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19 May 2022

Eurovision special - it's all about the song

BRENDAN GRAHAM

Successful songwriter Brendan Graham

We're now just  a week away from the moment when all of Ireland's  Eurovision dreams will either fade quietly into obscurity for another twelve months, or possibly bloom gloriously in a way that writes the name  Brooke Scullion  into our history books forevermore. The hopes of a nation rest on the Derry girl's shoulders as we await Ireland's turn to step into the international spotlight during the second semi-final next Thursday, May 12th. A few weeks back when Brooke won the National Song Contest, OTRT confidently proclaimed that - at last - after years of depending on luck and the whim of the hand of fate, we finally had a song in  That's Rich and a performer in Brooke who had a real chance of leading us to our eighth Eurovision title. 

But...the one thing that worries me now is how the song's presentation has been 'revamped' by those who apparently 'know' what Eurovision needs. When Brooke performed the song on The Late Late Show last week, she could hardly have been more clear in stating that it wasn't her idea to lose her backing dancers. This decision, in my opinion, serves neither the song nor Brooke, and is a big mistake. A huge part of the song's appeal when it won it won the right to represent Ireland at Eurovision was the energy between Brooke and her dancers, and what that in turn added to the song. Without going all the way back to the era of the Spice Girls about it, the presence of her backing dancers and how they and Brooke worked together brought a certain 'girl-power' vibe to the performance. That wasn't there on The Late Late Show last week, and if it's not going to be there in the semi-final either, then someone somewhere has made a decision that will actually lessen Brooke's chances of making it to the Grand Final on Saturday, May 14th. 

Thankfully for Ireland, Brooke has talent to burn, as the saying goes, and a personality that will illuminate one of the biggest stages and occasions in the world of entertainment. No matter what happens, she'll do us proud during her time in Turin. 

Should Brooke take home the crown, she'll be following in the footsteps of a man who has walked that path himself, and not once, but twice. Back in 1994,  Brendan Graham's beautiful  Rock 'n Roll Kids, performed by Charlie McGettigan and Paul Harrington, gave Ireland her sixth Eurovision #1. It followed Dana with  All Kinds of Everything (Derry Lindsay, Jackie Smith)  in 1970, Johnny Logan with  What's Another Year (Shay Healy)  in 1980, and Johnny again with  Hold Me Now (Sean Sherrard aka Johnny Logan)  in 1987, Linda Martin with  Why Me? (Johnny Logan)  in 1992, and Niamh Kavanagh with  In Your Eyes  (Jimmy Walsh)  a year later. Then, in 1996, Brendan repeated his victory when Eimear Quinn conquered Europe with  The Voice.

Just over a year ago, OTRT had the pleasure of sitting down for a chat with Brendan on the occasion of the release of his song  Lullaby for the World  by The Mahers. But given Brendan's remarkable place in Irish and international music - he has also, let us not forget, penned the lyrics to Westlife's huge hit,  You Raise Me Up, a song that has been covered more than 1,400 times, and by artists including Josh Groban, Aled Jones, and Celtic Woman - there was so much more to talk about as well. Including, of course, his memories of those very special nights in 1994 and 1996. This week, with Eurovision 2022 almost upon us, we're delighted to share some more from that chat with Brendan...

"I actually don't do many interviews",  revealed Brendan,  "and that's on purpose because I like to let the songs speak for themselves. The people who need to find me and who look for songs, will get me anyway. So,  I don't have an online presence. I remember Louis Walsh going on The Late Late once - and we didn't have a telly at the time – so,  I think it was  Fr.  Brian D'Arcy who rang me to say, 'Did you see Louis Walsh on The Late Late?', and I said  ‘no’,  and Brian said, 'He's trying to find out where you are to let you know that your song is going to be #1 in Britain next week!'  It also makes it simple for me to get on with things. I can go out and about and live life and sure nobody knows who I am. As long as they know the songs...and if they say, well that's a Westlife song, or a Josh Groban song, or a Seán Keane song, I'm happy enough with that because that's the way things work. I like the focus to be on the artist rather than on me."

Before we got on to the subject of Eurovision, I wanted to ask Brendan about his songwriting and its process. 

Brendan's song  Crucán na bPáiste  was written about a burial ground for unbaptised children near his Mayo home. And I couldn't help but wonder if, in writing a song like that - because of the subject matter - there was an added emotional weight in what he was trying to create, one that might have presented some different challenges than those usually encountered when writing a song? 

