Brendan Graham

First Published February 2021

THE UNIVERSAL CONNECTION

Brendan Graham Author and Songwriter at his home in Co. Mayo. Pic: Michael Mc Laughlin

In August of last year eleven year old RUBY MAHER – appearing as RUBY M – took to the stage of hit show THE VOICE KIDS UK and proceeded to turn in a performance that wowed the room, and charmed viewers everywhere. Show judge WILL.I.AM knew he had to have the Newbridge youngster on his team. Ruby’s performance that night can only be described as that of a soul who was simply born to entertain.

Wrapped in the sheer joy of her performance was the unmistakable sense of absolute ease with which she commanded the stage, allowing her to instantly win over the audience. That moment spoke of a confidence both rare and fabulous, and pointed towards a future every bit as bright as the energy that exploded across our screens that summer’s evening.

And now, with her dad Dave and sisters Stacy and Robyn in tow, Ruby is back! And thanks to the most beautiful of songs from the pen of one of Ireland’s greatest ever songsmiths, BRENDAN GRAHAM, the next chapter of Ruby’s story is looking as radiant and ablaze with promise as the moment that made Will.I.Am turn his chair.

LULLABY FOR THE WORLD, co-written by Brendan and James McMillian, stormed towards the top of the Irish charts upon its release in January, giving THE MAHERS a #2 single on the Irish iTunes chart for their debut release as a family. And since going ‘live’, the official video for the song has already amassed more than 150,000 views on the family’s official Facebook music page.

Brendan Graham, as many will immediately call to mind, is a double Eurovision winner, having triumphed with Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids performed by Charlie McGettigan and Paul Harrington in 1994, and The Voice, performed by Eimear Quinn in 1996. He’s also the vessel through which the song Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears, entered this world, a song which, despite its relative youth in the larger scheme of things, has already entwined itself forever around our collective emotional memory as a nation. God knows, any of those achievements taken alone would be enough to secure a place in our musical and cultural history books.

But a writer of Brendan’s immense talent requires a chapter to himself, at the very least. And a song like You Raise Me Up is another reason why. It’s been made famous around the entire world by the likes of Westlife and Josh Groban, has been played more than one-million times on US radio, and has been covered more 1,400 times (according to the most recently available count!). There’s also  a spoken-word version of You Raise Me Up which Brendan himself has recorded in support of the wonderful work done all around the world by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

The Tipp man’s class as a writer is matched in every respect by his class as a person. Brendan is a gentleman whose humility will always wave away assertions that he is a legend of his craft, as well as a master of it. Wave such declarations away though he well might, this truth, however, remains. And we – music lovers and students of the craft of songwriting – will ever preach this truth.

As well as celebrating The Mahers bringing Lullaby For The World to the world, Brendan has also been a busy man with several other artists too. There’s literally a list of noteworthy projects that Brendan has recently been involved with which are worth checking out post-haste. These include The Watchman, a single taken from Eimear Quinn’s new album, Eriu (and co-written with Eimear), recorded with the RTE Concert Orchestra, a track upon which Marty Whelan bestowed the title of ‘song of the year.’ Brendan had four other songs on that particular album too.

With another Tipp man Denis Carey, Brendan also co-wrote the Sean Keane single, The Coast of Labrador, penned Macy’s Widow as recorded by Irish Tenor Anthony Kearns; and co-wrote Cancion de Amor, the title-track from the new Eleanor Shanley and John Feeley album (the Hot Press Folk Albums Collaboration of the Year. There’s also a version of You Raise Me Up which was a pre-Christmas single from the Korean group Contempo Divo, and he had another co-write entitled Mary’s Lament on Secret Garden’s Sacred Night Christmas album, which featured Cathrine Iversen.

Known as a man who is content to do his work in the background while his songs speak for themselves, we were very lucky and honoured that Brendan agreed to have a chat with OTRT about the new single from The Mahers, his song Lullaby For The World.

Brendan has spoken before of the “philosophy of stone walls and bare fields”, and I’ve even heard that there’s a particular rock above Maamstrasna where he likes to go and just sits in contemplation from time to time. So nature and the natural world are clearly things that he feels very connected to. That he would, therefore, write a song such as Lullaby For The World should come as no surprise. But I asked Brendan to tell me what had led him to write the song, and in turn led him to The Mahers…

“I wrote it about fifteen years ago, when climate change was still a big problem. One of the upsides of Covid for me is, because you’re isolated, you have more time to think about things. So I started going back over some older songs that I thought had a bit of promise and dusted them off. It surprised me that basically what I was writing about back then, is even more relevant now. I have a long connection with the Mahers, going back to Ruby Maher’s grandfather, Joey Maher, who was a World Champion handball player. He had a group called the Maher Family, way back in the seventies. They won Opportunity Knocks, with Dave, Ruby’s dad in the band, and I wrote a couple of songs for them back then. From time to time I’d make contact with people I’ve known down through the years, and when I met Dave again he showed me what they were at and how brilliant young Ruby was. And I thought of this song which is basically a conversation between a young person and the world in a dream sequence, where the young person is talking to the world, telling it not to worry, we’ll fix things. And I thought it was very timely.”

“The melody”, observed Brendan, “was written by a wonderful English musician called James McMillan.”

The lyrics of Lullaby For The World are so beautiful that they easily stand alone as a work of poetry as well. And back in 2008, the late Con Houlihan, writing in the Evening Herald at the time, said, “Some of the best poetry being produced in this country today is in the form of song. Christy Moore and Brendan Graham and Jimmy MacCarthy are touched by genius.” People often debate whether or not poetry and lyrics are, or can be, the same thing. Generally speaking, I wondered about Brendan’s thoughts on this divide…

“Well I was very surprised to be included alongside the company of Christy and Jimmy, both of whom have songwriting skills that I have admired for years. They’re both master storytellers and painters of pictures in words. I don’t see the thing as a divide. There are common elements, and the most common is language. Lyrics, I think, are not poems, but they can be poetic, if I can make that distinction. You’d think of Cohen, Dylan, and Kristofferson, a lot of their lyrics are very poetic. A lyric is heard with music, it’s a fairly direct arrow to the heart, whereas poetry is seen – and can be heard – but probably is more of a direct arrow to the intellect. In a lyric, you’ve got three minutes, so you can’t really afford somebody to be wondering what all that was about! And poetry doesn’t have a hook generally, which is a big distinction, because the hook is meant to catch people in. And, as they say in Nashville, people listen backwards. Of course, whatever way you’re expressing your thoughts, the key thing is to connect to the listener or the reader. To me, that’s the most important thing.”

Brendan has described himself as being “a slow writer.” I wondered if he meant that in the sense that he tends to wait for some songs to come to him in the first place, or more so that he waits to get a song right once it has come his way?

“Well it’s all of those things. Sometimes you just get distracted. You get three-quarters of the way through the thing, and it just isn’t quite working. I have a barrel-load of unfinished songs. And as I said to you, what I’ve been doing is going back through them. Some of them are not worth finishing, others are. I suppose there are different ways [of writing], and I’m open to them all. Sometimes, it’s the phone-call, as Sammy Cahn answered once! Somebody rings you, and they need a song for a special occasion or event, or a particular album. The professional side of you as a songwriter responds to that, because people expect you to be able to come up with it, whatever it is. Other times, it’s inspiration, like Crucán na bPáiste, I just had to write that song. Other times then, like with ‘You Raise Me Up’, I’ll get sent a melody, I can hear a story in the melody. But over the years – and I suppose I’ve been writing songs for forty years – I haven’t actually written that many songs. Hence, I’m slow. And I always say to a co-writer, ‘Look, I’m really quite slow!’, so that they’re not expecting the Nashville speed-dating approach to songwriting where you go in at breakfast time and you have the song by lunch-time! And that works for some people. It just doesn’t work for me. If I’m co-writing, I like to retreat from the initial meeting, to get back into my own space and then let the idea germinate. So, the answer to your question is, all of that and everything else. It doesn’t matter to me how the song comes. Sometimes I’ll go to the piano and get a little riff, or sometimes I might hear an expression, or something out of history attracts me and I might make a note of that and then come back to it.”

