IT’S proved a contentious year for the annual glam extravaganza that is Eurovision.
Following Israel’s win by Netta Barzilai last year, it was decided that the 2019 event would take place in its capital, Tel Aviv.
However, Palestinian activists who support a BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement in response to Israel’s human rights record called for countries to boycott this year’s Eurovision, which begins with the first semi-final tomorrow.
In Ireland, a petition of 16,500 signatures was handed in to RTÉ, asking the Irish state broadcaster not to participate; high-profile supporters of the ‘Boycott Eurovision’ campaign in this country include former contest winner Charlie McGettigan, Christy Moore and Senator Frances Black.
However, RTÉ have decided to go ahead with their involvement. and the Irish entry, Co Clare’s Sarah McTernan, singing the song 22, is set to perform in the second semi-final in Tel Aviv on Thursday.
But the ‘Boycott Eurovision’ campaign is still arguing that viewers shouldn’t tune in to the event.
One Cork Eurovision superfan who won’t be switching on has come up with a fun way for fans to celebrate: DJ, musician and events organiser Caoilian Sherlock has decided to host his own Eurovision with a difference — a karaoke representing the best of the annual song competition down through the years, held at the same time that the Eurovision is set to be screened on RTÉ.
The proceeds from Caoilian’s event will go to a charity that is equipping a gym in Palestine’s West Bank.
“I want to celebrate the Eurovision, because I really love it, and I know a lot of people who do, but also have their problems with it being hosted in Israel,” he says. “I wanted to make an alternative, fun night but to be able to respect the boycott.”
Musician Caoilian, who is the frontman with Cork indie rockers The Shaker Hymn, as well as performing solo under the name St Caoilian, has always loved the Eurovision.
“We grew up watching it like a movie as kids,” he says. “We’d have popcorn and my mam and all her friends who had kids would put us all in together to watch it and we’d put a euro on the entry we wanted to win. It was a really big deal.”
But at the same time, growing up on Cork’s northside, he says he was always politically aware and has always had objections to the worsening living conditions of people in the Palestinian territories, including the Gaza strip, who live with a blockade by Israel that restricts access to basic medical supplies, electricity and running water in one of the most densely populated areas on the planet.
“Personally, since I’ve been alive I’ve found it difficult to watch the situation in Palestine, purely on a human level, without thinking, this is wrong and I must find a way to help,” says Caoilian.
“If you’re not bothered about it, that’s fine: If you want to say, ‘I don’t care about politics and what’s happening in the world and I want to watch the Eurovision’, that’s up to you.
“But just turning off would be a bit boring: the Eurovision gives you scope to do a mental amount of things. If you’re not going to do something gas with the opportunity, you’re missing out.”
As a musician himself, what does he make of the argument that Eurovision is not a political event and that music and politics shouldn’t be combined?
“Unfortunately, that’s just not true,” he says. “You’d have to stop listening to basically half of all music if that were true. I mean, poor Bob Dylan.”
“Artists aren’t deciding to mix art and politics, governments are. Every country tries to spread their own culture to their own benefit. Ireland does: We export Irish musicians in the hopes that we’ll look good for tourism and foreign investment.
“These things are policy, of the Irish government and every government. So there’s no way that culture and politics aren’t going to mix when it’s government policy: if that’s what you think, you’re putting your head in the sand.”
Some of those supporting Ireland’s Eurovision entry this year have reminded boycott supporters that Israel has hosted the Eurovision twice before, in 1979 and 1999, both times in the far more contentious city of Jerusalem, which is coveted as a capital by both sides in the long-standing Israel-Palestine conflict.
But boycott supporters including Caoilian say the situation has worsened immeasurably for Palestinian people in recent years; within the past year alone, since Gazans have held a series of protests at the Israeli border wall, the United Nations estimates that 29,000 Palestinians have been injured and nearly 200 killed.
The day of Netta Barzilai’s Eurovision win last year coincided with 60 Gazan protesters being shot and killed, one of the bloodiest days of violence in a month where 6,000 were wounded or killed.
Caoilian, who has also lent musical support to the Repeal the 8th campaign and has worked with inmates of Cork’s Direct Provision Centres, says Cork people have a uniquely vibrant way of supporting the causes they agree with.
“One of my favourite things about Irish activism is how fun it often is,” he says. “You go on marches and the banners are witty; that was a great thing about the Marches for Choice, how fun the fundraisers were, even though they’re about really serious things. The Eurovision is no different.”
For those expecting a normal karaoke night at A Song For Palestine, though, they might be surprised by the quality of the entries. Many musicians are set to take part, with two members of Cork band Pale Rivers set to tackle Rock n Roll Kids, the 1994 Irish winning entry, while a Dublin singer-songwriter is coming all the way down especially to perform Euphoria, the Swedish entry from 2012. Then there is the Riverdance-style interval act.
Caoilian’s own contribution is a little on the obscure side. He laughs: “My favourite Eurovision song is a Dutch entry from 1975 called Ding-a-Dong. It’s so stupid that I love it, so I’m going to try to do that. We had a great Irish Eurovision past, but we have so many people who aren’t from Ireland now, so hopefully we’ll get weird entries that we’ve never heard about.
“I’m reaching out to people who come from other countries who live in Cork too. Everybody’s welcome.”
A Song For Palestine: Eurovision Karaoke Competition is on in Plug’d, upstairs at The Roundy bar, on Saturday, May 18 at 8pm. Donations on the door.