THE Irish don’t do smugness as a rule, but it’s fair to say there was a fair amount of immodesty around the last time this country won the Eurovision Song Contest.
Eimear Quinn had just won a record seventh crown for Ireland — and a fourth in five years — in 1996, and there was almost a weary nonchalance as the nation’s commentators greeted yet another triumph, in the way Rudolph Valentino might record anther conquest by yawning and marking a new notch on the bedpost.
‘What, this old trinket?” we sighed collectively as another fabulous singer returned to our shores laden with bouquets, the acclaim of all of Europe ringing in their ears.
The day after that 1996 triumph, one writer referred to the Eurovision Song Contest as ‘Eirevision’, while another had barely congratulated the delightful Miss Quinn before adding the rider that “RTÉ will yet again carry the can for the extravagant TV show next year”.
Ah, yes. The price of hosting the event was a regular thorn in the broadcaster’s side in the 1990s, and there was a serious element to it. One pundit speculated that RTÉ would have to stump up almost half the £2.5million cost of staging the 1997 song contest — having itself lost £2.5million the previous year.
Plus ça change: I wonder if Cork’s RTÉ director general, Dee Forbes, will be hiding behind her sofa when next week’s Eurovision takes place, given the perilous state of the station’s finances?
But let’s rewind again to 1996, and the decade when Ireland won more Eurovisions than Cork’s men won All-Irelands — 4-3, in case you were wondering.
One Dublin MEP, Labour’s Bernie Malone, came over all republican and generously suggested the honour of hosting the 1997 event should go to Belfast or Derry, as a symbolic gesture of peace — remember, this was a full year before the IRA’s final ceasefire.
However, RTÉ swiftly poured cold water on such an idea, on the hard-to-contest grounds that the UK didn’t win the 1996 contest.
There was also a fair bit of false modesty in the air after Quinn’s win, with the Examiner remarking that the novelty of winning the contest had waned, and that its formula had grown weary over the years.
You mean the formula of Ireland always winning?
The old Gary Lineker joke goes that “football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”
The musical version used to go: “Eurovision is a simple game. 30-odd people sing and at the end, the Irish always win.”
Whatever the waning and weary feeling around Eurovision was back in 1996, it can’t be disputed that the contest is now bigger and better and more popular than ever before — bear in mind that 180 million will be tuning in when the 2021 final takes place next Saturday night. But the problem is, Ireland has stopped winning... and the way things are going, it will be a long time before we win again...
Apologies for reminding you of a time when Irish singers ruled the roost, I wasn’t coming over all Reeling In The Years for nostalgic reasons; more to make a point.
You see, that last Eurovision success in 1996 happened 25 years ago on Tuesday. And on that very day, Ireland will launch its latest quest to win that elusive eighth title, when Lesley Roy sings her self-penned song, Maps, in the first semi-final in Rotterdam.
And I really wish I could give you a line here about hope and history rhyming, and Ireland having a great chance of success.
But I’d be lying.
Have a listen to it online, and see what you think. Even those flag-waving Eurovision fans who hear it with green-tinted headphones will have to agree that our 2021 entry is, um, average.
It tries, it really does, I don‘t want to sound like a party-pooper. The chorus is reasonably ear-wormy and Lesley, of Balbriggan, gives it her all.
But when I heard it, then heard it a second time — a luxury not afforded most Eurovision songs — I’m afraid I couldn’t envisage a triumphant return to Dublin Airport with bouquets.
In fact, I fear the worst — that Ireland’s dismal recent run at Eurovision will extend to yet another failure to get out of the semi-finals and miss out on the Saturday night jamboree.
Since 2007, Ireland has only reached the final five times — and of those, only one, Jedward in 2011, has cracked the top ten.
What has happened? Has Europe fallen out of love with us?
What has happened is that Ireland has simply lost (or never had?) the ability to produce the type of upbeat, catchy tune that will strike a chord with the young people of the continent, who love to throw a Eurovision party and will vote online in their millions.
We have stopped sending good tunes to the contest. The only ones in that category I can recall this century were Brian Kennedy’s Every Song Is A Cry For Love and Mickey Harte’s We’ve Got The World. Neither was winning material, but at least they packed a punch.
Do you want to hear a fine Eurovision song? Check out Malta’s entry, which is the last of the 16 in the semi-final on Tuesday (Ireland are performing 7th).
The song is called Je Me Casse (don’t worry, it’s in English, you won’t need to swot up on your dodgy French) by Destiny, and captures the zeitgeist, being about a sassy woman rejecting a man’s unwelcome advances.
It’s funky and catchy, and my tip to win, even though the favourite is Voilá by Barbara Pravi of France (and, yes, sung in French), who pre-qualify for the final. The song is classy and sophisticated but a bit miserable and I think, after a year locked down, Europe will want to shake its tail feathers.
As for Ireland... I just cannot see us making the final. I hope I’m wrong.
Those ‘Eirevision’ days seem a long way away.