume that power, to try and emote people to do things that they wouldn’t have done, to take people out on the edge that have been playing it safe. Because I think that when we all extend ourselves, only better things come.”

To some, Brooks has never been more than either an overly emotional, American showman, or a shrewd and canny marketing whizz who has always had an eye on the bottom line. But what, exactly, is so wrong with someone getting emotional from time to time anyway? People often forget that Brooks is a very talented songwriter too, and as such, he’s bound to be more in touch with his emotions than those in other jobs or professions. No right or wrong about it, it’s just how it is. It goes with the territory.

The very first track on his self-titled debut album, Not Counting You, for example, is one of his own songs. He’s also co-written hits like If Tomorrow Never Comes, Much Too Young(To Feel This Damn Old), The Thunder Rolls and What She’s Doing Now, to name but a few from back in the early days.

Similarly, where’s the big problem with his having a sharp business brain and a competitive instinct? After all, he studied marketing and he has a strong sporting background. If neither area came into play in his career, THEN something would be wrong! But no, folks, if you judge him by the hat, the tears or the numbers, then you’re missing the point. To ‘get’ Garth Brooks, you only have to listen to the music.

People often forget that while albums like No Fences and Roping The Wind sold well into double figures millions-wise, his first album, Garth Brooks, moved only 20,000 copies to begin with. Over time, though, that too pushed close to the 10 million mark. And the reason has nothing whatsoever to do with any kind of marketing magic. It was all down to the music. While it’s probably true to say that later albums, Sevens and Scarecrow in particular perhaps, did suffer from some material that doesn’t carry quiet the same emotional punch as earlier releases, every other collection has been built with album tracks that are every bit as deep, strong and true-to-life as the hit singles have been.

Garth Brooks had If Tomorrow Never Comes and The Dance, but it also had Alabama Clay and I Know One.

No Fences had The Thunder Rolls and Friends In Low Places, but it also had Victim Of The Game and Wolves.

Roping The Wind had Rodeo and The River, but also Against The Grain and Burning Bridges.

The list goes on. Even Sevens had its own gems in I Don’t Have To Wonder and Belleau Wood, and Scarecrow had The Storm and Thicker Than Blood.

Lest there be any doubt about it at this stage of the game, let me just state it for the record, so to speak: I am a huge Garth Brooks fan. I’ve grown up listening to his music, and I’ve grown listening to his music. I’ve lived life to his music. I’ve learned from and been inspired by his music. And I have no doubt that all of the above will continue to be so.

If I’m lucky enough to get my hands on a ticket for July, I know Garth won’t have any reason to tell me apart from any of the other thousands of faces that will be smiling back up at him. Just like he didn’t know I was there looking up at him, awe-struck, in ’97. But, just like in ’97, I ‘ll walk away knowing I’ve enjoyed something amazing and very, very special indeed.

The kind of night from which dreams – big dreams – are born. And, why not? And, from July on, please God, there’ll be a new addition to that old closet door at home, something to remind me why Garth has always been more than a memory. And why he’s more than a memory once again.

ENDS

Liam O’ Connor

First Published November 2021

THE ENTERTAINER

I can still remember the very first time I actually saw LIAM O’ CONNOR perform ‘live.’ It’s going back a few years now, but truth be told, it might as well be just yesterday in so many ways. If I take a deep breath and close my eyes, I can still picture the scene and remember the feeling. The venue was the wonderful Tuar Ard theatre in Moate, and Liam was a guest artist on a show being run by a good friend of mine, the very talented singer/songwriter Stephen Rosney, also of the Back Axles fame. 


“Wait until you see Liam play”, Stephen assured me with all the confidence of a man who knew exactly what was to come, “the audience are gonna go madfor him! They always do.” I knew Liam by reputation, of course, and I’d probably seen him on television a few times as well. But look, when it comes to an artist of his ability, then you’ve never truly seen them play until you’ve actually SEEN them play, right in front of your own eyes. Backstage, when we met before the show began, Liam could have been anyone. And what I mean by that is you’d scarcely have known he was even there, that’s how quiet he was. No airs, no graces, no anything except a little polite and softly-spoken chat with everyone.


