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

Nadia Sayers

First Published January 2021

A NEW QUEEN REIGNS

Ever since model and entrepreneur BRITTANY MASON took the helm at the organisation, the annual crowning of the new MISS UNIVERSE IRELAND has become one of the most glamorous events on the Irish social calendar. Up until this year, the event has always been held in the famous Round Room at Dublin’s Mansion House, where the first Dáil Eireann met in 1919, and which has also been graced by the presence of Pope John Paul II and Princess Grace among others. In August of 2019, under that same spectacular domed roof, FIONNGHUALA O’ REILLY was crowned Miss Universe Ireland, taking over from the 2018 Queen, GRAINNE GALLANAGH.


Fig, as Fionnghuala is affectionately known, made history that warm summer’s night by becoming the first woman of colour to take the Miss Universe Ireland title. Little did anyone know back then that perhaps the strangest of all possible years lay just up ahead. When the time eventually rolled around to crown her successor, Fig had gone on to make more history by becoming Ireland’s longest serving Queen, being an elegant, inspirational, and always amazing ambassador for Ireland for an incredible 508 days. However, on December 21st – in a magnificent virtual ceremony for which Brittany, Jscot Reid and their team must be commended – Miss Universe Ulster, NADIA SAYERS, was finally announced as MISS UNIVERSE IRELAND 2020, the fourth Queen of Brittany’s Moxie Era (CAILÍN TOBIN was the first in 2017).


Only a few days later, on New Year’s Eve morning, we had the pleasure of spending some time in conversation with Nadia. And, as you would expect, we began by saying good morning to Nadia, but equally so, of course, we could just as easily have said, ‘Good morning, Miss Universe Ireland’, because that is officially Nadia’s new title. But, is that fact something which Nadia has started getting used to yet, and is her family under orders to only address her as such from now on? 


“[Laughs] Oh I’m so not used to it at all! [laughs]. I think because of the lockdowns obviously, we haven’t been seeing people as much. But all of my family did have great fun writing me cards that said Miss Universe Ireland, and that was really strange to see, and it gave me butterflies. So I’m still not used to hearing it, not yet [laughs].” 

I wondered if Nadia felt like it’s something that she will ever get used to? Because, whatever about right now, it’s definitely  going to get to a stage where she will be hearing it a lot. But might it always feel something like an out-of-body experience of some kind? 


“I don’t think I ever will [get used to it]. The day after I was announced as the winner, I was messaging some of the past winners, because thank goodness, they all took the time to send me a message and congratulate me. And I was just saying to them that this all feels so strange. It feels like a dream, but I don’t know if it will ever not feel like a dream! And every one of them said that you’re in a bubble right now, but it will never ever not feel like a dream [laugh].” 

As if to prove that you should never give up on a dream when it’s something that you really want in your heart of hearts, this was actually Nadia’s second time to enter Miss Universe Ireland, having also finished in the Top Ten – alongside eventual winner Fig – in 2019. But before we came back to why she decided to enter a second time, I wanted to find out how her Miss Universe Ireland journey had first begun…


“Miss Universe Ireland had always been a goal that I had looked at. But in all honesty, when I was younger I thought it was a goal that I was never going to achieve. Then it kind of died down for a few years here as well. But then whenever Brittany and the Moxie team took it over, I straight away bought tickets and went and watched it that first year, the year that Cailín won (Cailín Tobin, Miss Universe Ireland 2017). And it was just because I had always seen the likes of Joanna Cooper and other Miss Universe Irelands who had always done so well, not only within the pageant, but they seemed to grow so much as a person throughout and then afterwards. And I really respected how much was invested into them, and how much people reached out to support them. So obviously, to cut a long story shorter [laughs], whenever I saw that it was coming here, I bought tickets straight away, me and a few friends, to watch Cailín that first year. And I was in complete awe. Of one, the range of girls who were in the Top Thirty. They were not, by any means, carbon copies of each other or moulds of what a particular pageant girl should look like, which is sometimes dictated by society. They were all backgrounds, all ages, all shapes and sizes, all their own unique beautiful. And that was the first thing that really struck me. Then obviously the production of it all. You really got a feel for the family that was Miss Universe Ireland, even from just sitting in the audience. So I became very attached to it then. When Cailín was crowned, I followed her journey that year. And again, I saw how she had grown as a person. And at no point did it seem that they had tried to put her into a mould. They just simply helped her to embrace herself more. That really just struck me. And I thought that again then the next year with Grainne. So, I just sucked it up eventually, and I thought I have to apply! Cos’ I’m never gonna get there if I don’t give it a go!” 

So it sounded very much like Nadia had probably made her mind up that first year, even just sitting in the audience watching Cailín, that she was going to enter herself some day? 


“Yes, it was more like a goal. Like, I would love this, but I don’t know if I’ll get there. If that makes sense? But it was definitely something in my head, I’m gonna try this. I need to. Because otherwise I’m gonna regret it.” 

In 2019 Nadia did enter, and it obviously lived up to her expectations. I asked her to tell me what that first year was like…


“It was great! I’d seen, again, how much Grainne had come on as a person because I’d actually competed with Grainne the year before, so I’d known her before she became Miss Universe Ireland. Again, the same kind of thing had happened, I’d seen how much she had grown, but how much she had stayed true to herself, but highlighting that and embracing it. So whenever I applied – I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I was – of how much time Brittany and the rest of the team actually give to you one-to-one to try and teach you on all aspects from interviews to styling, even just having check-ins with you to see how you are and what you want to achieve. It was phenomenal the amount of personal growth I went through in that time-period. It was surprising to me. The team were so welcoming and friendly, and all of the girls were lovely. It really did seem like a little community.” 

Until just a few years ago, I have to confess that I was never aware that you could enter a pageant like Miss Universe Ireland twice. So what prompted Nadia to go for it again in 2020? 


“After last year, I kind of took a step back. I was like, ok, I’ve done it…am I done? [laughs]. My family were like, well give it a month or two and have a think about it. Have a rest first. But as the time was going on, and especially coming into 2020 and how the year was presenting itself, I kept seeing the Miss Universe Ireland stuff popping up on my social media. And every time I saw it I got a little bit of butterflies in my stomach. Do I go for it? I very much live along the lines of am I gonna regret it more if I try it, or if I don’t? Because who wants to pile on the regrets?! Obviously we’ll all have some, but you want to try and have that amount be as little as possible [laughs]. So I just went for it. I actually applied and I told nobody! It wasn’t until I found out that I’d made it into the Top Twelve that I actually told anybody [laughs]. I kind of said to my fiance, ‘So, what would you think if I thought about doing this…’, but I’d already applied [laughs]. My mum actually found out on Facebook! [laughs].” 

Right now, of course, with the way everything remains due to Covid and all of the health restrictions associated with it, making plans of any kind is quite the challenge. So have Nadia, Brittany, and the Miss Universe Ireland team been able to put any shape on what might be happening next? 


“Well like you said, it’s just so difficult. Because even with the competition, there were four, five, six, seven versions of everything because things kept changing and restrictions kept changing. We have had a few initial meetings, brainstorming ideas and the goals we want to reach before the end of my reign, and what we want to reach before going to Miss Universe too. So we have a few things in the pipeline, but again, we’re just having to be flexible, and roll with the punches as Brittany always says, because we don’t know what’s coming around the corner. There’s nothing else you can do at the moment. So it’s just about keeping the goals clear, and keep moving forward.” 

Although Nadia isn’t actually in possession of the Miss Universe Ireland crown just yet, as the official crowning by and handover from Fig has yet to take place, this won’t be her first crown either, as Nadia was Miss Intercontinental Ireland in 2017…


“Yeah, I held that title in 2017. And there was one before that, the Miss Earth Water crown, which was a runner-up title. They crown Miss Earth, and then three runners-up. That was the first pageant that I’d ever come across that was kind of available to me. So I decided to enter because someone had said, ‘Sure imagine you up there on stage in a big sparkly dress, you’d look ridiculous!’ So I said ok then…and I went to my Uni room and applied! [laughs]. Yeah, cos’ I wasn’t always the girliest of girls, and I would still be the same. That goes along with that stereotype that if you’re gonna be a model or gonna do pageantry, then you’re going to love everything that’s pink and sparkles, and that’s that. So yes, that little bit of stubborness kicked in and that’s what started me in pageantry! [laughs].” 