Brendan mentioned that he’s been writing songs now for forty years, and he also once remarked that, “There’s a sense of magic about any creative process.” But at what stage in his life did he first become aware that this ‘magic’ of the creative process was actually a part of his own life, and would possibly play such a central part? When did he first know he was a writer?

“I suppose it started when, even as a teenager, I was always interested in not just the singer but who wrote the song. So I’d be down at the local chipper at the jukebox, waiting for the arm to pick up the 45 so I could see who wrote it! Don’t ask me why! I always liked English and language, and writing at school. I think it was in the sixties in London that I wrote my first lyric. And it was kind of in answer to Paul McCartney’s ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ I thought Father McKenzie should have had a song of his own, because he was an interesting, mysterious character. So I wrote this lyric called Father Dickens and sent it back to Tommy Swarbrigg, at the time we lived in Mullingar, so I knew Tommy. He and Jimmy [Swarbrigg] came up with a melody. Then, I went to Australia, and I got this album, Johnny McEvoy’s, ‘With An Eye To Your Ear.’ There were all these marvellous full orchestral arrangements on it, songs by Simon and Garfunkel, and The Beatles, and here in the middle of the whole lot of them, was ‘Father Dickens’! I still have the royalty-cheque, I think it was something like one-pound-one-and nine-pence, from Shaftsbury Music in London. That was a thrill.”

Brendan continued, “When I came back from Australia in ’72, I didn’t really know much about the Eurovision, but I saw it on in a shop window in Ballinasloe – we were living there then – and I thought to myself, God I’d love to write a song for that, without having any idea of how to go about it. But it was just a focus in my mind. That led on then to ’76, and ‘When’ for Red Hurley and even though that year I had two songs in Larry Gogan’s Top Ten. It took me a long time to understand the process, how you have to go into another part of yourself, and that’s where the magic lies. I don’t fully understand the process, but I know when I’m in that space. I suppose when you hit the touchstones in yourself, people around the world are not that much different so you hit the touchstones in them. Now obviously, it’s not just the inspiration, you then have to anvil out the song into something that makes sense to other people. And it’s a wonderful feeling when somebody walks up to you and says, ‘You must have been in my head when you wrote that song.’ You know then that you’ve done your job and that the universal connection is there.”

 LULLABY FOR THE WORLD, written by BRENDAN GRAHAM and James McMillan, and performed by THE MAHERS, is OUT NOW, available on all platforms and to request from radio. 

ENDS

Laura Nolan

First Published February 2021

A RELENTLESS SPIRIT

Part 2

In Part 1 of our chat with LAURA NOLAN, the World Champion dancer, tv star, model, reigning Miss Universe Leinster, and MISS UNIVERSE IRELAND finalist (Top Three) 2020, took us on a journey from the earliest days of her dancing career right up to being on our screen week-in and week-out on DANCING WITH THE STARS Ireland with her celebrity partner Brian Dowling in 2020. 


The duo certainly became one of the show’s iconic couples during their time on DWTSIrl, but their time in the spotlight came to an end waaaaay too early due to what can only be described as – at least in my opinion – some seriously dubious voting by the Irish public! That fact aside, I asked Laura to talk about the challenge of taking a non-dancer, who is also a celebrity, and trying to teach in just a week routines that they then have to perform on ‘live’ television…


“It’s a lot of pressure! Trying to teach somebody first of all who has never danced before, it’s a lot of work. I don’t think people realise the amount of work that goes in behind the scenes, the amount of hours a day. You’re talkin’ ten hours a day. And you know, when you have somebody who’s never danced before, you’re adding in even more pressure on their behalf. Somebody who has been in the public eye for so many years, and is loved by so many people, that’s an extra pressure on them. They’ve always been a certain type of person, always seemed very professional. Now all of a sudden, you’re taking somebody out of their comfort-zone and asking them to dance on ‘live’ TV. So, there is a lot of expectation, you know, to get this dance right. It takes a lot of courage on the celebrities behalf, and a lot of work. For me, as the professional, I’m there to try to encourage them, to really bring them out of their shell, and to be there for them through every step, to make them realise that this is ok, that they are doing well. It’s about nourishing them through an experience and bringing the best out of them each week. Because it is very difficult, and very emotional. I don’t think people realise that on the show people are exhausted. They’re after putting everything into it. And they’re being asked questions week on week that are actually very personal to them. And because of the exhaustion, because of the amount of work that they’ve put in, because of all the emotion that’s coming up, you do get very caught up in it. And it is a very emotional thing! And you [the viewers] can see that on the actual show. It’s not until you come out of the experience and you look back on it, you’re like…ok, that wasn’t half as emotional as I thought it was, but when I was actually in it I was just so engrossed in it AND it was so emotional [laughs]. Yeah, it’s a very unique experience, but at the same time, it’s an amazing experience. And it’s one that you’ll only get on Dancing With The Stars.” 

As Laura had mentioned, being on DWTSIrl brought her into the public-eye in a huge way, even more so than she had already been. To the extent, in fact, that talk of romance between her and hurling great, Kilkenny’s Aidan ‘Taggy’ Fogarty, began to fill the nation’s gossip columns. I wondered if that sense of being in the public-eye in general was something that Laura found she enjoys, or is it more something that she just accepts as part of the job? 


“Well, I knew that going on the biggest show on TV I had to expect that. You have to expect people to want to know about your personal life, because they want to know a little bit extra about you. I knew that came with it, and was part and parcel of it. However…[laughs]…when you’re seeing people walking down the street after you, and you’re thinking ‘Ok, is that someone with a camera?!’…you do have to adjust your life slightly! It is something that you have to get used to. It’s not every day that you have somebody waiting on a corner to take a picture of you [laughs]. But I was very lucky that I did have Brian Dowling, because being so used to it, he almost helped me in that sense. He was helping me in one aspect, and I was helping him in another, so we worked together on it! Myself and Aidan thought it was so funny when speculation came out that there was romance between us! We were actually crying laughing because we were great friends. There were four of us that were very close; myself, Brian, Grainne Gallanagh, and Aidan. We’d been going out on nights-out together. Everyone on the cast knew that I was single at the time, and they also knew that I was single, and they were like, ‘Oh, you two!!!’ And we were like absolutely not! [laughs]. So it was being put to us from the beginning, but then when it came out in the papers the two of us just couldn’t help laughing. They were speculating about something that was just completely wrong. But sometimes you just have to take these things and laugh at them, because that’s all that you can do [laugh]. You have to just take it light-hearted and not take it personally.” 

Joanne Clifton, the 2016 winner of the show with her celebrity partner Ore Oduba, was one Strictly Come Dancing connection in Laura’s life which I wasn’t actually aware of until the day we spoke. But there was, of course, another connection between Laura and the show too, in the shape of Kai Widdrington, who had been Grainne Gallanagh’s professional partner on DWTSIrl last year. Kai went on to feature in the last series of Strictly as well. Would Strictly be something that’s also on Laura’s list of goals? 


“Oh, it absolutely is! Stepping into the world of Dancing With The Stars was completely new for me and I was keeping my options open. Everyone was saying, ‘Strictly, Strictly!’, but I said, you know something, let’s just see how I feel after Dancing With The Stars. I’d been in the world of competitive dance for years, and I just wanted to see how I’d feel after it. I wanted to keep my options open. But after experiencing Dancing With The Stars, I can say 100% yes, Strictly is something that’s a big goal of mine, and it’s something that I would absolutely love to do.” 

The reason we aren’t seeing Laura on Dancing With The Stars this year, of course, is because of the ongoing Covid 19 crisis, which has made the last year a pretty tough one for everyone. How had Laura been dealing with that side of things herself? 


