Wednesday, 26 March 2014 21:36

League member meets Irish singer Daniel O’Donnell

Written by  Fiona Basile
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Catholic Women's League member, Fiona Basile,
with singer, Daniel O'Donnell.

Daniel O’Donnell is one of Ireland’s most famous singers. The 52-year-old from Donegal, first stepped on stage with his older sister Margaret’s band in 1982, ‘with an electric guitar that he couldn’t play’. More than 30 years later, he has sold 12 million albums, including half a million in Australia, and has won a string of music awards. In 2012, he made UK chart history by becoming the first artist to have at least one album feature in the UK charts each year since 1988—25 years in a row. The youngest of five children, to Francis and Julia, Daniel married his wife Majella in 2002. Daniel recently toured Australia—his 13th time to our shores—and performed in Hamer Hall. While in Melbourne, League member and Kairos Catholic Journal photographer and journalist Fiona Basile had the great pleasure of meeting Daniel. The following is an edited version of the article by Fiona, first published in Kairos (Vol. 25 Issue 4, 16 March 2014).

Many Australians have Irish roots. Do you sense a connection when you tour here?
You certainly meet people with Irish heritage but the majority of the people we meet at the shows are Australians, they’re not because of anything Irish, they just enjoy the music.

You sing in a variety of genres. Do you have a favourite?
I don’t really. I first sang in church choirs, and was brought up on Irish ballads, so that was my first connection. But they all have a place for me. Sometimes I’m singing a country song and I think, ‘God, I love this song’ and then I go on to an Irish ballad and think, ‘Isn’t this fantastic!’ I’m singing because I love to sing and I just sing songs that I really enjoy.

Who inspires you in the musical world and, more broadly, in life?
My favourite singer is American country singer Loretta Lynn; I’ve always loved her, and Charlie Pride. I’ve always enjoyed Cliff Richards’ music; I’m a fan of his and also know him well. Because of what I do, I’ve had the opportunity to meet all of them, which is unusual for a fan. I like a lot of country singers.

More broadly, I’ve met a lot of, for want of a better expression, ordinary extraordinary people—maybe not the people who are written about in the press, but people in small communities or our own community, who are fantastic. They’re people for people; they do so much.

I’m very inspired by my wife Majella [who was diagnosed with breast cancer last July]. I know she’s not the first to go through cancer, but the way she’s dealt with it is amazing.

How is Majella?
She is doing good. She wasn’t able to join me on this tour as she had her surgery now nearly three weeks ago—she had a double mastectomy. Hopefully now that is the end of the cancer journey for her, although the recovery is long. But the actual cancer, we’re hoping, is at its end.

How have your fans responded to the news of Majella’s surgery?
Amazing. The amount of people that have prayed for her and for us is staggering and very uplifting. I think it really gives you a terrific boost and the ability to cope because prayer is very powerful—we have certainly felt the effect. The good will of people is tremendous.

What impact has Majella’s illness had?
It really makes you realise how fragile life is. In the middle of Majella’s treatment, her father died very suddenly—in October last year. And all of this I suppose has made us realise that the future can be very short. We hope it’s not going to be short for us. We all tend to look way into the distance and say, ‘We’ll do that when we have time to do it, or we must do that down the track’, and really and truly, you need to live for the moment.

You grew up in an Irish village. How has this experience influenced your life?
It certainly influenced how I deal with people. It was a small rural area where people were the most important thing. Everybody knew everybody—everybody still does! People just walked around house to house randomly; there were no big announcements. The people at home haven’t been affected by my success or with what I’m doing—it hasn’t affected how they relate to me and that’s a very positive thing.

You have a strong sense of faith; where does this come from?
I was brought up in an Irish Catholic family and I still get great solace in going to Mass. I generally only go on the weekends because we travel so much, but I get a lot out of it. The Mass is important for me; I feel connected with it.