My next question was going to be just that: what had actually got Nadia started in pageantry in the first place, but according to herself…it was basically stubbornness?!


“Basically, yeah! [laughs]. I’ve been modeling since I was sixteen, and I come from Tyrone, so none of my friends had really come across anyone who was going out to try and do modeling at that time. I had a lot of friends who were guys as well, and I was quite…tomboyish. Well that’s what you would have said then, but I just like my Converse! [laughs]. And I like my rock music. So yeah, they were just like, imagine you up there in a big sparkly dress, you’d be ridiculous up there! And I was like, right, well I’m just gonna show you that I would NOT be ridiculous! [laughs].” 

Going back to what Nadia had said about knowing Grainne since before she was crowned Miss Universe Ireland in 2018,  I asked her about when the pair first met…


“We actually met in that Miss Earth competition. In that year, a girl called Maire Lynch won, and Grainne was I think the first runner-up, and I was the second runner-up. So we had met while we were competing there and had just kind of kept in touch ever since. So obviously when I saw that she was competing in Miss Universe Ireland, I was very excited to follow her journey in that. And even still, her Instagram cracks me up every day! [laughs].” 

Having seen what Grainne has gone on to do since her time as Miss Universe Ireland, and indeed, everything that Fig achieved during her reign and everything that’s about to happen next for her, how excited does that make Nadia feel about the opportunities and the challenges that could be about to come her way? 


“It’s unbelievable. And that’s a part of the whole I still can’t believe this is really happening thing [laughs]. Like you said, I competed with Fig, and I knew Grainne beforehand, and both were amazing girls, lovely girls. And now I’ve seen how far both have come in a relatively short space of time. It seems like a phenomenal jump and phenomenal growth. So I just cannot wait to meet the team in person and get working as soon as we can, and especially after the holidays, because with Christmas and New Year’s and everything they all deserved a break too! [laughs]. I cannot wait to see what comes along. I was actually writing out a little list of goals and stuff before our call.” 

Nadia had mentioned that a lot of people assume that pageants are all about pink, and all about sparkles, and how there are just so many assumptions like that which exist. Something that most people probably wouldn’t put pageantry alongside is psychology, but Nadia is actually a psychologist-in-training and working with the Hope 4 Life charity. Part of the work Nadia is involved in centres around comics and what I think is one of the most fascinating , innovative, and praiseworthy concepts I’ve ever heard of. I’ll let Nadia explain…


“Hope 4 Life is, in basic terms, a mental health early intervention charity. So they specialise primarily in training in early intervention projects. They aim to give people the skills to support themselves and help themselves to look after their well-being, so they don’t get to the stage where they’re in crisis. One of the projects that they do is around youth work because after my boss had met with teachers from all over the country to see what would help them, their primary issue was that they were worried about the mental well-being of our students. And we can’t do anything about it because we’re not trained to. We don’t know what to do. They had basically said that the best thing we could do for children across the country was to develop something for the children that can help them. The team was amazing, and before I joined them they had come up with this concept. They got a group of young people together into a forum, and said look, this is what we aim to do, how best should we do it? Go away for a few weeks and think about it, and come back. The Hope 4 Life team, as well as these young people, both came back and said superheroes! Superheroes will work because kids agree that superheroes represent good things. They represent justice. They represent saving the day. And supervillains represent all these negative, external things that aren’t a part of you, but are an external influence that affects you. So they took that then and decided well, if we’re going to do comic books and superheroes, we want them to actually be relevant. Because even me, at twenty-six, I can’t tell a thirteen year old I know exactly what they’re going through, because I don’t. Society and life is constantly changing. So when I was thirteen is very different to when someone is thirteen now.”

Nadia continued, “So basically, they decided they’re going to use real stories. So people who have maybe been through their own difficult times, and come through it, or who are coming through it, and want to share their stories – because sometimes it’s closure for them, sometimes it’s cathartic, sometimes it’s to know that out of a tough time – they’re drawing a silver lining which is giving hope to other people that they will get through their tough times too. We developed a comic, and there’s thirteen now. The most recent one is a lockdown comic. What we do, and what I do, is we go into primary schools and secondary schools and community youth groups, and we’ll go through the comic. In non-Covid times, kids would get up and they’d role-play the comic and then we’ll talk about some of the issues that might have come up in it, and come to solutions and find tools that will help the kids in the future should they come across these problems. Now, normally you could break up into little groups and have a more intimate conversation, but because of  Covid we can’t do that. But it tends to work really well. One of the key things that the charity always does is we never put a child on the spot when we’re talking to them. So for instance, the lockdown comic – which is all about lockdown and was written by young people for young people – is based on their experiences of lockdown, their fears, anxieties, confusion. Instead of asking them, ‘Why were you scared during lockdown?’, which, in the middle of a classroom can be terrifying for a child to have to answer, we say – the lead character is called Sophie – so we say, ‘Why might Sophie be scared? What might have been goin’ on in the comic that might have been making her scared?’ And so often then, the kids come forward with THEIR answers, but in their mind it’s just what Sophie might have felt.” 

One of the things that Miss Universe Ireland director Brittany Mason always puts a very strong focus on is that each year’s winner uses their platform to highlight a cause or an issue that’s very personal to them. With Fig in 2019 it was about concentrating on women in S.T.E.M. With Grainne the year before, it was about womens’ health. It sounds like Nadia’s focus in this regard will be on mental health, and if indeed it is, does she have any ideas on what ways she might be able to use her platform over the next year? 


“I would say mental health, and in particular, early intervention [will be my focus]. There’s amazing people working out there in mental health at the moment, and they’re saving lives. But waiting lists are still growing. Services are still feeling the pressure. So we need to start putting in the foundations now for the future, by teaching people how we might be able to stop you from getting to that stage. This is what we might be able to do ourselves, and then, if you still need to get more help, obviously go and get more help. But it’s just about trying to be pro-active as opposed to being constantly reactive. That’s something that I want to highlight a little bit more. I think, again, this stigma [that exists] around talking if you’re not feeling ok, and just saying, ‘You know what, I’m not having a great day.’ And the stigma around journaling and mindfulness, the way people find them a bit airy-fairy but no-one really understands them practically or how to do it. I want to have meetings with some of the smaller grassroots charities that are there that can provide help, and highlight what they’re doing, and create awareness for them so that people can go to them if they need to. But also to spread the word and learn more about what is going on in your own area for young people, and what can we provide or what can we teach to help them in the future. And as well, I think, just in general creating a little bit of hope that if you are struggling – like we all have, like I have, and I talk very openly about it – that’s not going to be your struggle forever. So I’m working my way through a potential check-list of things that are fully dependent on restrictions, but we’re very lucky to at least have the technology that means I can still reach out to people and to organisations, and start having those conversations.” 

Even though we’re all back in another lockdown right now, I think it’s fair to say that Nadia probably has happy enough memories of the first one last year seeing as how she mentioned her fiance a little earlier in our chat. She said yes back in May…


“Yeah [laughs], he’s called Calvin, and bless him [laughs], he’s doing really well! His phone blew up as well, with people kind of having a joke with him. I think he’s very proud and he’s very excited. To be honest, I was at one of my lowest points whenever we got together, so he’s seen me come through that, to where I could say I want this, and this is what I’m gonna go get. And now I’ve done it! He was a bit speechless, as much as I was, after it was announced, but I think he’s just proud. And God bless him, now he has to take on more wedding planning responsibility because I’m a busy bee! [laughs].” 

As it was New Year’s Eve morning when we spoke, I had to ask Nadia what kind of a New Year’s Eve person she usually is, and what were her plans for later that night?


“I’m very big on traditions, and sticking to traditions, and trying to make my own. I’m a real sucker for them! So, typically, in every other new year for the past…maybe ten years…, myself and a group of friends that I went to school with – I’ve known them since I was ten – we all would get together at one of our friends houses and just have a little new year’s party, because that way we actually got to spend time together. And every year on New Year’s Day, we set out what we think is going to happen. We make predictions for the next year. That means that every New Year’s Eve at 11.50pm we read out the predictions, and you have a good laugh at them because some of them are just ridiculous. And some of them might have come true. We make the predictions for each other, for our wee group as a whole. So it could be that someone is going to meet someone, or someone is going to get a house, and there’s always some random ones in there. But it’s always funny to look back and think what were we thinking a year ago at this time?! [laughs]. Tonight is going to be a lot quieter than every other year [laughs]. We’re just going to get in some indian food, and me and Calvin are just going to chill out in the living room with our cat, Espresso, and just ring in the New Year together and be grateful for what we do have, even though this year has obviously been so unprecedented! Nobody could have imagined what it was going to be like, but I know I’ve taken in and learned and reflected a lot this year. So yeah, I think we’re just gonna sit-in, chill-out, and be grateful for everything that’s happened, and all the little things that we have, and hope that next year we can…go out and have a cup of coffee! [laughs].” 