But then…BUT THEN…when it was his turn to take to the stage, everything changed, in an instant. Stephen was right, the audience went mad for Liam as he channelled a musical energy that seemed to be a lifeforce all of its own. Trying to find one word to describe it is a tough task simply because there’s no-one who can do what Liam does, in the way he does it. But there was definitely a touch of Elvis about it all, that’s for sure. I remember catching Stephen’s eye side-stage, and the look on his face was saying, “See, didn’t I tell ya!” And he did, he sure did! 
So when the chance came along for me to have a catch-up with Liam last weekend, I didn’t need to be asked twice. 


There’s a thousand things you could talk about with someone who has done as much in his career as Liam has. But, the Corkman whose home has been Killarney for many years now, has a very special event coming up next month, so that’s where we started. On December 8th, Liam will be joined by Moya Brennan, the Saint Brendan’s College Music Group and Soloists, and guest-speaker Joe Canning for what will be a night to remember at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Killarney…


“Yeah, well this is my ninth year in Saint Brigid’s College where I do these concerts. I go and teach the kids for so many weeks, and then we do a college concert together and we bring a special guest, both a singer and a speaker. Our last speaker was Joe Schmidt, we’ve had the President of UCC Michael Murphy, we had Mick Galway, we had Kieran Donaghy, Tony Buckley the Munster man. We’ve had Christy Dignam, Brain Kennedy, Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh, so the names are good, you know. There’ll be some students there, of course, but this event is open to the public to come along as well, that’s why we sell-out every year. We had Danny O’ Reilly as well one year. I’m a part of Music Generation as well, but I started this, I suppose, nine years ago in Saint Brendan’s College because I had two sons going there myself. Saint Brendan’s College in Killarney is also known as ‘the Sem.’ It was a seminary before, you see. It’s a famous college, a lot of famous footballers went there, but I got the music going there as well. There’s some great music teachers there now. Mish O’ Donoghue is a music teacher, and Niamh O’ Connell is also a top of the range music teacher. So I brought in this idea of bringing in professionals [musicians] and getting the students on stage, and helping to give the students confidence for being on stage.” 

Moya Brennan will join Liam on the 8th of next month. How far back do the pair go? 


“We go back a good bit. Our first connection was through Maureen O’ Hara, actually. I used to do a good bit with Maureen O’ Hara. Moya was to perform in a concert for Maureen and I was doing it as well. But Moya couldn’t do it on that particular occasion but I did. But anyhow, we connected, and I just followed it up then.” 

I definitely wasn’t expecting to hear Maureen O’ Hara’s name pop up in our conversation, so just to be sure, I had to confirm with Liam that he was, in fact, talking about THE Maureen O’ Hara???


“Yes. Yes, yes. I did a lot of work with Maureen. You’ll see some of that footage that I have in my show when you get a chance to come and see it sometime. Her last recording was actually with my daughter, Saoirse. She was the last person to record Maureen’s full interview about her life before she left Ireland and died. We have some brilliant photos on that as well. Saoirse now is twenty-one, she was only eleven that time. There’s a good story there as well.” 

There certainly is! And it’s one we’ll be returning to in 2022. 


On December 20th, Liam was due to bring his ‘Liam O’ Connor Show’ to Liskennett in Limerick for a night in support of the Liskennett Equine Therapy Centre, an occasion on which he was going to be joined by Brian Kennedy. That show, however, for reasons so obvious we don’t even need to mention them, has now been postponed until February 20th of next year…


“Yeah, that’ll be at 3pm on a Sunday now. We have a great connection with the Equine Therapy Centre. This will be our second year doing that concert. David Doyle is the man that drives all that, and he’s a fantastic man, we’re very good friends with David. We came up with a concept that we should do something to lift the spirits and that’s where the idea of the concert there came from a few years ago. It’s for both the parents and the kids to enjoy. But with the situation we’re all in at the moment, we just moved it to February. We’ll have Brian with us then, of course, and we go way back with Brian. He’s been in ‘the Sem’ as well. I recorded a song with Brian last year, around Christmas, ‘I Wish I Had Someone To Love Me’, it was recorded once by the Dubliners too. I’ve recorded a couple of songs with Brian. I recorded ‘Message In A Box’, and ‘You Raise Me Up.'” 