“It’s very difficult to adjust, knowing that this time last year you were getting ready for a ‘live’ show. And you’re so caught up in, and so busy with something for a couple of months, to think this year that that’s just completely gone…I’ve been thinking, ok, yes it’s Covid time, and yes, things have been cancelled, but it’s not going to be like this forever. So I keep putting goals down for each day for what I want to do. And I’ve come up with a lot of creative ideas. Knowing that Dancing With The Stars wasn’t coming back, I knew I was going to have this time free, so I had to say, well what am i going to do now? So I started this Dance-Fit class, and even though that can’t happen in person, it’s going to happen online. I’ve also put something in motion that is an ultimate goal for me. I’ve really started thinking outside the box about contacting people and making things happen for summer time. That’s really all you can do. You just have to keep looking forward, and keep putting goals into each day for yourself, long-term and short-term, and try to make them happen. Even if it’s not happening right now, you have to believe that it will happen down the line.” 

Even with 2020 being as bad and as weird a year as it was, Laura still managed to end it on a high by being crowned Miss Universe Leinster, and by making it to the final three of Miss Universe Ireland, fantastic achievements both. What prompted Laura to enter the Miss Universe Ireland pageant and how did she enjoy the whole experience? 


“Back in 2012, I did a show for the final of Miss Universe Ireland. And since then, I’ve always been interested in Miss Universe Ireland, but I never really had the opportunity to do something like that as my whole career was based around dance. But then I came to a road where Dancing With The Stars had been cancelled, I was supposed to go on another show but that was also cancelled, so I thought well I now have time in my life to maybe explore different options. And also, of course, I was looking at Grainne’s role. I was very close with Grainne during DWTSIrl. So, as I did have an interest in that kind of pageant world, I was thinking to myself, right, I have these few months, a blank year…let’s try something different. Let’s try something that I haven’t tried before. And that was really what prompted me to do it. The experience was obviously unique and unusual because of Covid, it was all online. I know that usually it would be a one or maybe a two-day show, but this actually went on for four and a half months online. But it gave us the opportunity to do things that you wouldn’t have usually done. As in creating videos, doing different types of interviews. And it also gave us the opportunity to get to know the girls a bit more even though we haven’t met in person. At this stage we all know each other for so long, and yet, we haven’t even met! It’s very unusual [laughs]. But I have to say the whole experience overall was amazing.” 

As we wrapped up our chat, I wanted to come back to something that Laura had touched on at the beginning of our conversation. Everything about Laura, from her ballroom dancing, to Dancing With The Stars, to Miss Universe Ireland, all of that screams glamour, and glitz, and showbiz. But, there’s simply no way that Laura could perform to the standards that she always does at everything without being a fiercely determined person. So I asked her to tell me about that side of her, the fighter that sometimes people might not see or acknowledge as much as is deserved…


“I actually love that question. People see that glitz, and see that glam, they see the final product. But they don’t realise the sacrifice and the dedication it takes to get there. And like in any sport, there’s always going to be ups, and there’s also going to be a lot of downs that people don’t see. They don’t see the times that you got knocked out [of competition] and you were standing on the side of the floor wishing you were in that final, after dancing twelve hours a day, dedicating yourself, and sacrificing so much. And after your parents sacrificing so much money-wise for you. And after all that, you don’t get the placement that you deserve. That’s heartbreaking, heartbreaking. Like in any competitive sport. But every time, you have to pick yourself up, pick yourself off the ground, and teach yourself that it’s just one competition, so you need to keep going. It’s not easy to get up every single day of the week – your feet would be hurting, your toes would be bleeding – to end up dancing ten, twelve hours a day. Yes, it’s very difficult, but you do it for the love of your sport. And in myself, I have this want to be the best. When I’ve had a goal in my head, I’ve always been like this until I reach that goal. Someone once said to me, ‘You’re the most relentless person I know.’ And when they said that, I was like, that’s exactly what I am. I just won’t quit until I actually reach the goal that I want. You’re dead right in saying that to be successful, you have to have that want inside of you, that competitive spirit. Because it’s not easy. It’s definitely not.

Laura continued,“The last few years of my dancing career were the most challenging for me. My partnership wasn’t this beautiful, easy thing that people see. They see that you’re World Open champion, or you’re International champion. But my partner was, unfortunately, not the best partner. And actually, I’m due to appear on a programme where I actually speak about this. I’ve done a lot of work in the last couple of months for Women’s Aid, and the reason why I’ve done that is because of my own history, and what I experienced. To do something that you love, but to have someone beside you who’s not 100% with you all the time, is very difficult. You do need to have that extra want in you to succeed. And that’s how I am as a person. I always try to look at the positive in life, and I try to never dwell on the negative. If things don’t go my way, if I get knocked back, I always just say to myself, ‘What’s your end goal?’ Everything in life is not going to go your way. You have to expect the ups, and the downs. Yes, there has been a lot more downs and difficulties in my career than there would have been in somebody else’s, maybe somebody else in another country who has a federation who supports them, and actually funds them. But at the same time, it makes the journey even sweeter when you reach your end-goal. Through my career, I had a federation over here telling me, ‘You won’t make it to an international final. You won’t make a World Open final.’ They didn’t believe in their own dancers, because it was never done before. So that’s also an extra thing that keeps that fire in your belly…well I’ll show you…!””

I’ve always had that inside me”, emphasised Laura, “that grit, the grind, the graft to succeed, to be the best. So yes, people see the glamour, and they see the glitz, but you have to understand that didn’t come without a lot of tears, a lot of sweat, a lot of blood, a lot of sacrifice, and a lot of dedication. It’s like any sport, you have to prepare for it. If you want something enough, those are the things you’re prepared to do to be the best. And once you are the best, those sacrifices aren’t really sacrifices. They’re actually moments that make you, and make the journey that bit better.” 

You can follow Laura on Facebook and Instagram. 

ENDS

Mike Denver

First Published January 2021

GALWAY BOY AND LUCKY MAN

It’s probably fair to say that there won’t be too many people who look back on 2020 with fond memories. But for country music superstar MIKE DENVER, even a global pandemic that brought the industry in which he’s worked so hard to build his name to a full-stop, hasn’t been able to stop the Galway Boy from feeling like a lucky man. The reason, of course, was because last year Mike and his wife Liz welcomed their baby girl, Mia, into the world. And what a year to make her entrance! Mia’s arrival, however, offered Mike the sense of perspective that we all need in times like these. Music, entertainment, and everything else that we’re all missing so much, they’re all important, and they’ll all be back. But they’re not everything, either. 


I had the pleasure of catching up with the GUY CLOTHING brand ambassador last week. One of the main reasons Mike and I were chatting was because he’s back as a mentor on the 2021 series of the long-running TG4 show, GLÓR TÍRE, lending the benefit of his years of experience in the music industry to rising star EMMA DONOHUE. Now the possible opportunities that can come the way of the contestants who take part in the show each year are many and fairly obvious. But for someone like Mike, already one of the biggest names in Irish entertainment, I wondered what was the appeal and attraction of being involved in Glór Tíre as a mentor? 


“Well I’ve been involved in Glór Tire for…oh it must be seventeen, eighteen years, maybe more at this stage. I think I’ve done every series of Glór Tire nearly that there’s been over the years, and even further back before that, when they were recording out in Connemara. So I must be close on nineteen or twenty years doing bits and pieces with TG4. I think they’re great for anything Irish. They’re definitely great for Irish music, and they’re great for country music which is a great thing for me. So it’s a great pleasure for me every year to be a part of Glór Tíre. There’s a great team there that puts it together every year; Christy and Marie, and Sally and all the gang, there’s a huge team that’s been working on it for as long as I can remember, Paula as well there. It’s a great show for me, it’s been great exposure for many years for bands, long before you had any other television programmes, before you had any of the country music channels, before RTE were playing us, you always had TG4 as a huge part of Irish country music. So for me, that’s why it’s so important to be involved with them, because they’ve been such a huge part of country music for us.” 

Last year, Mike’s contestant, Lisa Callanan, made it all the way to the final, and no doubt he’ll be looking to repeat that achievement – and maybe go one step further – with Emma this year…


“Emma’s a great singer, so she is. She’s someone I wouldn’t have been too familiar with, only in the last maybe twelve months, hearing her name on the local radio after she’d recorded a few songs. She’s a really good singer, and a really nice girl as well. This year has been different to other years, of course, because we don’t get to meet the contestants now as much. In previous years, if a contestant was on the show they’d really be travelling around with us if we were doing a concert or doing a dance. They’d come along and be handing out flyers, and you’d strike up a bit of a friendship with them, and you’d have them coming up singing a song or two here and there as well. So it’s totally different this year. It’s new for us all. The recording of the shows was totally different this year as well with no audience in to watch it all happen. But we still enjoyed it. And it was great for me to get out and be on stage with the band again.” 