~ You can follow Nadia’s Miss Universe Ireland journey by following Nadia and Miss Universe Ireland on Facebook and Instagram.

ENDS

The Late Late Show Country Special 2020

First Published December 2020

HO, HO…NO!

It’s honestly hard to know where to begin when it comes to talking about another Late Late Show Country ‘Special.’ And it’s nothing short of frustrating in the extreme to actually need to talk about it again. But I have to. To not do so would be to simply ignore the fact that, at this stage, I believe this yearly event – as it is and as it has been organised and presented nearly every year so far – is actually doing more harm than good to the country music scene in Ireland. 


Look, if all you were expecting, looking for, or hoping for from last Friday night’s show was an evening’s entertainment, then sure, your expectations were probably met and similarly your hopes fulfilled. But, if you’re someone who works largely in or around the Irish country music scene, then this show will have left you lost in feelings of deja-vous and despair. If these ‘Specials’ are being billed as the biggest night in Irish country music, and they’re taking place every year, then they have to be viewed in a context much wider than just one night, and not just on how well they fill two or so hours of television every twelve months. One of the most important questions that has to be asked is this; Do they serve well the Irish country music scene as a whole? And the answer to that, certainly in my opinion, is, after five years of these shows (going back to the inaugural – and so far only – RTE Irish Country Music Awards in 2016), a resounding no. 


For one thing, this is not the biggest night of the year in Irish country music, nor should it for even a moment be considered as such. In terms of its potential audience reach, then yes, of course, that fact alone rightly places it amongst what can be considered the biggest nights – plural – of the country year. But it seems to have been created – and certainly year on year it has been maintained – as something much more akin to an exclusive members-only affair than anything that even attempts to be truly reflective of the Irish country music scene. It is not inclusive of the many artists – older and younger – and other important players who have helped to make the country scene what it is, and who tend to have been around well before RTE and The Late Late Show deemed country music worthy of any serious attention in 2016. 


Of the artists who were featured on last Friday’s show, and I make it twelve (counting The Three Amigos as one act, and not counting the six artists who were asked to be their backing-singers and who were only on-screen for about five seconds, if even that!), EIGHT of those were on last year’s Special as well. Cliona, Sandy, Philomena, The Three Amigos, Margo, Mike, Daniel, and Nathan. And most of those eight have featured on every Country Special. Many of them are also guests on The Late Late at some stage during the rest of the year too. 


Of the remaining four artists from last week’s show; Una Healy, Claudia Buckley, Trudi Lalor, and Barry Kirwan, Una and Claudia have appeared on regular season installments of The Late Late Show as well. Trudi was part of the opening sequence of last year’s Country Special, but didn’t have a chance to perform in her own right. In fact, I’m not sure if Trudi has ever been invited to appear on The Late Late Show. And as one of the greatest female voices the Irish scene has been blessed to have, how can that be right? So, of the twelve artists featured on this year’s show, only TWO did not feature last year as well. Only two. 


This is NOT – I repeat NOT – a negative commentary on ANY of those artists. I’ve interviewed most of them for this column. I admire all of them as artists in their own right. I know how hard EVERY artist in this business has to work. I know many of these artists very well and hold them in high regard not just as entertainers, but as people. 


But, this IS about the fact that RTE and The Late Late Show keep bringing back the same guests on these ‘specials’ every year, as if there were no other artists on the Irish country scene. That is simply not true. Now of course, it’s impossible to feature every single artist out there in one-go. Common sense. But no-one has ever asked for that to happen. However, it can’t be denied that since 2016, The Late Late Show has made zero effort – never mind tried and failed, they haven’t even attempted it! – to present the Irish country scene in any kind of way that truly reflects it. If they had, then over the last five years, the Irish public in general would know a lot more about many of the amazingly talented artists and great people who make up the scene. 


There are so many artists who have helped to set the standard for today’s stars, who made them dream and inspired them, and helped them to embark on their own musical voyages. And to be clear…Margo, Philomena, Sandy, Daniel…they all fall into that category too, and they absolutely deserve every word of praise and credit that comes their way. But what The Late Late Show either doesn’t seem to know or is unwilling to recognise, is that there are several more artists who have made today’s stars dream, who have inspired them, and who have helped them on their way. To name but a few; John Hogan, Shawn Cuddy, Mary Duff, Dominic Kirwan, Paddy O’ Brien, Mick Flavin, Ray Lynam. And yes, some of those have been spoken to for a minute or so when in the audience during previous shows, but never given the attention that their careers and their contributions to Irish country music have deserved. And as well as those who I’ve mentioned, I’m sure there are many more whom those with the benefit of more wisdom than I could also – and rightly – point to. 


So, why would The Late Late Show bring back some artists as guests several times over, and ignore other artists completely? It’s not because their judgement on Irish country music is definitive or deeply insightful, because it most certainly is not. They prove that fact year on year. It’s not because no-one involved in the Irish country scene has tried to make them aware of other artists that should be considered, or other ways that things could be done, because people have tried to do both those things.


And just as those older artists need to and should be remembered and acknowledged for having blazed the trails that today’s stars now travel, so too do the younger and newer artists of today need to be remembered and acknowledged when shining a spotlight on the country scene. Because today’s dreamers will become tomorrow’s stars. And I stress the younger AND newer aspect of that, because one of the great things about country music, is that for the most part, age is no limit. New artists can emerge or first come to public attention in their forties, fifties, sixties or beyond, just as easily as in their twenties or thirties. Nobody is a ‘big-name’ from day-one of their careers. Nobody. Even the biggest names of today began with little more than just their dreams. 


With a little imagination and a little vision – and that’s all this would take – there is absolutely no reason why a show that happens every year could not feature a different selection of heritage or legacy artists ( which are terms that are probably more honourable and respectful than ‘older’) each year, plus up-and-coming rising stars, and some of the biggest names of the moment. 


If we take twelve guests as a benchmark of sorts, then there’s no reason why three artists – or musicians, songwriters (more on songwriters in just a while!), promoters, journalists, etc – could not be honoured for their contributions to country music, and why three artists could not be highlighted as ones to keep an eye on over the coming year or years, and yet still be able to feature six more ‘big-name’ artists in some way. An approach such as that would easily offer a better overall view of the Irish country music scene as it is, how it came to be this way, and where it might be headed. If an approach like that had been taken or considered, then since 2017 (leaving 2016 aside as that was the year of the RTE Irish Country Music Awards), up to twelve artists (or other influential contributors to the country scene) could have been honoured, and up to twelve new artists could have been introduced to a national audience. 


And don’t let anyone tell you that there are no new artists coming along who deserve some attention, or none who are worth hearing other than those who are regularly featured on The Late Late Show. If you ever hear that from anyone, then all that’s just happened is you’re witnessed a confession that that person doesn’t know enough about the Irish country music scene to even be passing such a comment. Simple as that. 


Again, to name but a few; there’s Sabrina Fallon, who has one of the most popular songs anywhere on Irish country radio right now in Candlelight And Wine with Shane Moore, and is constantly releasing top-class material. There’s Deirdre Keane who, like Sabrina, has a voice that would fit right into place on anything being recorded in Nashville, and whose latest release, I Just Want To Thank You, Lord would have been a perfect fit for last week’s Circle Of Friends segment instead of Christmas songs that were the laziest and most predictable choices possible. There’s Alex Roe, a guy who has been performing – as in gigging, as in out on the road, as in earning his dues – all around the country for years already and is yet to even face a cake with twenty-two candles on it. There’s Colin Kenny, not just a man with a voice who can effortlessly take on any style of music, but also a songwriter of fantastic ability who is recording and releasing his own material and getting serious airplay on country radio. There’s Stephen Rosney, another songwriter of immense talent who has been adding to the canon of Irish country music culture for years by releasing original material. Likewise with Justin McGurk, whose new song, You Are, would also have been an ideal choice for the aforementioned Circle Of Friends segment. You can add Jordan Mogey and Niamh McGlinchey to that list of artists and songwriters as well. And as far as guitarists on the Irish country scene go, there are very few with as much talent as Ciaran Rosney. 