"Songs are different. Some songs you sit down to write. And then there are songs, if you like, that you're called to write. 'Crucán na bPáiste' was one of those  latter  ones that I felt summoned to write. I think that the special songs find us, we don't find them. I had set a lot of my first book for Harper-Collins, 'The Whitest Flower', around the area where I live in Mayo, which includes the area of Crucán na bPáiste and Maumtrasna. I'd go up to that area to sit on the rocks and just think, and soak up the stories and history buried in the valleys and the streams. [With] Crucán na bPáiste, I began to think about how it's in this extraordinarily beautiful place up high, and there's only boulders that mark the graves. And I just wondered what would it be like for the parents burying those children, who would not see the beauty that I was seeing. That started me thinking. The place became a kind of a claw on my gut. I knew the song had to be written in Irish to be true to the time and its geography - it's in a  Gaeltacht area. And around that time, I think it was just before that, I'd gone back to do a ten-week course in Irish at Gael Linn, myself and Bill Whelan went. And we were all put to shame by the best person in the class who was a young Japanese student who was working with one of the government departments. So, all of the timings came right together. Crucán became kind of a pilgrimage to me, I had to go there. Bit by bit, the song kind of spoke itself, and then I was set free of it, and it had found its voice. I learned an important lesson, which is to keep out of the way and let the song write itself. The way I looked on that one, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and something that often I don't fully understand is given voice and is heard. It's a special song. I placed the melody around a traditional melody and then took the liberty of adding some of my own music to it. It has seemed to connect with people, even people who don't understand Irish, they get the feeling from it. That's down to the fantastic artists who have recorded it, like Karen Matheson, Cathy Jordan, Eimear Quinn and others who understand the song and bring the emotion out of it. It's a very special song to me, and one of only two that I've written as Gaelige. And it's special because the place is special." 

And of course, I couldn't talk to Brendan without asking him about those most special nights in 1994 and 1996. What do those moments actually feel like? To be right there, at the centre of the storm, when history is being made in front of your eyes and out of your very own life in so many ways? 

"I was thinking about this, because 'The Voice' was twenty-five  years ago this year (in 2021 when we spoke), and with time you kind of forget the trepidation of the votes coming in, and the exhilaration when they do come in! So,  casting my mind back,  it was absolutely magnificent. I had been trying for three years to get 'Rock 'n' Roll Kids' into the National Song Contest, and I was dogged about it until it got in. I actually decided on the night of the Eurovision at the Point not to go into the Green Room. I wanted to sit out front  with the family  and see the two lads come out and perform my song, and get the feeling that the audience was getting. And I also wanted to see Bill's 'Riverdance', he had invited me to go into rehearsals and I said no, I'd wait for that night. He was about seven rows in front of me and when the boys did the song he turned around and gave me the thumbs-up. Then,  when 'Riverdance' came out and blew us all away, I was holding all my thumbs up [for him]! It was wonderful. And then to see the crowd reacting, and our  President, and our  Taoiseach, and all of the people...it was a huge moment of just sheer joy.  There was  also, a sense of having represented your country, and that you'd  done  well for it. The other factor was that with 'Rock 'n' Roll Kids', the song was presented exactly as I had envisaged it. I didn't want an orchestra, I didn't want anything interfering with the interaction between Paul and Charlie and the storytelling. I wanted it small. God and his mother were telling me  ‘oh no, you need to use the orchestra, you need a string-quartet, you need this  n’ that’... But I was probably old enough and dogged enough at the time to say  ‘no, trust me, it's gonna work’.  And that was tough on the boys. They had nothing around them. But that created the vulnerability and it allowed them to interact. They were magnificent.  " 

As Brendan mentioned that he had played competitive sports into his forties, I wondered if winning Eurovision twice - given his competitive nature in a sports sense - brought with it any extra or added sense of joy? 

"You get the song right. You start from the bottom. It's all about the song. Then you get the right artist. Sometimes, we're sending songs with...not the right artist for that song, if you know what I mean? But at the time, RTE were actually very good and open about how I wanted the songs to be presented, even down to what people wore on stage. It was very much a team-effort. So I wasn't 'just the songwriter' and out to the side. That was interesting for me to see. I also think that we've moved away from that notion of getting the right song, and it's all about other stuff now. Which is a pity. But I wasn't thinking about winning it twice or anything like that. I was thinking make it as good as it possibly can be. Give Eimear all the support that I can, and then I have to sit on the sidelines and she and the band had to carry it. But I think I got into a little bit of trouble with The Late Late at the time, because myself and my wife had decided that win, lose, or draw, we were going to go way up to the most isolated part of Norway that we could find! And of course, we won! Then we got home - the Irish delegation - and people were saying well where's the songwriter? I was in a fisherman's cabin that was on long-stilts, that sat in the water, looking at the twenty-four hour sun dip and come back up again [laughs]. I wasn't being dismissive or anything, we had just decided that was what we were going to do." 