Before Liam’s December 8th concert and his return to the Equine Therapy Centre in Liskennett in February, he was due to have another big night out close to the end of this month. Now, you may have picked up on the use of the words “he was due to” in that last sentence. And the reason – naturally – is that this event is another to have fallen to the times we’re in. However, when you’re a Cork man receiving a Pride Of Cork Award, having to wait a little while longer for it to happen only keeps the smile on your face a little bit longer too…


“Yeah, that’s gone now as well, to the 11th of March. Do you see the way things are moving? It’s a nice honour to get any award, but this is a Pride Of Cork Award so it’s lovely for me. I’m from Newmarket in Cork, living in Killarney now. It’s nice to be acknowledged and it’s always nice to get any award. They just emailed me [to let me know], and asked would I accept it, and of course I said I would. It’s a nice honour, it was a surprise. Any award is a surprise!”


June of this year marked twenty-five years since Lord Of The Dance first lit up the venue that used to be known and loved as The Point. In a post on his personal Facebook page to mark the occasion, Michael Flately named and thanked some of the people who were pivotal to the show’s outstanding success. One of them was Liam. I asked Liam for his memories of that time, and of course, of Michael himself…


“Brilliant. All brilliant. Michael is a master. Was AND IS a master. It was a great honour to work for him. And it was a great honour to be on the original team. I recorded all the ‘Lord Of The Dance’ accordion pieces on the original album. That’s something that I’ll always be very proud to have been involved with. And a big thank-you to Michael Flately for that. He really is the master of performance. That first night in the Point, it was the Point Depot at the time, that really stands out for me because my dad was there. He’s not around anymore now. My mom died when I was quite young, so my dad was there on that night. That’s why that one, the first night, stands out so much.” 

Even though Liam himself is also – as he described Michael – “a master of performance”, I wondered if, on nights like that, he ever gets nervous before a show? 


“You’ll always have a few nerves. That’s part of it being one of the biggest shows in the world. You’re working with some of the best in the world there. When you’re playing your own shows, and doing your own stuff, or doing anything with anybody, there’s always a few nerves. If there isn’t, there’s something wrong! That’s what makes it [performing] that bit of a thrill.” 

Liam, it’s more than fair to say, doesn’t just play the accordion. He has developed a style of performance that makes it simply impossible for people to take their eyes off him. In fact, he’s often been referred to as the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion, and no wonder! But how did this on-stage flair develop over the years? 


“I suppose it was a feeling inside. But getting on stage with Michael Flatley, all of those things are building confidence. You can’t be afraid. Do it the way you want to do it, that’s it. But I didn’t set out to do that. It’s a feeling. I created my own show then because you should try to be what you want to be. Don’t ever be afraid. I’ve done ‘The Late Late Show’ now with all three presenters; Gay Byrne, Pat Kenny, and Ryan Tubridy. I also did ‘This Is Your Life’ for Eddie Jordan, with Michael Aspell. That’s some stuff that people mightn’t know. But all those things are stepping stones along the way for buildingyour confidence. But really, it’s just a feeling. Some people like it. Some people love it. Some people hate it! But that’s fine, you know.” 

A lot of performers talk about how they’re almost a different person when they walk on-stage. Liam always comes across as a very quiet, shy, almost reserved person off-stage, in complete contrast to the man he becomes on-stage. Does he feel like he has a different persona for when he performs? 


“Off-stage, I’m just me. And on-stage as well. But when I’m on-stage, I’m passionate. You have to use the stage when you’re up there. I’m a performer at the end of the day. I’m up there on-stage playing music. It’s all about the music, yes, but it’s also about the performance. You’re entertaining people as well. You have to give everything up there.” 

After American actor, singer/songwriter, and comedian Charles Esten (most consecutive weeks to release an original digital single by a music act, with his Every Single Friday campaign beginning on July 15th 2016, and ending on July 21st 2017), I think Liam is only the second person I’ve ever interviewed who has been in the Guinness Book of Records. Back in 2008, Liam was – and remains, actually – the fastest fingers in the world on the accordion. I asked him to tell me about that experience and process…


I was playing over in Scotland and the Guinness Book of Records people were there so they asked me. There were five adjudicators, and they had a repertoire of tunes that you must play, you pick one of those and do it. I went on and I broke it then again. But look, it was a bit of fun, and it was nice to be in the Guinness Book of Records. And I’m still in it! So it’s still good [laughs].” 