As well as all of those artists, you can count in John Molloy, Alanna Maher, Caitlin, Pamela Gilmartin, Kerry Fearon, Aoife McDonagh, Aishling Rafferty, Larissa Tormey, Patricia Maguire, Lisa Stanley, Norman Borland, Joe Moore, John Rafferty, Noel Boland, Brian Mullen…and again, these are just a few of the names that could and should be considered and given more attention. Most people who are in any way aware of the Irish country scene know who these artists are. How can The Late Late Show, when organising yearly country ‘specials’, not be? These people are not in hiding, their music is out there to be heard. And their music is worth hearing. I’ve worked with almost all of these artists at one time or another, and in one way or another. They are more than deserving of being in with a chance of having their talents, and what they bring to the Irish country music scene, recognised on the national stage at some point in time. Right now, it’s just more than clear that there’s no hope of such a chance as things stand. 

Going back to last Friday’s show, something that seemed to confuse a lot of people this year was the actual theme of the show. Was it an actual Dolly Parton tribute show? That impression was certainly given, and you could forgive people for understanding that to be the case. Was it just the annual Country Music Special, except at Christmas this year? Or was it an actual Christmas country special, where Christmas itself would be central? As it turned out, it was a little bit of everything, which made it feel a little bit messy. And to be honest, it also felt like the show was built more around the interview with Dolly than anything else, and that the Irish artists were filling in the gaps between the opening tribute to her and the actual interview at the end. 


Dolly Parton is literally a living legend. Her life and her career have more than earned her the right to be honoured on any show anywhere, be it The Late Late Show or anything else. That’s without question. And Dolly’s appearance on the show, her involvement with it in any way, or the tribute to her are not being questioned either.


It’s also without question that the opening sequence of the show, featuring Una, Cliona, and Claudia, was outstanding. It was spectacular, and hearty and sincere pats on the back are due to everyone who made it happen. It’s also true, however, that artists like Olivia Douglas, Sabrina Fallon, and Deirdre Keane for example – none of whom have ever featured on The Late Late Show before – could also have stepped into those roles and done Dolly, her songs, and Irish country music proud. To be absolutely and unequivocally clear, Una, Cliona, and Claudia DID do Dolly, her songs, and Irish country music proud. Personally, I’m a massive fan of all three ladies, as artists and as people. My interviews with each of them on the OTRT website will clearly show that. I’m just further reinforcing the point that The Late Late Show relentlessly turns to the same artists all the time. 


Having mentioned Olivia Douglas above, I cannot for the life of me understand why she – and five other artists – were asked to sing backing-vocals for The Three Amigos. First of all, there was no need for backing vocals. Robert, Jimmy, and Patrick were more than capable of giving their version of From A Distance everything that it needed, as they proved. And there was certainly no need for six artists to provide backing-vocals (seven, if you count both Ennis Brothers, together with Olivia, Clodagh Lawlor, Marc Roberts, Niamh Lynn, and David James). They got about five seconds on screen. There’s hardly any other way to see that than as a token gesture, simply a way to say six more artists were involved in this ‘special.’ And yes, involved they were. But included? That’s a different story. And a different question. And the answer is no. 


Olivia was invited to be part of the grand-finale of last year’s ‘special’ as well, another segment that is little more than a token gesture, involving people – as you would involve a prop in something – but not genuinely including them. At least they got more screen-time out of it last year. But of what worth to any artist is a camera panning past you a few times? 


Olivia is one of the most exciting new artists to appear on the Irish country music scene for years. She has another of those voices that you could put on any record that comes out of Nashville and it would sound like it belongs there. And by that, I don’t mean that she sounds American – an accusation often levelled at Irish country artists – I mean she would sound perfectly, authentically country. She has multiple awards to her name, has toured with both Nathan Carter and Derek Ryan several times, and as a musician is in a league of her own on the accordion. 


Not only that, but Olivia’s most recent release, A Hug Or Two, has racked up over ELEVEN MILLION IMPACTS on Irish radio since March of 2019, made up of 2,185 plays. Thats TWO-THOUSAND-ONE-HUNDRED-AND-EIGHTY-FIVE PLAYS. One of the songs Olivia is perhaps best known for now, Leaving Tipperary (released in March 2018) has amassed an equally phenomenal EIGHT MILLION PLUS IMPACTS on Irish radio, made up of  2,442 spins. That’s TWO-THOUSAND-FOUR-HUNDRED-AND-FORTY-TWO PLAYS. So that’s just two of Olivia’s songs that have clocked up over NINETEEN MILLION IMPACTS on Irish radio since March 2018, made up of 4,627 – that’s FOUR-THOUSAND-SIX-HUNDRED-AND-TWENTY-SEVEN PLAYS. On just two of her songs. That’s a reflection of both Olivia’s talent and her standing within the Irish country music scene. The Late Late Show’s interpretation of that talent, however, has led them to place her in a chorus-line once, and as a backing-vocalist once. 


So, either they don’t recognise her talent, or have no interest in acknowledging it. Either of those options is a terrible, yet realistic possibility. What isn’t, is that they are unaware of her talent. I can state this for a fact, because I myself have made them aware of it on numerous occasions. And not because I thought she’d be great as part of a group-finale or as a backing vocalist, I assure you. 

One last point as far as newer and younger artists go where The Late Late Show is concerned. The show – and rightly so – never seems to have any problem with giving opportunities to new and younger pop acts, or rock acts, and more recently, to hip-hop and rap acts to perform on the show. That’s as it should be. Newer and younger acts, whatever their genre, deserve those breaks. However, such opportunities never come the way of country artists. Not even on shows that are supposed to actually focus on country music. 


Last Friday’s show opened with that wonderful tribute to Dolly, and went on to include Christmas songs during the Circle Of Friends segment. So you can see again why some viewers might have been confused about what the central theme of the night was. On the subject of songs, and leading to the subject of songwriters, it was surprising to see that while Dolly’s songs got the night underway, and the artists involved in the Circle Of Friends segment had to perform Christmas songs, The Three Amigos were performing their new single, From A Distance. Would something from Dolly’s extensive songbook, or perhaps a Christmas medley, not have been better suited to the night for their performance as well? 


Christmas covers always tend to work best with artists who are already well-known, because then hearing a Christmas tune from them becomes something that’s a little bit different and that has a fun and novelty side to it. But singing Christmas tunes essentially just for the sake of it, man…that was an idea that definitely should have been pushed back on by somebody somewhere. Margo’s turn in that round worked well, because her song choice, An Old Christmas Card – written I think by Vaughn Horton and recorded by Jim Reeves amongst others – was perfect. Country, with a Christmas theme. And anyway, ladies like Margo – and Philomena too for that matter – can sing whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want. I’ve seen Margo sing acapella to full houses of seven or eight-hundred people and hold the room in the palm of her hands, with everyone so absolutely captivated that not only could you hear your own heartbeat, you could nearly hear that of the person next to you as well! 


Mike can carry off a Christmas tune too, because we’re so used to hearing him sing anyway, and because he’s an entertainer of immaculate talent. But a little thought from someone could have turned up a choice similar to Margo’s, something that was country in style and would also have fitted in with the Christmas theme. The same goes for Barry Kirwan, who is an absolute gent, and a really talented musician and performer. For someone who was being featured on the show in any meaningful way for the first time, to ask him to just sing any random Christmas song was terribly unfair. Barry has three great albums to his name; New Beginnings, Moments, and most recently – as in just weeks ago – Walk With Me. I’m absolutely certain there was a song of his own that would have been ideal for that segment. For a man to be as humble and open about how this year has affected his life and career, the very least he deserved was to be able to sing a song that also had some personal meaning or connection to him. If it wasn’t set in stone that everyone had to sing a Dolly or a Christmas tune, then this should easily have been possible…right? 