As mentioned already, Mike is one of the biggest names in Irish entertainment, and as far as country music goes, he’s a superstar of the genre. From my own experiences of working with Mike and his manager, Willie Carty, through the years, I know both men are always willing to help new artists in any way they can. Obviously his own career has to be his own priority, but I wondered if, given his status in Irish country music, Mike feels a sense of responsibility in some ways to guide or advise new and younger artists in any ways he might be able to? 


“I think it’s a great thing for anybody to give anyone new or young or starting off an opportunity to sing in front of a crowd. Because it’s a tough time for anybody who is starting out. It’s an expensive time for anybody, between recording and different things. They have to put a lot of time, and a lot of effort, and a lot of money into it. So it’s great to be able to give the opportunity to people to be able to hop up and sing a song here or there, and help them get their names out to a different audience as well.” 

Going back to Glór Tíre, Mike’s concert show with Emma will be hitting the airwaves on February 9th. The recording of that show would have been one of the very few times in his career that Mike and his band experienced performing to a virtually empty room due to the current Covid 19 restrictions. So I had two questions for Mike. Firstly, what was it like just to get back to playing with his band again? And secondly, what was it like playing in that almost empty room scenario? 


“Yeah, it was different! It was a totally different experience, something we wouldn’t have seen much of over the years. Now we would have done some things over the years, with television programmes and stuff, where you would be playing to a near empty room. It’s difficult, I suppose, for certain songs. When you’re doing faster material you need an audience to participate. It wasn’t as hard when you were singing some of the slower stuff because you can interact with the camera. So that was the tough end of it. But it was great meeting up with the guys. There’s a couple of them living around home here now, so we do keep in contact. We do see each other around town, going in and out of shops. But some of the guys I hadn’t seen in six or seven months, so it was great to just meet up, so it was, even just to have a chat. Even being able to travel and get out of the house was a big part of it, because at that time [when the shows were recorded], I think we were allowed to travel a little bit further. I’m lucky with staying in the county.” 

Like the whole of the music business these days, Mike and his team have been looking at finding new ways of doing things. One idea Mike came up with and put into action was a concert which was first available to stream, and can now be enjoyed in its entirety on his YouTube channel. That concert featured Sabrina Fallon, Gerry Guthrie, Ray Lynam, and Brendan Shine as well as Mike himself. 


“It was part of an arts and culture funded project, they were putting a few different things together so we were lucky enough to be part of that. That was a great show. And for anybody who wants to watch it or catch up with it, they can check it out still on my YouTube channel there, as you said. It’s free to watch, so you can watch it as many times you want! You can put it on the laptop, or the phone, or on the television, whatever anybody wants [laughs]. Again, it was great to meet up with the likes of Ray Lynam and Brendan Shine, and Gerry and Sabrina as well, none of whom I’d have seen in a long, long time. It was recorded out at the Spain AV Soundstage in Nenagh, with David and Alan Spain putting it all together with Ed Hannigan and his camera crew as well. There was a lot of work and a lot of preparation getting ready for it, but again, like doing Glor Tíre, it was great to just be able to get out and do a few songs and meet up with everyone.” 

Staying on the subject of looking at different ways to do things at the moment, with there still being no clear line of sight to the end of the current situation for the music and entertainment industries, I wondered how are Mike and his team looking at the year ahead in as far as it might be possible to plan career-wise? 


“Well, the problem is, I think we’re like everybody, we’re sitting back waiting for Micháel Martin to give directions for us, which isn’t looking too promising at the moment. It’s a horrible time for music, and the arts, and I suppose anything to do with hospitality, we’re really the ones that have been hit majorly bad. So you can’t plan anything, that’s the problem, because you just don’t know. If you put a plan together for summertime or for the end of summer, restrictions could still be in, you just don’t know. So you just can’t make any plans, none of us can. We’re all just sitting here with fingers-crossed and praying and hoping every day that there’s going to be some restrictions lifted, and that we can get back out and get recording, and get back out on the road which is the main thing. That’s the one thing that everybody is looking forward to! We want to get the music back playing so that people can come out and see us. Again, that’s going to be a tough time too, because some people will be afraid to come back out. Until all the vaccines are out, it’s gonna be a hard time.” 

If there is a positive to be found from the situation the last year or so has found the world in, then for Mike at least, the timing turned out to be pretty good in his personal life, as he and Liz took in a little lodger named Mia! So one thing he probably wasn’t, was bored at home anyway! I saw somewhere that Mike said he was taking to fatherhood fairly easily, so I asked if he felt it was an experience he was well prepared for? 


“It’s been great. I suppose, we were very lucky that both of us were here at all times which made it easier on both of us. The timing was perfect for me. We did our last gig on Sunday, the 8th of March in Letterkenny, and Mia was born the following Friday week. So the timing was amazing for me. But we were like everybody else, when the restrictions were coming in we just thought it was going to be a couple of weeks here, maybe a couple of weeks there. We were thinking maybe four weeks, six weeks, eight weeks, sure what about it. It’s gonna be a lovely break for myself and the band. But as we know now, of course, it’s been something that’s just been going on and on, and it might never end the way it’s looking at the moment! [laughs]. But personally, I couldn’t have timed it any better. For any dad to be off at a time like that, and to be able to spend time with the baby and to bond, and we were coming close to summer at that time too, so it was all great. We’re very lucky here living in Portumna, we’re right beside the forest, right beside the water, so it’s been very lucky for me that way.” 

Has having Mia around changed Mike at all, did he think? 


“Ahh, I don’t know if it’s changed me, but sure I’m enjoying it, as they say! [laughs]. I’m loving every minute of it. It’s a different experience, but it’s a great one.” 

When I spoke with Nathan Carter around the time of the release of his latest album last year, one of the things he told me he’d come to realise during the past year was that when things do return to normal again, he probably doesn’t want to spend as much time on the road as he had been doing. As one of a small number of artists who might have a schedule as hectic as Nathan’s tends to be, I wondered if any such thoughts had crossed Mike’s mind? 


“Well, when things go back to normal, we’ll have to look at it then. Life is for living, so it is. And I suppose this has all given everybody a different view of life. We can realise that it’s a huge thing to be able to spend time at home with our families. So yeah, I think everybody will end up looking at work from a different point of view.” 

With the things the way they are right now, it’s not just artists like Mike who are missing fans, the same is true the other way around as well, with fans missing out on seeing and meeting their favourite stars. Trudi Lalor has launched the Reach-Out Project, an initiative to try and address this by connecting stars and their fans. Mike is one of the already more than sixty country artists who have come on-board for the project…


“Even leaving that aside just for a moment, I would have found that over the last twelve months nearly since we’ve been off, that we’ve had people emailing us, texting us, sending direct messages looking for videos or for us to send get-well messages to people, ya know. Because there’s so many people who had country music as part of their daily or of their weekly routines. They’d go to a dance, or they’d go to a concert, or some form of a show. So they’re all missing that hugely, no more than us missing being on the road. It’s just a huge part of peoples’ lives, often maybe their only way out. You might have a lot of people living on their own say, and that was their way out weekly, to meet their friends at a dance. And that’s all been taken away from them. But going back to Trudi, it’s a great idea. She’ll be having the competition every week, and a certain amount of artists then will ring people every week just to say hello or keep in touch. There’s so many people who we would have struck up friendships with over the last number of years, because they’d be loyal fans and loyal followers. They’d come to us week-in, and week-out, and you’d be having chats with them all the time. That’s been taken away from them, it’s been taken away from us.”