The speed at which Liam can play, was that something he set out to do through practise, practise, practise? Or was that speed always part of his natural talent anyway? 


“No, no, no. I play many different instruments, but I have a good feeling for the accordion. But it’s not about speed at all, music is not about speed. I love music and I love the right tempo and all that. There’s an old saying, ‘Give time time’, ya know. Take your time. It’s not about speed, but I suppose I can play fast and that’s ok too.” 

Some wonderfully talented names had come up during the course of our chat, from Moya Brennan to Brian Kennedy, Maureen O’ Hara to Danny O’ Reilly, and others too. But who else, I wondered, might Liam love to perform with or for? 


“Well I did the famous flashmob with Christy Dignam on the streets of Killarney, that was another big one. If anyone searches flashmob and my name they’ll find that. Who else would I like to work with? Well there’s so many famous artists, isn’t there. It all depends. If we cross paths, that’s important. I have some beautiful new music coming out, a couple of tunes I recorded with Michael McGoldrick during lockdown. They’ll be coming out in the new year. Just a couple of singles, a couple of tunes.” 

Liam had mentioned his daughter Saoirse who now performs with him, as do his sons Oisín and Cillian too. And I’m sure Liam has been able to give them some priceless pieces of advice for working in the entertainment and showbiz worlds. If he could share one or two similar pieces of advice with anyone else already in those industries, or coming into them, what might he say? 


“Work hard. Practise. Be honest about it. And don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of being yourself. And don’t be a bad copy of anybody else.” 


~ LIAM O’ CONNOR will be performing at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Killarney on December 8th, with MOYA BRENNAN, the SAINT BRENDAN’S COLLEGE MUSIC GROUP and SOLOISTS, and with guest speaker JOE CANNING. Tickets available from 064-6631021 and ticketstop.ie Show begins at 8pm. 

ENDS

Linda Martin

First Published November 2021

A LEGEND AND A LADY

The thrill of watching LINDA MARTIN win the Eurovision for Ireland when singing Johnny Logan’s brilliant Why Me? is a memory that will never leave me. Nor will hearing it ever fail to stir those same emotions of excitement and pride that I felt bursting in my heart as I watched Linda cast her spell over a continent back in 1992. Hearing her perform Why Me? in person in the Tullamore Court Hotel a couple of years ago was just like travelling back in time. I wasn’t a sixteen year old sitting at home in the kitchen in Lusmagh anymore, but I might as well have been. Music is magical, and songs like Why Me?, performed by artists like Linda prove why that’s true. 


Little did I know way back then, of course, that one day I’d have the pleasure of working on a project with the very lady who won the first of Ireland’s famous three-in-a-row, leading the way for Niamh Kavanagh who took the crown in 1993 with In Your Eyes from the pen of Jimmy Walsh, before Charlie McGettigan and Paul Harrington gave us the hat-trick with Brendan Graham’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids in 1994. But, that pleasure did indeed come my way. And just last week, it was my privilege to sit down for another chat with Linda. 


We’d been meaning to get around to this for a while now, and with Linda having two spectacular concerts coming up in Dublin’s Pro Cathedral next month, what better time to finally make it happen?! 


“I’m grand, back to work again”, revealed Linda, as our chat got underway. “I had a year and a half off like everybody else. What can you do? You just get on with your life. But it’s been so difficult for everybody. I mean, looking back on it, I can’t believe that for a year and a half there wasn’t any gigging, or meeting musicians, or setting keys for songs, or doing something. It’s just incredible.”

 Moving on to the forthcoming concerts of December 6th and 7th next, Linda explained how they came about…