And then there was Trudi, which brings us back to songwriters again. Or rather the lack of Irish songwriters anywhere in these ‘specials.’ Trudi was asked to sing Rockin’Around The Christmas Tree, and as Trudi does with every song she sings, she put her heart and soul into it. An example to every young artist out there, Trudi is the ultimate professional in everything she does. Always has been, always will be. But here’s the thing…just last year Trudi released a beautiful original Christmas song written by her husband, Billy Morrissey, another terrific Irish country songwriter, called The Old Christmas Waltz. In other words, in her own song-catalogue, Trudi has a Christmas tune tailor-made for a segment like the Circle Of Friends at this time of the year. And as well as highlighting Trudi’s impeccable voice, it would have showcased an original song from an Irish country songwriter. Who could have not thought that this was a perfect scenario? And why would they think like that? 


And if you think that doesn’t matter, well then think again, and look at it like this. There were eleven songs performed last Friday night. Not even one of them was written by an Irish songwriter. Go back twelve months to the previous ‘special’, and there were sixteen songs performed over the course of the show, including two medleys and a group finale. Again, not one single song from an Irish writer was involved in that bill. In fairness to Margo, though, she did make sure to mention the great Shunie Crampsey (as she remembered to draw everyone’s attention to the late Brian Coll last week). Shunie is the man who penned another Olivia Douglas hit, I’m Off To Lisdoonvarna In The Morning. That song has over FIVE MILLION impacts on Irish radio, made up of almost 2,500 plays – that’s TWO-THOUSAND-FIVE-HUNDRED PLAYS – since its release in September 2018. That’s a fact that should matter. 


The fact that not one of twenty-seven songs performed on the last two Late Late Show Country Specials came from the pen of an Irish songwriter is something that should matter, too. 


And it does. All of this does. At least to some of us. 


But to others, clearly, not so much. 


And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly where the problem lies. 

ENDS

Eímear Noone

First Published December 2020

A BRIDGE FROM IRELAND TO THE WORLD

Part 2

It’s a rare privilege indeed to have the honour of interviewing someone who you know – without even the slightest shadow of a doubt – has already written themselves into the cultural and artistic history of your country. And make no mistake about it, Galway woman EÍMEAR NOONE, one of the world’s most esteemed, respected, and phenomenally talented conductors and composers, has done just that. And in no small way, either. 


Eímear is many things, all of them fuelled by a fierce passion, a soul that has the deep, instinctual wisdom of many lifetimes, and a creative spirit that is in constant, poetic motion. In time, when her name graces the pages of histories of Ireland, it won’t be reserved simply to the sections on culture, art, music, or entertainment, although none of those will truly be complete without acknowledging her impact on and legacy in all of those areas. 


Eímear Noone is a trailblazer. A pioneer. A leader. A teacher. A superhero who walks among us, as one of us, but as an inspiration to all of us. She is, as I pointed out when Part 1 of our chat was published back at the beginning of November, a real-life Wonder Woman. Her gift to Irish society as a whole, but especially to young girls and women of all ages, will be deep and lasting. It will, I’m sure, provide the spark that ignites passions and the self-belief and faith that weaves a fearlessness to be worn as armour around the heart for dreamers to come who will either whisper to themselves or scream at the top of their lungs: “Eímear Noone did it! So I can, too!” 


Perhaps the most brilliant of all the many brilliant things about Eímear Noone, however, is that she carries this destiny as if it were  but a feather upon her shoulder. 


Never, for a moment, believe that ridiculous myth so often rehashed that just because someone might possess a fantastic talent in some particular area, that it gives them free-license to be rude, or disrespectful, or ignorant, or arrogant in any other areas of their life. It does not. Anyone with some great talent but who is also all or any of those other things, is just an nasty human being with their talent being perhaps their one redeeming feature.


Eímear, however, from the village of Kilconnell in the land of the Tribes, perfectly balances the brilliance of her musical gifts with a generosity of spirit and a humanity so wonderful that it slays forever the myth referred to above. We’re all flawed in our own ways, but those who possess a capacity for genius that carries within it the force of a supernova, can also be human beings whose capacity to bring light, laughter, love, and kindness to others is potentially endless. And this we know in large part because Eímear Noone walks the earth, among us, and as one of us, while inspiring each of us to be more, be better, be authentic.  


Today, Part 2 of our chat begins by taking us back to 2011, when Eímear put together a St. Patrick’s Day concert in L.A. called This Is Ireland. Given the monumental amount of work that goes into putting on any ‘live’ event, I’m sure this is something she wouldn’t have done without a genuine love of her country. But Eímear has also spoken about how at the start of her career, she “couldn’t even get a chance to screw up in Ireland.” And remarkably – and somewhat disturbingly – how one lecturer in Trinity College even referred to her once as, ‘Little Miss No-One.’ If Eímear was beginning her career in Ireland today, I wondered if she thought the country had grown up enough to love her back in a far more positive way than back then? And also, did she think she would be afforded those chances – to even screw up – today? 


“Well, I’m excited to do some things at home soon. We just released a film called Two By Two: Overboard!, and we recorded the score here in Dublin, and it was just an absolute blast to do it here at home. There were players in the orchestra that I haven’t seen since music college, ya know. It was just way too much fun. It was a massive, massive dose of positivity, and I loved every second of it. And I do have some concerts coming up here that I’m excited about, but I can’t really speak about because they’re a moving target at this point [laughs]. But I see a lot of wonderful green-shoots [in Ireland]. I see a lot of old attitudes being dropped. They’re just not appropriate in 2020. And the other thing is, I’ve been very frank about these things because I feel like the younger ones coming up behind me, by me being vocal about it…it’s not a weirdness or a bitterness or anything like that. I look back on these things with a kind of curiosity at this point, because they almost feel like they’re something out of a movie. I’ve been vocal about how inappropriate those things are. When I told my brother about that lecturer saying, ‘Well if it isn’t Little Miss No-One’, my brother goes, ‘Well No-One’s perfect!’ [laughs]. And I was thinking well why weren’t you there?! [laughs]. So I can joke about it. Everything like that, I’ve always turned it into a joke or a gag, because it’s so ridiculous. I’d be initially stung by it, but then I’d go, well hang on a sec. This is just mental! So I’m vocal about it purley so that the ones coming up behind me, when they find slings and arrows coming their way, they know they can say that’s inappropriate. Or just that it’s irrelevant! I was told that I didn’t have a chance at a career because of my gender. And someone from The Irish Times asked me that recently, what would I say to a young woman who was told that today. And I said, actually, you can’t tell that to a young Irish woman today! Because there are already a few of us out there doing it. So it’s no longer relevant [to say something like that]. And that’s wonderful, where something like that is no longer relevant, or has no basis in fact. It never did have any basis in fact. Those are energy-drains to me, those kinds of things. They drain a creative person’s energy. And that’s not helpful to anybody. That’s not helpful to the audience. You want a young artist putting their energy into creating beautiful things for the audience. By draining their creative energy, that’s just a complete waste of energy on every level.” 


Eímear continued, “Now I have to say there are certain things that I love that are happening in Ireland right now. I absolutely love that the National Concert Hall has a female conductor’s program, which I’m very proud to be a part of. They have a wonderful colleague of mine, Alice Farnham, they brought her in to set up the program. I’m thrilled about that. And also, I have to say IMRO does amazing work, and Screen-Skills Ireland in terms of preparing people to work in films and video games. We have some amazing groups of people doing wonderfully positive work  here. And I’m getting to know more about that since we came home. We came home for a year so that I could do all my European tours, but also to work on that Irish animated film, Two By Two: Overboard! I became reacquainted with the industry here, especially in the world of animation in Ireland. It’s just stunning what people are coming out with, the level that they’re creating at. I feel like the attitudes in the music world are changing. I feel like we need a bigger platform to get the work of female Irish singer/songwriters out there onto the world stage. I feel like that’s an area that needs a big kick in the pants. Because you’re no longer competing in Ireland, you’re competing with the whole world. When I’m in L.A., I see my colleagues from Finland and Iceland and they have such a massive presence for their population size. But they definitely work together to build together a bridge from home to the world for their artists, in a very consolidated way, and a very targeted way. It’s absolutely amazing, the kind of penetration they have in both arts and entertainment. I feel like we have more of that in the film industry, than we do in the music industry at large. And that’s not the fault of the music industry, it’s that the music industry as a whole has been taking a massive hit since the early 2000s, so it’s a smaller industry in general for us to play in.” 