While it’s not possible for Mike to perform for his fans at the moment, he has at least been giving them new music to enjoy, with a brand new single – Hey God, Are You Listening? – just recently released…


“Well for a good few months I didn’t really do much recording, I didn’t go near the studio. One of the last singles I had out was the ‘Neutron Dance’, then ‘Galway Bay.’ I suppose the one thing you hear week-in and week-out is that people are finding it hard, mentally, financially, in all these different ways. And then you hear so many charities on the radio and the television, and they’re all looking for help, and there can’t be any gigs on from the likes of ourselves to do fundraisers, that’s all put to one side for the moment. So when I heard ‘Hey God, Are You Listening?’, it really touches home right now.” 

And the great Al McQuilkin from Mike’s band also has a new single out right now, his Tribute to Charley Pride…


“I think Charley Pride would have been a major influence on everybody and anybody involved in country music, especially here in Ireland, because he was probably the biggest of them all here. Anybody who has anything to do with country music here in Ireland loved Charley Pride. So it was great to hear Big Al putting out his tribute with those classic songs from Charley Pride [‘Just Between You And Me’/ ‘All I Have To Offer You Is Me’/ ‘Kiss An Angel Good Morning’]. Al has been with me for many years, he’s a great musician, a great guitar player, and an amazing steel player, so it’s great to hear those famous songs of Charley Pride being played by him.” 

Joe Biden had just been inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States the day before Mike and I spoke, in a fantastic ceremony that included very special musical performances from Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, and from the world of country music, the one and only Garth Brooks. As our chat concluded, I wondered if Mike had tuned in? 


“I didn’t catch Garth, so I didn’t, and I would have liked to because when it comes to music, Garth Brooks would probably be my hero. But I will look back on it and catch up on it, because he’s just one of the greats.”

~ Mike’s latest single, HEY GOD, ARE YOU LISTENING?, is out now, available on all platforms and to request from radio. Voting lines for Glór Tíre are NOW OPEN. And to vote for Mike’s contestant, EMMA DONOHUE, all you need to do is download the Glór Tíre App and follow the instructions from there. 

ENDS

Laura Nolan

First Published January 2021

THE MOMENTS THAT MAKE US

Part 1

Far too often there are far too many people who make the mistake of judging others – especially celebrities – based on the now, what they see of them today, without ever giving a moment’s thought to how they actually got to where they are today. To say it’s an easy mistake to make is too lenient a verdict to settle upon where such folk are concerned. Because what it really is, in fact, is a lazy mistake to make. And there’s a big difference between an easy mistake and a lazy one. Dubliner LAURA NOLAN – world champion dancer, one of the pro-dancers on Dancing With The Stars Ireland, and as such, among the most famous faces in Irish entertainment – knows all about such rushes to judgement. 


Some people would have you believe that Laura was somehow just dropped into the world of celebrity out of nowhere, and that her life has always been as glamorous, perfectly measured, and controlled as it appears when we’ve seen her on our screens on DWTSIrl. But here’s the thing, you see, moments like that really are just ‘the now’, they’re not the whole story. They never are. Everything is glamorous, perfectly measured, and controlled NOW all right, because Laura is one of the very best in the world at what she does. But once upon a time – and for a long time – things would have been anything but perfect by anyone’s measure. 


But those moments – and this is crucial because, as you will discover, it gets to the very heart of who Laura is as a person – the hours and hours in rehearsal studios, the aching limbs, the bleeding feet, the travel, the living far away from home, the sacrifices made in so many ways – those are the moments that made Laura the star we know today. 


Last week we had the pleasure of sitting down with Laura for a chat about those same moments, the ones that nobody else might ever see or even know about, but without which, Laura’s story would not have been possible. And as far as her story goes, while we don’t have DWTSIrl to look forward to in 2021, Laura at least, has still managed to make it back onto our TV screens by teaming up with RTE Kids recently. So, that’s where we began our chat…


“They contacted me a little while back asking me to do a little dance class for children as schools aren’t open and there’s not much activities going on for them. So this was something that they could do that would be a little bit enjoyable, and also, it would help to keep dancing alive as it’s not on our TV screens this year. It’s very popular with children as well. So they wanted me to do an easy kind of class that would keep children interested and just, you know, keep them occupied for a half an hour [laughs]. I said absolutely, that was something I was really interested in doing and hopefully it’s going to become a regular thing. It went really, really well, it was very successful and the feedback was great. Positivity all round, really.” 

And Laura’s own dancing career began at a very young age, too, dancing competitively from the age of just five years old, I’d once heard. So if she began dancing competitively at five, I wondered, did that mean that she first began learning to dance even earlier? 


“Yes! I started to dance when I was three years old. My Mam was a dancer. So the minute she could, she put me into dancing. So I started ballet, ballroom, and latin all in the one week. And it kind of went from there. I know that for my first competition I was actually only four, but I’d say competitively from five because that was when I did a proper, proper competition. But my first competition was solo, and it was just  asic routine that I had to do. Now, this story has been told to me so many times, and I do remember parts of it [laughs], but I wouldn’t have a recollection of all of it. However, everyone reminds me of this story all the time [laughs]. So in my first competition, I was out on the floor. And I was obsessed when I was younger with diamonds and fluff! So I saw a diamond on the floor, and I stopped in the middle of the competition when all the judges were looking, and I started biting the stone on the floor! [laughs]. It was very popular at the time to have a boa of feathers at the end of a dress, so I saw this girl sitting down and I ran over to her and I got the fluff and put it up to my nose! [laughs]. So that’s how my competitive career started!” 

Was there a long line of dancers in Laura’s family, or did it just begin with her Mam and move on to Laura? 


“It just started with my Mam and it moved on to me. She was the one who really guided me through my career. She understood what it took to become a top dancer. It was a lot of sacrifice and a lot of dedication, not only on my behalf, but on my parents behalf. They really pushed me, and understood my career choice. And it was really because of them that I got to where I am now.” 

One thing I never realised about competitive dancing is that people can be in a partnership for so long. Laura had been partners with Stanislav Wakeham for about four years, and then with the brilliantly named Alessandro Bosco for about four more. I asked Laura what, from her point of view, makes someone a great partner? 


“I think trust is a huge part of any relationship, not just in dancing, but also in life. So you need to be able to trust your partner, and you need to be able to work as a team. A man has a huge role in leading the partnership, you know, when you’re on the floor and there’s many couples around he would guide you into the open space. You have to have that trust that you know you’re on the right path together, and that you have the same dreams and you have the same goals. I also think it’s important that the two characters get on. If you’re two different types of characters and you keep bashing off each other, it’s very difficult because you spend so much time together, especially in the studio. I had that last experience where the two of us were very different characters and it is very difficult. You need to be able to manage how you are as people together. And I suppose in dancing, it’s important that they have the same amount of commitment and drive as you do. You have to have the same goals, and the same wants, and the same determination, because if you don’t it can be very difficult. And I’ve also experienced that in other partnerships throughout my career. Especially in dance, because not everyone has the same goals as me. Everyone used to think my goals were ridiculous and unachievable, but I always had that determination needed to get there, and I did. But that meant needing to work that extra bit harder. A lot of people will just see dance as a hobby, I didn’t. So you definitely need to have the same level of determination to work the hours that are required to reach the top.” 

So Laura obviously found all of those positive qualities she mentioned when she teamed up with Stanislav in 2009? 


“Yeah, it was late 2008, I think. I’ve had many partners here in Ireland. My first partner, his name is Luca Mastropietro, he was an Italian living in Ireland, he was my longest ever partner. We danced as children together through the juvenile ranks, and we were together for like seven or eight years. I switched from partner to partner because people were stopping to dance, or just different circumstances and stuff. My coach was very well known around the world of dance, and he used to have a lot of people coming over to take lessons from him from other countries. And there was this couple staying in my house at the time, and it was actually Joanne Clifton, who went on to be on Strictly [Come Dancing], and she actually won Strictly. She was staying at my house at the time, and obviously she was English, and her and her partner at the time, Marco Cavallaro, they used to teach a lot in England. Everyone kind of knows each other around the world of dance, and it just happened that I was looking for a partner at the time and I mentioned it to them as they were staying in my house, and they said, ‘Yeah, we know this boy.’ And it just so happened that he had actually approached my coach as well at a competition a few months before that. So I went over to try out a few weeks later and we started dancing together. And when we started, I was only fourteen at the time, but he was already seventeen at the time, so we were in the adult ranks. There was a competition seven days later, the British Closed Championship, we danced it and we actually came second after just seven days dancing together. That was Under-Twenty-Ones, so even to make a final of that was a huge thing, never mind to place! Everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s after happening?’ [laughs]. 