I think if you have faith, you really do turn to it in difficult times. Sometimes it is very hard to pray for yourself but I have realised, since Majella got sick, that’s why we pray for others—because it’s difficult for them in their time of difficulty, to pray for themselves. At those times, we can pray for others. Being able to believe somehow that this will be worked out, gives great solace.

Has your musical career affected or impacted your faith in any way?
I suppose through my work I encounter people all the time that impress me. Only a few days ago, we had an email from a doctor in a hospital in Adelaide, about a man that was in palliative care who had tickets for the show, and who couldn’t come. When I went to see the man, I didn’t meet the doctor, but the man was absolutely thrilled that I visited. It impressed me so much that this doctor went beyond what she was supposed to do. By chance, she happened to be at the show last night and I met her. She was a young girl, and she happened to be Irish, but I just thought, ‘There are so many good people’. If I wasn’t doing what I’m doing, I would not encounter a lot of the goodness that I get the opportunity to meet with. Being Christian is fantastic, but I’m not shut out to all the goodness that’s in all different faiths; I think faith is how we relate to one another.

When you first performed on stage with that electric guitar that you ‘couldn’t play’, did you ever imagine you’d be so successful?
I don’t think that I could have ever anticipated really what the future had in stall for me. I started singing because I loved it; I just loved singing. I felt fulfilled I suppose in a way and better when I was singing. But I didn’t have a plan.

How does it feel when you’re on stage?
I feel a great connection with the audience. I feel that it’s us, not me and them. I am singing for them, but we’re enjoying it together. I feel too very lucky that they feel a connection with it.

You have supported several philanthropic causes. Can you tell me about any of those?
I have been involved in a lot of things for a short period, but the main thing was the Romanian Challenge Appeal, helping with an orphanage in Siret in the north-eastern part of Romania, on the Ukraine border.

Two years ago, I was also involved in Relay for Life—a neighbour of mine who had cancer asked me if I could take part in the relay which was taking place in Donegal. I was going to be home on holidays at the time so I said yes. She wanted a theme song as well so that was one of the few songs that I actually wrote with a theme in mind. I was wandering to bed one night and all of a sudden I had these words come into my head, and I remember Majella said, ‘what are you doing?’ and I says, ‘I’m writing a song for Relay for Life’.  I finished the song with a friend of mine; it’s called I’ll See This Journey Through. The song was for survivors and carers of people who have cancer.  It’s amazing that a year later, it would be Majella, and I suppose, my journey, as well.

Do you often write your own songs?
I do write a little, but not enough—I’ve written about 20 songs in my career. I didn’t start writing until about 2000 or so. Sometimes I write with friends of mine—we sit down and just start talking about things. One of you might have an idea or a line of a song, and from there it begins.

Are any other family members involved with music?
Yes, my sister Margaret still sings—not an awful lot—but she’s been singing for 50 years this year. Actually, they all sing, but Margaret is the only other one who’s made a career out of it. I have a young nephew who seems to be doing a bit of singing—he’s a very good singer.

What are you most grateful for?
I’m grateful that I’ve had a lot of happiness. And this is strange, I suppose, considering what we’ve dealt with in the past number of months, but we’ve been very fortunate; we haven’t had a lot of struggles. Some people have so many difficult things to deal with. I’m grateful that I met Majella, that we have the life that we have. Just generally, I have been fortunate. My father died young, my mother was a great woman, she was able to manage. Where there have been negatives, there have always been positives.

What is ahead for the coming year?
When Majella got sick, I thought we should cancel everything. But she said, ‘No we need to continue’, and the doctor advised us to try to keep things as normal as we could, and to live life to the full. Our normal is very different to other couples—with the fact that I travel so much—but we continued and I have done all the shows and we’ll hopefully continue until next February. Then we’re going to take a break for about 18 months; we’re not going to do any touring. We’re hopeful that Majella is going to be fine, but we certainly don’t want to get to any point in our life and say, ‘you know, we should have taken the time to do such and such’.