Eímear had mentioned in her answer to my previous question the people who would be coming up behind her, and that reminded me of something she had said about Oscars producers Stephaine Allain and Lynette Howell-Taylor. She said, “They’re amazing producers and when they’re having their moment in the sun, they’re reaching back to pull somebody else up – like me – and then I have my arm out for someone else, and that’s a chain of events that they’ve set in motion.” One of those for whom Eimear has reached out her arm, bringing her and her work to an even wider audience, is the incredible Irish designer, Claire Garvey. I asked Eímear to tell me about the connection she and Claire share…


“Claire and I met through a photographer friend called Frances Marshall, he specialises in photographing classical musicians. She just felt that we’d hit it off. At the time, I was sort of sick of the black jacket, I wanted to do something better. Especially for video game audiences, half the audience were showing up looking like they were going on stage! And here I was, I just didn’t feel like I was doing enough to meet the support that they were giving me. So I wanted to do something extra. And also I wanted to break out as an artist. I wanted to express who I am on the inside as well. So I met Claire, and we just hit it off instantly. She has a way of getting into my mind that is just a little bit scary [laughs]. So we’ve worked together many times over the last few years, so much so that when I got the call about the Oscars – after letting my mother know – the next person I called was Claire Garvey! I was like, ‘Claire, we’re going to the Oscars!’ [laughs]. I really felt a responsibility to her work that when I was there – because basically what Claire creates is a piece of art – and I really, really felt that I was the stick inside the piece of Claire Garvey art walking on the red-carpet [laughs]. And we had this weird moment, Claire and I. I was talking to a producer friend in L.A., and my friend said, you know what, it has to be gold, you have to wear gold. And I’d never done that before. I don’t think I’ve ever worn anything gold in real-life. But my friend said, ‘No, no, no, it has to be. It’s a symbolic moment…’, and all of this, and she convinced me. And this is the thing that Claire always does with me, she pulls me a little bit more out of my shell all the time. Classical musicians, sometimes it’s hard for us to do that because we feel so much in service to the music. So I called Claire, and I said, ‘Claire, you’re gonna think this is a mad idea, but my friend Juliette said it has to be gold.’ And Claire started laughing on the phone, and she said, ‘I can’t wait to tell my husband!’ She said, ‘I’ve started it on a mannequin in the living-room…and it’s gold!’ So she had already picked that up from the universe, which is typical Claire. I brought my aunt Marian with me for the first fitting, and my aunt just put her hand to her mouth and gasped when she saw it. Claire had outdone herself again. It was just the right person, ya know. Designers were offering me things from all over the world, but this was the right person for this moment. It wasn’t because she was Irish, it wasn’t because she was a female designer. It was because she was the right designer for this exact moment for me. When I tried on her work, I felt like I could embody that moment. I felt strength from it. I felt strong when I was wearing it. And the other thing is that we’re both influenced by Grace O’ Malley. So there was a little bit of that in there as well! [laughs]. Claire is amazing. There’s only one Claire Garvey!” 

For Warcraft, Eímear created a piece called Malach, dedicated to her son Aaron, whom she sadly lost in 2012, and she described it as being, “the epic adventure he might have had”, a most beautiful and tender way of explaining Malach and why it came to be. I wondered if her work often presented the kind of space or opportunity to put as much of herself into what she creates as Eímear did with Malach?


“Well, I think, like a lot of creative people, I work through things. Through psychologically and emotional hurdles. I work through it in music. Artists from every discipline do this. Sometimes for me, it’s the only way I can work through it. One of the things that came up recently is for the film that we just did, there’s an end title song. And writing in lockdown, and creating in lockdown, was like trying to create with weights on. It was just so hard. The negativity around this awful pandemic, to any sensitive person it was overwhelming. I found that the end-titles song, the lyrics, all of it – everything pertained to the film and the story of the film – but every single line was about the situation that we were in as well. I’ll give you an example. And I can tell you because the film is out in the UK and it’s out in Germany, we’re waiting for the cinemas to open here. We have the beautiful Sibéal Ní Chasaide singing, and Frank McNamara on piano, and we have a music video to go with it. But the chorus goes, ‘When all around us has come undone/ Our dreams on hold, and our songs unsung/ We can’t go back to what we knew/ But I stand for hope when I stand with you.’ That last line is absolutely 100% inspired by us standing on the doorstep and clapping for our frontline workers. And for us, that was extra hilarious because we were out in the middle of the countryside and the only people who could hear us clapping were the crows in the trees! [laughs]. But we did it anyway. And that’s where that line for the song came from. Even the music video for it, for the big choruses, we couldn’t get a choir together. So I said to Moe Honan, the producer – our fearless leader [laughs] – I said, ‘Listen, why don’t we have everyone who worked on the film be the choir?’ So our choir is all our animators and their families, and our director and our producers. All of us that worked on the film, we all recorded ourselves at home with our families, and our dogs, and our babies, singing the chorus of the song. Because it really is a gift from us to everybody. We all went through the wringer to get it done, because getting locked-down delayed the film by months, of course. Strangely enough, the writers captured the spirit of the zeitgeist, and there’s this unbelievable correlation between the theme of the film and what’s going on right now. It’s incredibly hopeful and uplifting. It’s kind of one of those things where this giant metaphor is unmissable in the film, but it came before the pandemic, and before all of this political turmoil and the stuff that’s going on. The political turmoil in the U.S. of course, I mean. Yeah, that’s my way of working through what’s going on. And I couldn’t believe it took me like two days to write every line of the lyric. It was just so hard to create in that time. But then, I had this song, and every time I played it on the piano, I felt like I was expressing what I was going through, what I couldn’t really find the words to describe or adequately convey what I was thinking. But I worked it out in the song. It’s called ‘Stand For Hope.’ And the theme from the chorus is throughout the movie. When we were writing the score, myself and Craig [Stuart Garfinkle], my husband, I wrote this theme we called ‘The Hope Theme.’ And we didn’t know there was going to be a song at the end, it just came out of the Hope Theme. It was a very organic process. And then we called our beautiful friend Sibéal, who we’ve worked with since she was fifteen. And of course I called Claire…that’s just a hint, that’s all I’m gonna say [laughs]. She gets dragged into everything around here. But you’ll see everything when it comes out.”

One of the things I noticed when preparing for my chat with Eímear was that she says so many things that are worth paying attention to, and giving serious thought to. Again speaking in relation to the Oscars, Eímear had said recently, “Little girls everywhere will see this and say, ‘I think I’ll do that.’ And that’s what we want.” So, I put it to Eímear that she’s obviously aware of how big a role-model she is, and that being so, I asked her how does she carry the weight of that responsibility? 


“I think if you’re in the public domain, if you’re out there in public doing what you do, you have to be aware of the repercussions of how you carry yourself. It’s not that I want to be a role-model, or that I’m looking to be a role-model, nothing like that. It’s just about [having] an awareness of how you carry yourself in the public domain. When I was growing up…and I love the expression -which isn’t mine – ‘if you can see it, you can be it.’, and that’s especially poignant for me, because when I was growing up I couldn’t see anyone who looked like me doing what I wanted to do in Ireland, in my home country. And what I didn’t know, was that she had existed! And it wasn’t even that she’d been written out of history, but she hadn’t even been acknowledged in Irish music history in the way that I think she should have been. A woman called Alicia Adélaide Needham. I posted something on Facebook when I was putting together a program of women composers, and one of my brothers teachers from Garbally College in Ballinalsoe, Johnny Johnston, said ‘Don’t forget about Alicia Adélaide Needham’, and much to my shock, I had never heard of her! I thought have I just been completely blinkered, what is this?! So I asked some other composers that I know, and none of them had heard of her either. She was the first woman to conduct at the Royal Albert Hall, and she’s from Dublin. She won a massive international composition competition, that was championed by King George. But if I want to study her work, I have to go to Oxford to get a hold of it. So, all the while that I was growing up, there she was! And when I was told that I didn’t have a chance of a career because I was young, Irish, and female, I could have said well if Alicia Adélaide Needham did it as a suffragette in the early 20th century, why on Earth wouldn’t I do it now? But I couldn’t say that, because I didn’t know she existed. And that really hits me in the heart. So being out there, and being visible, is important purely because I don’t want that to ever happen again to a young Irish girl who has this mad imagination, and this mad dream. Because if you can see it, you can be it. But also, if you’re very visible out there, it takes away the power of the naysayers as well.” 

~ The animated movie, TWO BY TWO: OVERBOARD!, from Moetion Films, and featuring Eímear’s song Stand For Hope, is out now. The official music video for Stand For Hope, performed by the magnificent SIBÉAL NÍ CHASAIDE, and showcasing yet another awe-inspiring creation from CLAIRE GARVEY, is also available to enjoy now on YouTube. 