Laura continued, “That partnership went really, really well. For the first six months of that partnership I was actually travelling over every weekend to England because we had a lot of our coaches in England at the time. And we were doing the English circuit competitively. So, what I used to do was I used to leave school on a Friday at one o’ clock, dad would collect me, I’d get changed in the car, and he would drop me off at the airport. I had to fill out this cert to say that I was allowed to travel by myself, because my parents used to just drop me and I’d get collected on the other side. Once I got collected on the other side, it was straight to the dancing hall, have lessons, the competition practise, then on a Saturday I’d have a full day of lessons,and a full day of practise. Sunday, competition. Monday, I’d get on the first flight back to Dublin, my dad would collect me again on the other side, I’d get changed back into my uniform, and go straight into school! And that was my life for around six and a half, seven months. Then we realised, look, we need to be able to practise during the week as well. So he ended up moving over here and living in my family home. So yeah, that was a very successful partnership in that it got me to a different stage of my career. We were the first ever couple to make the final of a World Championship from Ireland. That happened in 2009. We were also the first ever to make an International Open Final, that was in 2010. We made the final of a British Open Championship, so really, that launched me in my career. I was still really young at the time, so I should have been dancing junior, but I was dancing adult. Youth is from sixteen to eighteen, but I was out of that by the time I was fifteen because of my partner. But I should have still been in junior. So it went really well. We were teaching over here, we had a huge school over here, but it got to the stage in 2021 where he had grown very, very tall! And it was actually too much then if we wanted to reach the next level. So we were like, look, this isn’t working height-wise, so we need to think of something else. So we went looking for different partners and we just went down different roads. He moved back to Moscow where he was originally from, and I went on to dance then with somebody from Italy. So yeah, he left first, and I was left without a partner for a couple of months. But then I started dancing with this Italian, and went and lived in Rome for three months. Big, dramatic story! [laughs]. Ended up coming home after three months, I wasn’t mad about it over there, and a few months later then I started dancing with Alessandro Bosco and moved down to the south of Italy.” 

I had been planning to ask Laura about some of the reasons why partnerships might come to an end, but literally, in one instance for her, it was just because her partner became too tall??


“Yeah! Everything was going quite well, and our results were going quite well, but in that case we decided to stop because of our height difference. We knew that if we wanted to get to another level, which would be in the amateur-ranks the final of the World Championship. We were in the final of the World Championships for Under-18s but then when you move into amateur, you’re against people who are in their thirties. So we were in the Top Twenty-Four, sometimes the Top-Twelve, and we wanted to get to the Top-Six. To do that, we knew that height was having a restriction on how we were dancing. So we just made a mutual decision to move on. In other cases, I’ve been in partnerships where I just didn’t get on with a partner, it just wasn;t working as people to people. Then you’d have some people who were like, ‘Look, I’m just not committed to this role, it’s not what I want anymore.’ Every partnership is unique. And every relationship you have with a person is unique. So they can end for different reasons.” 

When a partnership like Laura’s one with Stanislav comes to an end, especially after being so successful both on and off the dancefloor, is that a very difficult time? 


“Yeah, it is difficult. But that was a unique case for me, in the sense that we had already made that mutual decision that it was done. So I was almost ready for it and expecting it. But it is difficult, because you have to readjust your life, you know, after spending so much time with somebody. I remember being heartbroken at the time that it was over, but in the end, it ended up being the best thing for me. You don’t always realise these things when they’re happening at the time. But afterwards, looking back on it with hindsight, it was the best thing that I ever did. Once I started dancing with Alessandro Bosco, I would say that was probably the most successful career partnership that I’ve had. That launched me into a different part of my life in the amateur ranks, which is professional almost. And that was my longest as well, I was there for five and half years in Italy. In 2014, just two days after Christmas, I moved over to the south of Italy. We were representing Ireland, but the reason why I was living over there is because he had a massive studio beneath his house, and our coach – who was his coach as well – had his school set up in Alessandro’s studio. All of our lessons, all of our practise with the whole club was in his studio. So it just made much more sense [to be there]. Over here, it’s difficult to find studio-space to practise the hours of the day that we need. A lot of studios over here wouldn’t be only dedicated to ballroom and latin, it could be dedicated to hip-hop or ballet, and then you’d have your classes in the evening and stuff. So it’s just difficult to find what you need here. Whereas over there, it was his own so we could spend as long as we wanted in there.”

Fast-forwarding a little bit to 2019, Laura and Alessandro had retired from ballroom as a partnership, and Laura had joined the Dancing With The Stars Ireland team. When DWTSIrl first reached out to her, I wondered if Laura had been surprised to hear from them, and if it had taken her long to say yes? 


“A couple of years before 2019, in my partnership with Alessandro, I would have been one of the most successful dancers that ever came from Ireland, because of that partnership. I was doing really well in the competitive world, I was one of the top dancers in that world, I became World Open champion in that time, and International champion as well. And DWTSIrl actually reached out to me for the very first season. And I said no because I was competing at the time. A lot of my friends, a lot of my colleagues from Ireland, had gone through the audition and that’s how I got news of it [their interest], but I was like, no, I’m in my competitive career at the moment and I wouldn’t be able to dedicate my time to it. So, season-one went on, season-two went on, and then I got contacted for season-three by the producers and I turned it down again because I was still competing. Then, it came to January 2019, a huge event happened [in my life] and I ended up back home. I said to myself, right, I’m after being put in this position where I’m now after splitting from my partner, and I started looking at my life in a little bit of a different way. I was like, you’re after achieving all of your goals, you’ve become World Open champion, you’ve become International champion, so now it might be time to actually try something new. The producers reached out to me again…and I was like, it’s time, it’s time for me to go on the show. It’s time for me to change things up [in my life]. So because I’d been contacted a few times before, I was almost ready for it, I was expecting it. And yeah, it went from there. It was honestly the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, that little switch over. Because I’ve now opened doors that I would never have thought even possible.”


~ Stay tuned for Part 2 of our chat with Laura – including her memories of working with Big Brother legend Brian Dowling on DWTSIrl and much more – coming your way in the next few weeks! 

ENDS 

Brian Cunningham

First Published January 2021

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

In order for there to be ‘stars’ of any show, there must first, of course, be a show. And for the last twenty years Donegal man BRIAN CUNNINGHAM has been making sure that stars from all around Ireland – both established and rising – have had stages to perform on. As an agent, a manager at times, an MC, and a radio presenter too, there are few men around with a greater depth of inside-knowledge on the Irish country music scene. And, thanks to Brian’s close ties to Tullamore based menswear store Guy Clothing and its owners Anthony and Kara Kearns, there are definitely few around who are as consistently sharp in their appearance as they are in how they go about their business. 


And indeed, it’s that sense of business and music acumen which has seen Brian’s Country Shows prove so successful over the last twenty years. OTRT had the pleasure of catching up with the man himself last week, and we began our chat by talking about the fact that he has a brand new album in the shops right now celebrating those twenty years of his famous Country Shows. The album is called TWENTY YEARS OF COUNTRY SHOWS, and as the shows themselves always tend to as well, it features a brilliant combination of household names and rising stars, so I asked Brian to tell me all about it…


“Well, I suppose I’m very lucky in that we’re the twenty years doing the Country Shows now. And many of the artists that we’ve worked with over the years, as you mentioned there, are household names. So this album is one of four albums that we’re releasing in 2021. This first one has twenty-two tracks, and of course it features some of our regular people who are seen at our shows; we have Dominic Kirwan, Philomena Begley, Louise Morrissey, Ray Lynam, and all of those acts have been with me for the twenty years. Then there’s been newer acts that have come on-board as well, and other acts that have joined along the way too. Over the years it’s been an incredible journey. There’s been good days, there’s been bad days, happy days and sad days. But out of everything, music has – I know in my case – helped me to get through many difficult times and hard times in my life. All of the albums we’ll be doing will have a country theme, but one of them will focus on the Irish acts that we’ve worked with. And when I say Irish, there’ll be a bit of traditional music, as well as country. It was only when we went to write down all of the acts that we’ve worked with over the years, or that we currently represent, that we realised that putting them all together would mean four, if not more, albums. And as well as the well-known household names, there’ll be some other acts that people may be less familiar with, and then, like we’ve always done, there’ll be some of our younger acts as well.” 

