One Saturday night in 1980 my mother woke me out of a deep sleep and brought me downstairs to see Johnny Logan win Eurovision, telling me I had to see it happen 'in case we never win again'.
Before you laugh, think of the people who will never forget seeing their first World Cup final, or Olympic medal winning race. This was our World Cup and the little Eurofan who wiped the sleep from her eyes that night has never lost interest in the contest.
What’s not to love, after all? Eurovision is fun, it’s loud, it’s family entertainment that, in the age of streaming and recorded TV, has to be watched live. You can hand out scorecards to up the ante and stick money in a pot to make it more interesting still. And social media has added yet another dimension – now you can share your opinion on dancing Grannies and ethno-pop mashups with viewers all over the globe.
My mother was wrong, of course. We did win it again. In fact, there was a period in the 1990s when, in the words of presenter Mary Kennedy the contest pretty much became the annual Eurovision Song Contest of Ireland. And do you know what? It was great. Ireland didn’t win much, back in those days. Sure, we had a blast at the Euros and Italia ‘90 but despite the amazing footage on Reelin’ in the Years, we didn’t actually win those contests. But the Eurovision turned out to be something we were really good at. We sent decent songs, other countries liked us, we sailed through. And Eurovision seemed to matter more in the 80s and 90s too, the winning songs got decent airplay and often charted in countries other than their own – anyone for a few bars of ‘A Little Peace’, by Nicole?
"Jedward were a reminder that Eurovison is fun, and a great night’s entertainment"
Irish Eurofever reached its peak in 1994 when we essentially won twice in one night, with Riverdance and Rock ‘n Roll kids. Much has been written about that night, and Riverdance has been credited in some quarters as being one of the cultural moments that heralded a newer, confident Ireland - it’s certainly true to say that a wave of pride crashed over the country when those taps rang out. Then, after a brief interlude to let Norway win – with an act that included Irish violinist Fionnuala Sherry! - we casually picked up the crown again in 1997.
And then things changed. Europe, for a start. There were suddenly lots of new countries in Eurovision, making the contest bigger and less familiar to those of us in the west. The semi-final system was introduced to cope with the volume of new entries which meant we didn’t get through to the final every year and automatically made the Saturday night event less attractive to the casual viewer.
I’m not going to blame ‘Bloc Voting’ for that, by the way. Sure, it helps to have a few friends and neighbours on your side but over the past few years the song, not the country tends to win the competition – just take a look at the list, Portugal, Ukraine, Sweden, Austria. You’ll also get people who will say that only ‘novelty acts’ triumph but I’ll argue the point there too. Conchita Wurst, for example didn’t win simply because of the beard / dress combo – yes it helped the performer stand out but so did a magnificent song that any James Bond film would love as a theme.
But the contest changed and, when Ireland didn’t automatically get into the final, it obviously held less interest for the general audience. Die-hards like me still watched every year and parties were held. But elsewhere there was a bit of snootiness towards Eurovision. It was all Russian grannies and Eurodisco, wasn’t it? Ireland it seemed, had better things to do with its Saturday nights.
Or, did it? Turns out a little bit of Lipstick goes a long way. When Jedward entered the contest in 2011 it was a perfect combination of song and act and just the boost the contest needed here. They didn’t win but they delighted audiences at home and abroad and those of us who had been holding Eurovision parties for years were suddenly smugly teaching our mates how to draw scorecards. Jedward were a reminder that Eurovison is fun, and a great night’s entertainment.
And now to 2018. I’ll admit I didn’t think Ryan O’Shaughnessy was a dead cert for qualification this year – he’s a great singer and a terrific, confident performer but I was worried the song wasn’t ‘big’ enough to stand out in a strong semi final.
I was happily proved wrong on Tuesday night. The staging, with the two male dancers was superb and the song came across as subtle rather than quiet, a chance for the audience to take a breather between the more hyperactive acts like Israel and Cyprus.
We’re in the final again and Ryan has a real chance of making a huge impression – I'm expecting big viewing figures and many parties. We have a great singer, a decent song, a lovely stage show. Something to cheer for. A reason to get the whole family around the TV, 1980s style.
Because Ireland loves Eurovision. We love music. We love competition, we love Marty Whelan and we love a bit of drama. And deep in our hearts we would love to win again. I’ll be in Lisbon on Saturday night but if we do, I’ll call home and demand that two little boys get dragged from their beds to watch the victory. Together.