ENDS

Joe Cooney

First Published October 2019

THE MAN BEHIND THE MIC

Hundreds of thousands of radio listeners and country music lovers around Ireland know and admire JOE COONEY as the voice of the Country Roads show on Midlands 103. And if there’s a country music event happening, then chances are Joe will be there too, up on stage holding it all together as M.C. And that’s a role he’ll be taking up once again on November 4th when the IRISH ENTERTAINMENT AWARDS take place in the Tullamore Court Hotel. 


At any event of this size – with star names such as CHARLIE McGETTIGAN, TOMMY FLEMING, FOSTER & ALLEN, MIKE DENVER and many more performing – the master of ceremonies is one of the most important roles, and needs to be in trusted hands. So what exactly does Joe’s job on nights like these entail, and how does he prepare for them? 


“Well thankfully this is something I’ve been doing for quite a number of years, so it’s pretty easy now in terms of preparation. But there’s a lot of things to do. You need to know your subject matter, which is each of the recipients of an award so that you know their history and when you introduce them you’re not bringing someone on stage who you know nothing about. That’s very, very important. So I always do my homework on everyone. I make sure I’m at the venue three, four – maybe even five hours – before the event, to make sure everything is where it should be and nothing is amiss from my point of view. There’ll be so much going on, you’ll have the sound-engineers there, the lighting guys, the band, and they’ll all deal with their own stuff, so I have no need to worry about that. But it’s important that each of them know where I am, and when I’m coming on stage during the night, who will be calling me on, who’s taking me off, little things like that which are all so important. But it’s something I love to do. And when it is, it doesn’t become a job, it becomes fun, ya know.” 

I wondered what’s Joe’s favourite part of nights like these? 


“The most important thing for me, and my favourite part of any night, is seeing the people who have paid their hard-earned money to come in, actually enjoy themselves. To see them clapping, and singing along with smiles on their faces. That, to me, more than just presenting special awards to different people – who deserve those awards, of course – is the most important part of the night. That the people who come along have a good night, and are happy, and are showing that happiness in their faces.”

Many artists have little routines that they always go through before going on stage each night, from finding a few moments to spend just by themselves, to sometimes having to do a certain few things in the same particular order. Does Joe have a routine that he tries to stick to when he’s hosting an event like the Irish Entertainment Awards? 


“Well my routine is kind of a weird one really! [laughs]. A lot of people need a few moments to compose themselves, but for me, I just go into the Green Room and mingle with the stars, and chat away with them. Because you never know, you see, you might get some new angle on someone just by talking to them. There might be something that just comes up on the night, and it becomes something that you can then add into your introduction. Or it might become a question you might put to the star on stage. So that’s what I do, I just mingle with the stars. That way, I’m familiar with everyone. I mean, I’m familiar with everyone I play anyway, of course. But you don’t actually see them that often during the year. So it’s always good and nice to go in and catch up with them, so to speak.”

The Awards on November 4th boasts a phenomenal line-up of star performers, including a few who Joe knows well, including Mike Denver, Sabrina Fallon, and Stephen Rosney and The Back Axles…


“Aah, Mike Denver in my book is one of the finest guys in the business. Lovely, friendly, down to earth, very thankful, very obliging. And definitely, as a live performer, is one of THE best I have seen in many years. And how he treats his fans is something else. He treats everyone with the same respect. From the people who play his songs, to the people who listen to his songs, to the people who go to his gigs, and every ordinary man and woman. Mike comes from a very nice family as well. Good stock! And you can’t beat good stock!” 

And Joe has great time for Sabrina Fallon as well, as he explained…


“Yeah, Sabrina and I, we’ve known each other since she started really, since she first sent in a cd and I listened to it. I’ve always liked her voice. But I didn’t know for a long time that she was related to Mike, so she’s played purely on merit, on the basis that she’s a great singer and the songs she brings out are terrific. My first involvement with Sabrina apart from playing her songs, was the song we recorded together. I found the song, ‘Stumblin’ In’, and I was looking for someone to do that duet with, and I picked Sabrina. And I’ve always been so happy that I did, because I couldn’t have picked better. And I’m looking forward to singing that on the night with Sabrina.”

Singer/songwriter Stephen Rosney and his band, the Back Axles, are also held in high regard by Joe…


“Again, I know all of these lads and girls through music. There isn’t really anybody that I would have known outside the business, except for Keith and Lorraine McDonald, I would have known their family long before I came into work on radio. But yeah, Stephen and the lads. He was playing with another band called Rsolyn, and that’s how I knew Stephen, from getting his cds sent into me and playing them. I met him one night then, it must have been at a gig somewhere, and he handed me a couple of the songs he had written himself. I played them on-air, and I’ve been playing them ever since. Stephen did the video for Sabrina and myself, for ‘Stumblin In’, too. And since then we’ve been involved in different bits and bobs together. I’d certainly use Stephen’s company, Rosney Media, when I’m doing the videos for any of my songs. And lots of people I know use them as well. Stephen is a lovely guy. All the lads in the Back Axles are lovely guys. And they have this great down to earth – I call it earthy music – bluegrassy type music. It’s so homely. It’s like sitting around a fireplace, or sitting around a camp-fire somewhere in America when you’re singing those songs. I have great respect for the lads. And especially as Stephen is a songwriter as well. Because you know what? There’s not a huge amount of songwriters. There’s lots of guys who are singing other peoples’ songs, but there are not many writers producing songs at the rate that Stephen is. And along with, of course, Derek Ryan as well. Stephen’s songs are songs of the earth. They keep you grounded.” 

In the last year or so, Joe’s music career has expanded from being the man behind the mic while presenting, to being the man behind the mic while actually performing, as a series of singles and a debut album have changed the trajectory of his musical journey…


“Well ya know, it’s kinda weird [laughs]. My mum sang when I was a kid, and I used to love singing along with her for the craic. But I never went out and sang publicly. But I decided when I reached sixty years of age that one of the things on my bucket-list was to go out and record a single. And that’s what I did with Sabrina. And ya know what? It’s a disease, and I mean that in the best possible way [laughs]. And people who know what I mean will laugh at that [laughs]. My end was always playing the artists, and listening to them, picking out good songs, always showing their best side on my show. But I’ve gone from that, to going out and recording an entire album myself, which I did about six months ago. ‘Stumblin In’ was the start of the bucket-list. Just record a single. And that one did it nicely. But once I recorded the single, I started to get a grá for it. Then I decided to do a ten-track album! And I have to say a big thank-you to Seamus Cullinane in Roseland Studios for guiding me along the way as well. I mean, what a great guy to go and record with. And with Stephen then, I’ve got videos for ‘Stumblin In’, as I mentioned, and ‘A Thousand Miles From Nowhere’, and ‘She Believes In Me’. So there’s a few videos running around out there on the internet, so there is, all produced by Stephen, and great job he’s done on them all. Look, you get the bug. I didn’t expect to get the bug! But I got the bug [laughs]. And all you want to do then is sing! It’s mad, isn’t it! [laughs].” 


Joe is a man of more than one passion, though. His wife and family are definitely at the top of the list, but after them, as well as music, cars and Liverpool FC also have very special places in the presenter’s heart…


“Yeah, I’m very much a family guy. If I had nothing else in this life, and if I died having nothing more in this life, then I’ve had everything in having my wife, our three children, out three grandchildren, and a fourth on the way! They are the rocks of my life. That’s what I build everything on. Cars, well I’ve always worked on cars since I was a young lad. I remember working as a sales-trainer/teacher with a company where I was training and developing people for four and a half years. A lovely clean job, earning good money, a briefcase, a suit, in at 9am in the morning, home at 4.30pm in the evening. And I still just had to roll up the sleeves, and get oil on my hands, and oil on my face and my hair, working and playing with cars! My latest thing now, that I’ve been doing for a few years, is I buy 1950s cars and restore them. Now if you could just see a photo of a couple that I have there, people would think that I was stone mad [laughs]. Most people say when they see them that they should be dumped. But I love it! It’s hard work, and it’s very labour intensive, but at the end when it’s done and you’re looking back on the finished products, it gives me such heart. Even if the car ends up being owned by someone else, as long as I get to drive that car and feel that I’ve made this – from start to finish – it gives you great pride.” 

And Liverpool? 


