In the latest of our occasional Eurovision history series, Phil ponders the 'Irish Question' - or how Ireland lost the knack of Eurovision. Forget the Brexit backstop, the UK’s nearest neighbour has a more pressing problem to solve. How to re-establish itself at the Eurovision top table.
What's another win for Ireland?
It all used to be so easy for the self-styled Home of Eurovision. They turned up, sang something vaguely Celtic and the votes flooded in. That certainly was the case in the late 90’s when the Irish enjoyed four victories (92,93,94 and 96). The whole Eurovision world went Irish mad. They had only to turn up and sing any old rubbish (yes Eimear, I’m looking at you!) and the juries stumped up points.
An 18-year-old in his bedroom back in 1996, pondered out loud: "If Ireland win in the next five years, it’ll be too soon". Sadly, I can’t take credit for the subsequent crash and burn. RTE and the rest of 'Europe' helped. The slow and painful Irish Eurovision decline started after a what was then traditional host-country runner up placing in 1997.
Dawn did OK in 1998. The Mullans were decidedly average. Eammon Toal came across as smugger than a smug thing, as he sang about starving kids with one eye firmly fixed on the after-show buffet. (There's a longer version of this story that I can’t tell here, but if ever we're in the same Eurovision venue at some time, buy me a pint).
It is a sad indictment, though, if you consider that Eammon was arguably the zenith of post-Celtic Eurovision. His sixth place in 2000 remains the best that Ireland has managed this century.
A roller coaster with no ups!
What followed for the next eighteen years has been a catalogue of failure ... matched only by the UK, Spain and San Marino. I’m not sure how Gary O'Shaughnessy won the 2001 Eurosong, but he did. When he made the big show, he did a fair impersonation of a log. Five of his six points came from the UK (this was when we still loved the Irish). This relegated Ireland for 2002. RTE went away for the first of their rethinks.
They came back with You’re a Star - a "talent" show. The idea being to find the best new Irish singer and give them vital national exposure before sending them on an international voyage to win back the Eurovision crown.
Sadly when your first three winners turned out to be Mickey Joe (wooden) Hart, Chris (it was the ear monitor not me), the odds were stacked. The results went from bad to worse.
And then came three minutes of madness that I shall forever refer to as the Ginger and the Dyke moment. RTE managed to make the Irish entry a parody of itself. They even chucked in a bit of Riverdancing just in case that helped.
Ireland had gone two whole years without being in the final.
Every Irish song is a cry for points
RTE took things in house giving the job to established crooner Brian Kennedy. It was a move that appeared to resurrect their fortune. He made the final and ended the night in tenth place. Musically, Ireland went back to bland, but it worked for them.
Next, they picked Dervish and presented the public with four identical-sounding songs. There followed a national gnashing of teeth when just four points came their way in Helsinki.
Back in the semi-finals, RTE imploded and chose a song that had been hawked around Europe (even Slovenia said no). Then came Marc Roberts, back from the Shores of Araby after eleven years.
All that was remained was Dustin the Turkey.
Dustin was famous in Ireland for parody and comedy, and when the team behind this creation entered Eurosong, they made it clear they were playing things for laughs. The song walked (well wheeled) its way into the contest but, as most parody songs do in the Eurovision, it fell flat on it’s feather-covered arse.
Ireland was hemorrhaging money. RTE was under severe financial pressure and so in 2009 they went back to The Late Late Show as a vehicle for their so-called national final. A decision they stuck with for seven years of mediocrity.
The highlight of this era was, arguably, when Jedward ruled the waves. The boys can sing, but are stuck with having to be Jedward all the time. For many, the act proved too much to bear, although "Lipstick" was a pure ear-worm and finished eighth.
RTE went through a gamut of ideas, from fans collaborating to write songs for old Eurovision winners, though to fans writing songs for non-eurovision winners. At one point, Eurovision royalty Linda Martin had a stand up row for the viewers. One year, the national selection scoreboard failed and couldn't count up to 100.
Nicky Byrne from Westlife had already given up on the song before he appeared on The Late Late Show. His excuses were pre-packed before he boarded his plane in Dublin.
Brendan Murray was wee Louis Walsh’s attempt to prove to everyone that he can get an act to win Eurovision. He failed.
The only accidental light was this year's Ryan O'Shaughnessy who finally got Ireland to the final … only to finish 16th.
So then, Ireland ...
On the face of it, RTE has done everything to try and find a way forward, but is that really true?
The broadcaster has both the Eurovision skills and access to a pool of talent to make the Irish viewing public fall back in love with the contest. And yet for a few years, they aped the BBC and blamed everyone but themselves for failure without addressing the most basic of concepts. The songs were woeful. It wasn't down to the performers or formulaic staging. Whoever picked the entries wasn't moving with the times. RTE was trying to win contests it had already won back in the 90s.
I suspect that the Irish team fell into the trap of "we can enter virtually anything and get votes".
The contest has moved on. RTE needs to get out a rut and start looking for actual talent. Not Eurovision-winning talent. Get together a team of people who know how to source decent songs that fulfill the Green Guide voting criteria for juries (as well as having a popular ring).
This time around they claim to be: "inviting songwriters and performers, who have a proven track record of success in the music industry, to submit a song to be considered to represent Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest next May."
You win the Eurovision Song Contest by bothering. And not by feeling as though the contest is a national obligation.
It’s not hard, but without changing their approach, the Irish will still be here in tne years wondering what happened.