For anything to last twenty years in the music business is an achievement. But from what I know of Brian personally, and indeed of his shows from having the experience of some of my own acts taking part over the years, there’s always been something that stands the Country Shows brand and event apart from similar nights. I asked Brian to tell me about how the Country Shows first hit the road, and also about the importance of what he tries to make sure his audiences take from those wonderful nights…


“It’s very much about the audience with us. And it’s very much a family-orientated thing too, and you know that from having experienced it with us. When we go and do shows, there’s a great atmosphere between ourselves (the entertainers), we’re a very close-knit organisation. We have a great team on the road, but we have a great backroom team as well. We love entertaining people. We love having the craic ourselves. We love showing that craic on the stage in a professional manner. And in terms of the acts who have been with us for twenty years plus, you know, you have the likes of Philly and her son Aidan Quinn, Aidan would always be in charge of putting the shows together with me. And we all enjoy people. We enjoy seeing the people who come out to our shows. We enjoy hearing their stories, and we’ve made so many friends over the years. And we’ve been with them in the good times and the happy times, and we’ve been with them in the sad times and the harder times that people have had in their own lives. I’m a big believer, from a mental health perspective, in music giving people a wee bit of solace, and being a distraction for a while. When people come to our shows, we want them to sit back, relax, forget what’s happening in their own personal lives, and enjoy themselves! Every act might not be to their satisfaction, they might have their favourites…and we always hear who their favourites are [laughs]. But what we want them to do is to take that time, at the shows, for themselves. Music is a great comfort for people. Everyone has enough pain and hurt going on in their lives, but music can heal that in a large way.” 

Brian is a country boy from Donegal, and pretty much like down here in Offaly – certainly once upon a time anyway, maybe not so much anymore – ‘showbiz’ was hardly top of the list (if it even made the list at all!) of career choices for most people. So, how did an innocent, wide-eyed country boy like himself end up in the world of ‘showbiz’? 


“[Laughs]. Well, I suppose I started off when I was quite young. I was born in, and grew up in a place called Teelin, in south-west Donegal. How it all started was I was doing a Leaving Certificate vocational programme in Carrick Vocational School. I wanted to do something for the local hospice, because basically the Donegal Hospice at that time was looking for money. So I decided to do a project around that. Now I’d always had a fondness for country music, even when it wasn’t cool and your friends were saying at the time, ‘What the hell is he listening to?!’ [laughs]. I’d be going listening to country, and they’d be off to discos or rock nights or whatever. There was a fellow at home called John Bosco O’ Donnell, many people will know him as the brother of Daniel O’ Donnell. I knew John, and I said to him that I wanted to do a CD, and John Bosco turned around and got me Daniel. Then we got some more local acts like Seamus & Collette, and Rebel Hearts. Then we said you know what, we’ll go for the jugular. We’ll go and ask some of the other popular names, the Jimmy Buckleys, the Louise Morrisseys and acts like that. And consequently, out of all that, the CD came out and raised vast sums of money. We couldn’t believe it. That CD ended up making a substantial amount of money for the hospice. My mother would have went door-to-door selling it, and we all did our bit promoting it here, there, and everywhere. And out of that, we used to do some functions and events to promote. Through that I met a fella called Jim White, the late Jim White who owned the White Hotel Group, and he asked me to come and do a few events for him. Now I was still at school at this stage. But I went and did some events at his hotel, the Abbey in Donegal town, and he had other hotels right around the country at the time. Those shows became popular, all different ones, but one of them was an Evening of Country Music. Then in September twenty years ago – well, twenty-one years ago this year – An Evening of Country Music became known nationally and we decided to tour it. Consequently from that again, some of the artists decided to ask me would I do some PR for them, would I do this, would I do that, would I do the other, ya know. And it just went on from there. When you got one, you got the next one, and then someone else would be ringing you as well.” 

We could hardly have discussed the business we’re both in without reflecting on the fact that only a few days before our conversation, the milestone of three-hundred days since ‘live’ music in Ireland came to a sudden halt. Three-hundred days of silence that we would have once imagined impossible. Before talking about the music industry and the effects of that silence on the artists Brian works with, I wanted to know how the last almost a year now had been for him? 


“It’s been dreadful. It’s been a horrible experience. I remember when this initially happened, with Anne in our office, we closed up shop and we said ah look, we’ll be closed for two weeks, maximum. And then we’ll be back in and all will be right as rain again. Little did we think! We haven’t done an event, we haven’t done a function [since then]…we’ve done various things online or for different radio stations, or on television or whatever, but all of that is freebie stuff. It’s not paid-for stuff. We have an events management company, we look after a lot of hospitality awards, other various awards as well. We have a travel business, and obviously we have the music business. And all three of those have been affected because they all involve people. From our point of view, we haven’t done a proper paid-for show since the 12th of March last year. Any bit of savings or money that would be in the background is dwindling down for everyone.” 

Brian’s role with the artists he works with is that of an agent rather than a manager, something I asked him to explain in a little more detail…


“Yeah, I’m an agent for many of the acts and I look after them when they’re looking for stuff. And it’s basically every day that there’s something needed for some of them. But yeah, I’d be an agent rather than a manager, and I opted for that. You might manage certain acts for a small period of time and then pass them on to someone else who will move forward with them. But again, we’ve very lucky with the acts that we work with, many of them for the twenty years or more, many of whom have gone on to do great things. And some acts who have been found on the shows too. You have to remember that the likes of Nathan Carter was sitting with a lovely lady called Gill Marseilles who had brought him to one of our shows. Gill, who was a regular visitor to our shows, ended up saying that this young lad could sing. So we decided that Philomena Begley would bring him up on stage that night, and lo and behold, that gentleman blew the house down! And that gentleman was Nathan Carter. So over the years we have launched new acts, some of them have worked, some of them haven’t worked. But it’s a tough industry, so it is, at the best of times. And even tougher now because of everything that’s going on.” 

And with everything that’s been going on since March of last year, how has Brian been able to help those artists that he works with. I’m sure many of them would have been turning to him for advice and guidance on what steps to take? 


“Yeah, a lot of them have done that. And a lot of them have recreated new things in their lives. Some have gone into radio, some have gone back to study with adult education. A number of them have young families and have said look, we have no choice, we have families to support, we have to gp and get another job. And it’s very difficult for them to make that move from when you’re on stage and you’re doing something that you love, to going into a job that – listen, you might enjoy it – you may not love as much as being on stage, and getting that sense of adrenalin or whatever. There’s so many people affected: from lighting engineers, to sound engineers, the bands themselves, the backroom teams, the media teams, PR, road managers, there’s so many. And everything is affected. From my point of view, the phone calls all of a sudden stopped. The people who were looking for us about shows and events and all the rest of it, all of that stopped. And the phones have become silent. But those same phones will come right again. We’ll have another challenge when this is over, though, the challenge of getting people back out. Some people will have become accustomed to staying in now, and not going out. They feel safer at home. So we have to make shows a safe and inviting place for them to come back to again when that time comes.” 