“Liverpool have been a part of my life since before I had my family, and always will be. I’m a passionate Liverpool fan. I just love the team. But I hate the way things go for them sometimes in so many situations. So many Premier League titles have gone-a-begging because of silly draws, struggling to get more goals. The one game that really broke my heart was the Crystal Palace game, where we were 3-nil up – 3-NIL UP – and we let Palace come back to draw. I think we lost the league by two points that same season. They kept pushing for more goals to get a better goal-difference, but they ended up drawing, and could even have lost in the end. You would not want to be beside me when I’m watching Liverpool play, because I go ballistic. Even my missus goes, ‘I’m going off to visit your mother, I’ll leave you alone to your battles!’ [laughs]. And that’s what it is, it’s an emotional roller-coaster, I don’t know how I don’t get a heart-attack. In fact, Will Faulkner recorded me – and I didn’t even know he was doing it – one time I was in one evening and Liverpool were playing. They were playing so bad that my language was…my language was choice! [laughs]. He recorded it and played it back with the expletives bleeped out and it was very funny. He caught me at my best! [laughs].” 

Probably hundreds of thousands of people around Ireland will know Joe as the presenter of Country Roads on Midlands 103, one of the most popular country music shows on Irish radio. Now I’ve met Joe many’s a time going into studio to present his show, and every time with armfuls of cds keeping him company for the night ahead. I asked Joe how much preparation goes into each show, because that’s something that a lot of people might not appreciate…


“Well for me, and number one, it’s very important that new artists get airplay. Now, in saying that, there is one little condition that I put on things. That’s that they can sing and that they’re single, or album, is recorded professionally. Sometimes people send stuff in, and they can sing alright, but the recording is awful. Or the other way round, the recording is brilliant, but they’re out of key, out of tune. So I won’t play those. I have to be very careful. I go through every single and album that’s sent to me, and I pick the very best of them. So even if I get in, let’s say for example, an EP of four tracks. I won’t just listen to the first one. If the first one is awful, I’ll still listen to the second and the third, ya know. I won’t be dismissive of anyone. And sometimes some of the people, the artists, who are around a long time, will send in a song that I think doesn’t suit them, so I won’t play it. I need to make sure that I put their best foot forward, so to speak. For them, and for me, and for the listeners as well. Sometimes too, people will ask me to give my honest opinion about a song, and I will. And I think I’ve only had one person who gave out about something I said. But, they did go ahead and change the way they were doing things after that and they improved a lot.”


“And it’s not just because I’m a professional”, Joe continued, “but look, I listen to all of the songs and all the singers. So who better to offer a comment as to whether something is good, bad, or indifferent, than the person who is playing them year-in, and year-out, for the past twenty years. Not all of those with Midlands 103, I started up in Dublin in 2000. So this year I’m actually twenty years in broadcasting. It’s not about insulting anyone, you never want to do that. It’s just about playing the very best of what’s sent it. So yes, there is a lot of preparation involved. Say Michael English brings out a new song, while I’ll play the bones out of that until it’s stuck in peoples’ minds and it’s branded as Michael English’s song, if you know what I mean. So what happens then for Michael, is people will say to him at a gig, oh will you play such and such a song, I heard it on Midlands 103. And that’s why they’ll ask for him to play it, because they’ve heard it. If they don’t hear it, they won’t know that any singer – be they old or new – have a new song out.”

Who, I wondered, is Joe’s own favourite country artist? If he was to do a one or two-hour special on someone, for instance, who would it be? 


“Well now…,that’s a very difficult question to answer! Because I want to be fair to everyone who’s sending me their records. But, I’m a massive fan of Mike Denver, and of Robert Mizzell, and Michael English, too. Derek Ryan, as well, Cliona Hagan, Lisa McHugh. Who would I go to to listen to as a fan? Well all of those artists. And The Back Axles, I’d sit all night and listen to those boys playing! If I was to look at this like making a cake, putting a few different ingredients in, and then making a decision as to who I thought was one of the very best in the country…I would say Mike Denver. Why would I say Mike Denver? Well let’s talk about those ingredients. There’s a lot of things. Mike is very approachable, a friendly guy. He could be away in Spain or somewhere when I play one of his songs, but a bleep will come on my phone, either from Mike or his manager, Willie Carty, to say listen, we heard you played the song there, thanks for the airplay. Now nobody has to do that, nobody. But Mike does. He’s so humble. He’s one of the biggest names in entertainment in this country, and yet, he carries himself like he’s just another ordinary guy. And I absolutely love that about him. So answering your question, it’s by adding all of those little things into the blend that I get Mike as my answer. I mean look, there’s so much competition out there. Michael English is off this planet, he’s brilliant. Robert Mizzell has that real American country voice, brilliant. Derek Ryan, in my opinion, is one of Ireland’s finest songwriters. And so can Michael English, for that matter. But Derek Ryan has album after album of self-penned tracks, and lots of other people are using his songs, too. Daniel O’ Donnell has recorded them, Michael has, Robert has, Mike has, all of these people have recorded songs Derek has written. An amazingly talented young man from Carlow. So I’d go to all of these lads. And Rosie Flanagan, there’s a local girl who is an absolutely superb singer. She had a duet out with Johnny Brady, which was gorgeous. Their voices blended so well together.”

Of the newer, and younger country artists on the scene, who has Joe been impressed by? 


“Eoin Mac, I don’t think anyone else will pass him for his vocal talent. He’s unbelievable. Well there’s lots of local talent around who have been catching my ear. There’s Colin Kenny from Banagher, there’s Alex Roe from Clara, who is starring on Glór Tíre at the moment. And it’s funny with Alex, when I first got his record in, there was one song I really liked so I kept playing it. So I said to him one day, Alex, will you send in more country songs to me, you have a great country music voice. I met him then at a fundraiser over in Banagher recently, one that I was singing at as well. Alex was on before me, and I was blown away by his Kenny Rogers, and his Merle Haggard, and his Willie Nelson songs that he was singing, songs that he hasn’t recorded yet at all. So that young man, in my opinion, he has massive potential. On the female artist side, there’s Olivia Douglas, of course, and Sabrina Fallon. Rosie Flanagan, too. Olivia is absolutely amazing. Herself and Sabrina. But they’re two different singers, but two powerful singers. And well able to get a crowd going, something that’s very important in the business. I was at another fundraiser recently – because I like to do some when I can, to give something back – and I was only meant to sing three or four songs, but they asked for one more. And that’s brilliant for a singer, to be asked to do another song. But what I loved even more was that the floor was full with people out dancing, and singing every word of the song with me. And that meant they must have been listening to the record that I released, my album. That’s the same kind of audience connection that I see with Olivia, that I see with Sabrina, with young Colin Kenny, who is a great little songwriter as well. Colin has written some songs that are very, very powerful. One of them was for Darkeness Into Light, Let’s Step Together, fabulous song.  And John Molloy is another man like that. A very talented guitar player, and a great ballad singer. There’s so many, many more out there that I could name. I love all the new people out there that are coming on board with country music, because they’re making my job easier. New people are refreshing my show all the time. There’s so many extremely passionate and talented young people, and new artists, out there. Not only making my job easier, but making it a pleasure. You have to have something new to play. I’ve never been bored in this job because of the amount of new, up-and-coming Irish talent that has kept coming along over the last twenty years. And of course, as a presenter, it’s also important for me to keep in mind the lads who trail-blazed over the years, like Larry Cunningham, Gene Stuart, Mick Flavin, Shawn Cuddy, Louise Morrissey, Susan McCann, Philomena Begley, people like that from way back in the day, but a lot of whom are still out there doing to this very day. You can’t forget them.” 


“And you know what”, concluded Joe, “I just want to give a mention to my mum, too. She’s eighty-six years of age now, her name is Patricia Cooney, but she’s known as Bernie Cooney. She sang all around the midlands years ago to keep us alive, and that’s exactly where I got my inspiration from to sing. She got the name Bernie – because she wasn’t Bernadette – years and years ago, I remember her telling me this story, when their dresses had to be down around their ankles! But Mammy wore dresses that were at her knee. This is a funny story, but it’s a fact. The dress was down to her knee, but when she’s sit down it would come up above her knee, and she got the name ‘bare-knee’! [laughs]. And that eventually became Bernie!”

~ You can tune into Joe on his show, Country Roads, every night of the week at 8pm on Midlands 103.

ENDS