In doing my research for my chat with Brendan, I came across a remarkable story relating to a Mr. W.G. Whelan. There was a message left on Facebook - on an article about Brendan - by a chap from the theatre in Nenagh letting Brendan know that a lady had found a diary belonging to a gentleman whom they believed to have been a relative of his. The aforementioned W.G. Whelan had fought in WW1. I wondered if indeed, he had turned out to be a relative of Brendan's? 

"The answer is I don't know. I probably dropped the ball there. But I am interested in genealogy and the family history. My maternal grandfather from Nenagh used to write for the Nenagh Guardian, and he wrote this headline once that totally mortified my mother and my aunts, saying 'The Whelan Millions', and he had a line drawn back to connect our Whelan's to the Tsar of Russia [laughs]. Somehow! James Whelan was his name. But there is an interesting story on the other side. My father's father was a judge at the Olympic Games finals in London in 1908, and he judged the sprints and the high-jumps and so on, and I didn't know that until a few years ago when my aunt, who passed away, left me - out of the blue - this Olympic judges medal. I couldn't believe it. And I found the official record of those Olympics, and there he was with his name for 100M and 200M finals, and hurdles and all that sort of thing. And [here's] an even more extraordinary thing",  Brendan continued...

"My wife's maiden name is O' Brien, she's from Mayo. RTE had this  Big  Music  Week event  in 2013,  and  they asked me would I write the song,  a kind  of  anthem for it. So,  I was wondering what would I write, because they had choirs, pop singers, country singers, rap singers, traditional, every kind of singer. I thought well I can't really write a song that pulls in everyone for half a line.  At the time, Ireland was going through a rough time, so I thought I'd write a love song to Ireland, and I called it 'The Fair, Fair Land.' I had an idea for it, and I had a melody which was good, and I probably could have worked it up. Then the Chieftains had recorded a song of mine, 'Lullaby for the Dead', and they were premiering it with the Symphony Orchestra in the  National Concert Hall and Paddy (Moloney) invited me along, and I was delighted to hear it get its first performance  in that manner.  Before all that,  the Chieftains on their  own played this tune.  It was beautiful and  as soon as I heard it, I thought, it would be so right for what I  was  working on. I went backstage and checked  with them if  it was a traditional air. It was and    they were calling 'Dóchas.'  I thought I'd make sure it was  out of copyright, so I went to the Traditional  Music  Archive and they said the  tune’s  proper name  was 'Amhrán an  Dóchais.

And quite amazingly, Brendan discovered that it had been a runner to be the national anthem back in the 1900s. It had Irish words put to it by an Irish scholar. But that was far from where the story ended, as Brendan went on to reveal...

"But then I looked it up further, and found out that the melody was older and came from the  mid-1800s and was played by a Scottish piper down in  Coolfree in the  Cloyne  area. And it was called  Mór Chluana, 'Mor  of Cloyne', about a queen who had this wonderful singing voice, so much so that she was kidnapped by the fairies. And the name  attributed to it  was  Lewis  O' Brien.  I asked my wife did she have any musicians in the family  and she said  ‘no’. But about a year later, an O’Brien  cousin  of my wife  was over from Scotland, and 'Did  you  know', she says, 'I found out that our family came from Scotland, and one of them was a piper  who settled in Coolfree in the mid-1800’s?' So the air that I had stumbled upon, that the Chieftains were playing, was collected in 1862 from  Lewis  O' Brien, who was the great-great-great  grandfather of my wife! He had moved up to the Mayo-Galway area at some stage, we don't know why. I thought that was some sort of a sign. Eventually we did the song, and that had its debut on The Late Late. I wanted four female Irish voices to represent the different  ‘voices’  of Ireland.    Marianne Knight, a fabulous traditional singer from Mayo, opened  with the first verse. Then, Eimear  Quinn was the other-worldly voice of the spéir-bhean. Nono Madolo,  newly in Ireland    from Africa,  sang  a verse in Irish to  demonstrate  the  potential of the richness of  transition between  different  cultures.  Then,  the incredibly talented Celine Byrne  brought it all to a stunning finale, giving   it that stately anthemic feel along with the RTE Concert Orchestra and guests. And all to raise funds for Barnardos Childrens' Charity.

I have been truly blessed by the songs that have been gifted to me over the last 50 years or so and by the very many wonderful singers, musicians and arrangers, who have given of their own talent in breathing them into a life…more than they could have been on their own.  To them all  –  buíochas mór  óm’ chroí."

~  Brooke Scullion will perform  That's Rich, Ireland's Eurovision2022 entry, in the second semi-final which takes place on Thursday, May 12. Show your support for Brooke by following her on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter! 

 

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