“Well, we’ve been running them for about the last five years, hugely successful. Not last year, obviously, because of Covid. But this year, I reckon that people are gonna want to get out and revisit those fantastic nights that we had in the Pro Cathedral, which is a beautiful place. So I thought ok, we could go with a night which is Celine [Byrne], who is an opera singer, Red [Hurley], Mary Byrne, Michael English, and the choir [the Halleluia Gospel Choir], do that sort of a night. Then the second night, I was talking to Johnny Logan, and I said to him are you around at all on the 7th, and he said he was. ‘Will you come in?’, I asked him, and ‘I will’, he said, so when he said yes I got onto the other ones and they all said yes immediately. The only one who couldn’t do it is Eimear because she lives in Geneva, you see, so she couldn’t get home. So we went ahead and put all our arrangements in place and that’s what we have, two nights, and all profits, of course – as usual – going to three charities. The first one is The Peter McVerry Trust, I adore that man. I just think he should be sainted. We have a new charity on board [this year] called Blossom, which helps mentally impaired people get into the work-place. And the third one, of course, is the charity that I’m a patron of, and that’s Dogs Aid, up near Finglas in north county Dublin. That’s what we’ll be doing. And we have a raffle both nights in the middle of the show, and then we’ll have our guest readers as well, like Mary Kennedy, Anne Doyle, Rory Cowan comes in and he does a little Santa skit with lots of little kids dressed up as elves. He’s done that before for me and the public love it because all of the little tint kiddies are dressed up and he’s talking to them about Santa and everything. Peter McVerry will speak too. He enthralls everybody. People just sit with their mouths open listening to that man talking. Covid, I know people are scared, but we’re definitely adhering to every Covid rule that that government has told us to do, I think that’s important to say and for people to realise as well.” 

CHRISTMAS VOICES FROM THE PRO CATHEDRAL

One of the charities Linda will be helping to raise funds for is the Dog and Animal Sanctuary, and animals – dogs in particular – are and have always been a hugely important part of her life. In fact, Linda has twelve – that’s TWELVE – rescue dogs living with her. I wondered was there a moment, or perhaps a combination of certain moments in her life, that her love of dogs grew from? 


“Ah yeah, it’s twelve. But listen, for this house, that’s quite a small number. Trust me. Trust me! I remember one Christmas many years ago, there were twenty-four dogs in this house. I couldn’t walk across the kitchen [laughs]. But sure I don’t care, I love them! My father’s family were the same, they always had animals, always. So it comes from that side. When I was a child, I didn’t actually play with dolls and prams and things like that, it was always a dog. And I was always allowed to have dogs as a child. But my mam, she used to say to me, she never had to worry if I was lost, she just had to look for a tail wagging somewhere and she knew i’d be beside it. So it’s just in my heart. I just adore them.” 

How old is Linda’s eldest dog at the moment? 


“Fourteen. I can tell you that immediately because I’m going to the vet with her on Saturday morning, just for a check-up. When she came in here, she was a little mange-ridden puppy fourteen years ago, and he’s still here. He’s called Tinky-Winky, and he looks like one of the characters out of Emmerdale, I think his name was Red? [Laughs]. He’s fourteen, still moving about, still eating away, still doing everything. I became a patron of the sanctuary just because they asked me. That would be the closest one to me, it’s only about twenty minutes away from my house, so I’d known of them. I can’t really remember the exact reason, but I got a message from them asking would I come on-board as a patron, and I did so gladly. And I’m still with them. They’re good people. It’s a voluntary organisation. Nobody takes any money, all of the money that comes in goes to the dogs. It’s actually operational because of public donations, it’s marvellous.” 

EUROVISION VOICES AT CHRISTMAS

Eurovision is the theme of one of Linda’s concert nights, and no-one in this country is more connected to Ireland’s Eurovision history than Linda. Not only did she win it in 1992 with Why Me?, she also came second in the contest in 1984 singing Terminal 3, and has been a National Song Contest entrant nine times, a number that is – to the best of my knowledge – still a record. But in recent years…ok, decades at this stage, sadly… Ireland has badly lost its way in the Eurovision. There’s a Late Late Show Eurosong special coming up again soon, something which doesn’t fill me any hope because this is an event that deserves and warrants its own stand-alone show, not simply being tagged as another Late Late Show special, or indeed, having anything to do with The Late Late Show. How would Linda go about putting us back on the right path again? 