But Brian’s sphere of influence isn’t restricted to just this side of the Irish Sea. As many midlanders will remember, one of the special guests at last year’s annual charity fundraiser, The Show – organised by Brian’s good friends Anthony and Kara Kearns, owners of Guy Clothing and KODE – was Coronation Street star Samia Longchambon, who plays the character of Maria in the hit soap. And how exactly did Samia find her way from the cobbles of Corrie to the town of Tullamore? You guessed it. Only thanks to Mr. Cunningham himself…


“Yeah, we do, we have many people [that we work with], and in fact we’re making a big announcement in March of this year. We’ve obviously looked after a lot of singers and musicians, and we’ve always looked after some television and radio personalities, sporting personalities as well. And that’s all going to increase from March. Well, it’s supposed to be March! [laughs]. We’ll hope that it is anyway. Certainly, by the second half of this year, we’ll hope that things will be much improved and we’ll be doing it. And that announcement will be connected to people in the UK, and it will also be connected further afield as well, in America and in Australia. We’ve brought in new shows to Australia, we have The Face of Australia, like we had The Face of Ireland here many years ago. So yeah, we’ve got some very well-known names that are joining the agency as well, that will open it up in a new and exciting direction. And again, that’s down to our staff too. I have probably the best staff going. They’ve stuck by us through thick and thin, through a lot of difficult times, and less happy times in our lives. And they’re a real credit to the work that they do, coming up with new ideas and fresh ideas on a daily basis to make sure the acts get something, and to keep us busy.” 

I wondered how does Brian see 2021 playing out? We’ve had the hope of the vaccine first on the horizon, and now here, but it arrives at the same time as case-numbers sky-rocket. It’s so important, even in the best of times, that the flames of hope are always fanned and kept alive. But part of doing that responsibly, of course, means being realistic at the same time. So with all of those factors taken into consideration, what did Brian think of where we are, and where we might be going? 


“I think we’re very slow in where we’re going. Listen, there’s positives. And there are positives in that the vaccines are there. But I’m disappointed that the vaccine is not being rolled out quicker, more effectively, more efficiently. We’re a great country, even though there’s only the five-point whatever million it is of us living here. So it should be relatively quickly to vaccinate people, should they wish to do so. Some people will opt for it, some people won’t. We’ve lost some amazing people in this country because of Covid in the last year, many people who have come to our shows and who have become friends, great friends of ours over the years. There’s a lot of things that I get very angry over, and this is just one of them. They [the government] need to be pushing this. There needs to be a plan in place that makes these vaccines readily available. It’s like hand-picking certain people in our hospitals that are getting the vaccine first, or in our nursing homes, yes, it’s a welcome decision, but surely we should be in a position to do this a lot more quickly, and a lot more efficiently? There’s so many people suffering from various illnesses, and they’re having their operations cancelled. There are people this very morning who are waiting on serious life-changing operations, and those operations are being postponed, cancelled, transferred, you name it. And that is not right in this day and age.” 

Going back to the music side of things again, twenty years is a long time to be involved in any business. It allows for plenty of opportunities to observe how things and people work, and how both change – or don’t – over time as well. If Brian was to somehow wake up tomorrow morning and find that he had the whole of the music industry in Ireland in his charge – but with country music foremost in his thoughts for the sake of this particular question – are there two or three things that come straight to his mind that he would make sure were done differently? 


“100%. I think the first thing is that I would love to change our national broadcaster. I would love to see that when RTE are doing country specials that it’s not limited to the same acts [all the time]. I would love to see a situation where fairplay is given to all individuals in the country music industry, not just to some individuals. And I’d be even more encouraging to young acts. Because if we don’t have young acts coming up, then when our older generation are no longer fit to do it, then our industry is dead. We have to encourage, we have to embrace, we have to give advice to people as well to try and encourage them into the industry. But what’s happening now at the minute is, as it currently stands – in my opinion – is there’s a limited number of people getting all the coverage. And fair play to them. But, it’s not a fair and equal system. And I’m saying that all the time. But, on the other side of it, we have a lot of artists out there starting off and they need to remember that they need to work in the industry, and start off where all the acts started off, in a one-piece. they’re not all going to become superstars overnight. You have to work at this industry. And you have to work for this industry. You have to get to know it inside out. Many acts, in particular younger acts that I see coming through our doors at meetings, when you ask them what they are hoping to achieve in the next year, they’ll turn around and they’ll tell ya they want to be as successful as Nathan, or Derek, or Mike, or whoever. They want to have that success. And you try to explain to them that you have to work at this industry to get that, and that sometimes it’s about luck, too. Sometimes, you can be lucky and get a great song. And sometimes you just have to work hard to get to your end goal. And when you put the effort in, it’s like everything: sometimes it will work, and sometimes it won’t. Something else I would say to people is this. There are many, many good singers out there. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be on a stage every night of the week. Sometimes other people might be encouraging artists which is great in itself, but they can become almost delusional and end up, many of them, with depressions of all kinds because they’ve failed, But it’s not that they’ve failed, it’s just that there’s so much competition, and strong competition, out there.” 

As Brian looks back over the last twenty years, what would he say his proudest moment has been? 


“There’s a lot of them. I’ve been very lucky to work with incredible names that I grew up listening to, in particular people like Phily, and Dominic, and Louise, Kathy Durkin as well. I’m very lucky to be able to work with younger acts as well, like Chrissy [Mac] and Stacey [Breen], and to progress them. And there’s so many more too. Cliona Hagan, Barry Kirwan, so many. I’m very lucky that we’ve made a difference to many organisations, many charities. And I’m very lucky to have met some of the people I have. I’ve met some great people over the last twenty years, like Anthony and Kara [Kearns] there in Tullamore. And I’m very lucky to work in radio there in Tullamore too, at Midlands 103 with Albert [Fitzgerald] and Will [Faulkner]and Joe [Cooney]. And I’m very lucky to have come through some bad health battles as well. I’d never take that for granted. By losing people in my life, I never take anything for granted anymore. Your health is your wealth. And indeed Philomena Begley has that very song on this album, ‘Your Health Is Your Wealth.’ You have to go out there and smile, and sometimes it’s not easy to do that, to put the smile on. But you do it. And I’m extremely proud of the team I have, and of the people that we represent, who have all embraced the other acts that have come in. I’m really grateful to be in this position where we’re twenty years later in Country Shows.” 

And his biggest regret? 


“Loads of regrets! I have so many regrets, where do you even start?! Biggest regret, I suppose, is that there have been acts we haven’t been able to help, or acts that have chosen not to continue with Country Shows, which is equally fair enough. My biggest regret in music is when you see someone who is trying, and trying, and trying, and you can’t wave a magic wand to help give them the kind of success that the effort they put in – and their talent – deserves. You’d love to be able to do that when they’re working extremely hard night and day. My attitude in life is to try and help people. I got it from my mother. If you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything at all.” 

I suspected that Brian might just have answered my next question right there…the best piece of advice to have come his way along the way? 


“Yeah, my mother! I’m very lucky to have two great parents, but I suppose I’m a mammy’s boy [laughs]. And the best bit of advice is exactly what she said, that if you can’t say something good about someone, then don’t say anything at all.” 

His toughest lesson learned? 


“That you can do everything you possibly can in life, and try your hardest at helping people, but then people will still talk behind your back. That’s very difficult. They’ll see one side of a story, and they won’t ask for the second side, they’ll just feel that they know it.” 

To wrap things up, we decided to put Brian’s crystal-ball to the test by asking him to throw our way the names of some artists – new and emerging – who he feels people should be keeping an eye on because they’re likely to make breakthroughs of note in the next two to three years? 


“From outside of my organisation, Claudia Buckley. I think she’s a very fine singer, and she’ll go on to do good things. From our own organisation, I think Stacey Breen will go on to do good things too. I think there’s a very bright future for the industry…provided…that they get fair play. Going back to the national broadcaster again, I remember knocking on doors within RTE for many years and we were being laughed at about country music. In the last twenty years I’m talking about now. Now listen, I’m delighted that they are now promoting country music. But next, they have to go one step forward and start promoting our young acts, and our new acts. Not just the same acts that it always seems to be. Because there’s an abundance of talent in this country, good singers who need to be encouraged because when the stars of today, the acts who have been around for so long, are no longer there, well who’s going to replace them? For the industry to survive, you need new blood [coming through].” 


TWENTY YEARS OF COUNTRY SHOWS, the celebration album from BRIAN CUNNINGHAM, featuring Philomena Begley, Dominic Kirwan, Louise Morrissey, Stacey Breen, Simon Casey, Sean Keane, and many more is OUT NOW. The album is available to order from TRAX in the Bridge Centre, Tullamore, and from all good record stores nationwide. 

ENDS