“Well, exactly what you said. I’d make a special night of it. It could be in one of the studios in Dublin, but you could make it special [for the night], or else you could go to one of the theatres in Dublin and make money out of it. I truly believe that you’d be able to sell tickets. It’s a competition alright, but you could also have stars from Eurovision [as guest artists], you could bring them in. Think of Brotherhood of Man, for instance, they could be brought in. You would obviously go for the Irish winners, but you could go outside the box as well. Different countries that have won, RTE could approach them and just ask how they would feel about taking part in a show like that. It could be anybody. I think that would be a huge success, and it would make it something special again. When we don’t make it special, then the public tends to dismiss it. And Terry Wogan, God rest him, he was the worst! Jesus, the things he used to say about it [laughs]. But at the same time, he loved it. Graham Norton absolutely adores it. And I just think if we made this something special, whether we made the competition a stand-alone event, or really started trying to change the public’s opinion of it, because when you think about it on a base level, you’re providing work for an awful lot of people. Songwriters. The studios where the songs are recorded. Employees involved in putting the show together. There’s so much work in it that people would benefit from. People shouldn’t dismiss it, but think of it as a platform. If you can get your voice out in Europe in front of four-hundred-million people, that’s a platform for you! I just think we have to make something special of it. And we also have to take into consideration the days when we were all performing in cabarets, discos, variety shows on RTE and in the theatres, people got to know you, and you got your experience. So by the time that you had a few years under your belt, RTE would have heard about you, and you could put your name in the hat, and they would say well this song would suit X, Y, or Z.”

Linda continued, “Now I’m well aware that those situations don’t exist anymore. But, it’s not a contest for beginners. There’s no point unless you’ve got experience, are used to crowds, and dealing with people, don’t touch it. Seriously. If you think of last year’s Eurovision, and the amazing acts, all of those acts were brilliant. And I’m thinking of the women in particular. They were beautiful, dressed immaculately, smiling, dancing, singing, and they looked as if they owned the stage. And that only comes from experience. That applies to the boys as well. I remember suggesting to RTE one time, why didn’t they go around the karaoke competitions in Ireland. And they looked at me as if I’d just grown two heads! But it’s the only way these days that you’ll actually see and hear somebody. But I don’t know what we are going to do, because we can’t compete monetarily, or with some club-beat song, it doesn’t work for us. The Europeans have that nailed down. You know what their tracks and everything sounds like. We’ve always won with the big ballad. And I think we have to stick to that. Don’t try to compete with the other ones.” 

So, what Linda is really saying, if I’m correct, is that it all comes down to the song still? Or at least it should all come down to the song? 


“Yeah. Yeah. It really does. The song should be the most important thing. But it means nothing if you haven’t got a package around it. There has to be a ‘look.’ There has to be good vocals. They have to be camera-friendly. It’s a complete package that’s needed. And it’s very, very difficult to get that.” 

It’s that time of the year again when loads of fabulous new books begin to appear, and one in particular that I can’t wait to get stuck into soon is Backstage Pass by Pat Egan, a man Linda knows well. 


“I do, I do of course know Pat.”


And everyone is eagerly awaiting the day when another good friend of Linda’s, Louis Walsh, finally puts pen to paper! 


Hahaha!”


But what about Linda herself? Has the thought ever crossed her mind to tell and share her incredible story in that way? 


“Well, do you know something, I was approached a couple of times and I met up with a couple of publishers. And I just kept saying to them that I wasn’t going to name any names [laughs]. And they were sort of like well you’re no good to us then [laughs]. But I think I’d be boring. And I’m not looking for you to say, ‘Oh no, you wouldn’t’, or anything like that. I mean, genuinely, I think it would be boring.” 

I knew Linda wasn’t just looking for compliments because that simply isn’t her way. But I had to disagree, and I said it anyway: No way would her book be boring. No way. I think it would be fantastic.


“Well you’d never know what would happen in the future [with me], but Pat Egan’s is definitely going to be worth reading. I’ve known Pat for years, and he’s an extraordinary character. He’ll tell you the stories, but he never, ever runs anybody down, I’ve learned that from Pat. He always speaks very respectfully of people, no matter who they are. He tells amazing stories of stars he’s worked with and booked into Dublin, the festivals he’s run, and everything in between. A really interesting and lovely man. His book is definitely worth a read. I’m a voracious reader. My favourite author of all time is Frederick Forsyth.” 

It’s funny that Linda mentioned her karaoke idea to RTE all those years ago, because with their latest show – Last Singer Standing – well, it’s basically just karaoke and nothing more. When it comes to TV shows like this, of course, Linda has been there, done that, and went home with the tee-shirt as well, as they say. She worked with Louis on The X-Factor, and she played a major role on You’re A Star, so she knows what these shows are like. But in terms of something like Last Singer Standing, and indeed, the recent mess that was Virgin Media One’s The Big Deal (definitely not a big deal!), what were thoughts? 


“I have to give kudos to people who are actually trying to bring things forward. From what I’ve seen, there wasn’t anybody that sort of stood out and made me say oh Jesus Christ, you’ve got to sign that guy or that girl, you know. I did notice the winner of the first week of Last Singer Standing, a guy called Alex King, I remember Alex when he auditioned for Louis’s bands and things like that. And he’s a fine singer alright. But trying to get a record deal [now], it sounds to me like you need to have millions of followers on Facebook, then the record companies take notice, then possibly they’ll sign you to something. But there’s no money involved anymore. There isn’t. In days gone by you might have got €100,000 up front. That doesn’t happen anymore. Unless you’re Lady Gaga or somebody like that, that’s a different thing altogether. But no, I have seen anybody standing out. And Louis Walsh watches these things like a hawk. And nothing has come to his mind either. But he is putting some sort of a new act together. He’s looking for ‘something’, or ‘somebody’, or maybe a group, or people that he can put in a group, sixteen to twenty-one years old. He’s going to do something, he just doesn’t know what. The way he feels about it is when he sees it, he’ll know. And then he’ll push with a record company. But like I said, it’s very, very, very difficult.” 

Is it so difficult now because so many people try to just copy what’s already out there, rather than trying to be themselves and stand out as an individual? 


“There’s some unique people alright [that stand out]. Dua Lipa, I think she’s fantastic. There’s some around. But I don’t know if copying is the right word because you fall into that trap anyway without realising it. Somebody could sit down and start writing a song and then realise it sounds like Elton John, but listen, that’s just the way it goes. Music selling, of course, has been destroyed because of Spotify and all of those things. Songwriters are making nothing because of that. It’s so easy to go online, listen to a song or listen to an album, and if you don’t like it, you don’t buy it. In the old days, you had to buy the album to listen to the one song. We’re caught in that trap as well.” 

Returning to the idea of if Linda did ever write a book, I have no doubt that she could fill volumes with advice to those in the worlds of  music, showbiz, and entertainment. Acknowledging the fact that it’s hard to ever narrow down advice to one or two golden nuggets, if Linda were to try, what words of wisdom might she pass on? 


“Yeah. To all young people who ask me that, I say you’re limited where you can be seen, so go and join your local amateur dramatic society. And they’re looking at me like, ‘Whaaaat?!’ [Laughs]. But I say, I’m telling you, these people know so much, they’ve been there for a long time, they will teach you stage-craft, voice projection, they’ll teach everything that happens backstage, and it’s so well worth trying. I don’t know if anybody has ever gone and done that, but I think it’s a great idea to do it. Most of these people [in local ADSs] are so helpful as well. The second piece of advice is go and camp out outside Louis Walsh’s house! [Laughs]. The options are limited. You have to push yourself because if you don’t, nobody hears about you. But then there’s an over-confidence that turns everybody against you. You’re looking for that middle-line all the time.” 

As we tip-toe around the edge of another new year now- and even if things are still somewhat uncertain in a lot of ways – what is Linda looking forward to or hopeful about in 2022? 


“Not so much for myself, but what I’m hoping we can do is progress animal welfare laws in this country, that the government will actually say no, and start to take action against these dreadful puppy farmers and people who inflict such cruelty onto animals. That would be one thing that’s always on my mind. And for myself, just getting back to work! That’s all. That’s how my life has been spent, so it’s alien to me to be sitting not doing anything. And the Covid, I know we’re going to be living with it for the rest of our lives, but hopefully we can get it down to where it’s there, but we’re not actually getting sick from it.” 

~ CHRISTMAS VOICES from the PRO CATHEDRAL takes place on DECEMBER 6th, featuring Celine Byrne, Michael English, Mary Byrne, Red Hurley, Anna Kearney, the Halleluia Gospel Choir, and Linda Martin. The EUROVISION VOICES at CHRISTMAS concert takes place in the Pro Cathedral on December 7th, featuring Johnny Logan, Dana, Paul Harrington, Charlie McGettigan, Niamh Kavanagh, Anna Kearney, the Halleluia Gospel Choir, and Linda Martin. Tickets for BOTH shows are ON-SALE NOW, available from eventbrite.ie, and the Pro Cathedral Parish Office. 

ENDS