Conchita Wurst is all the talk of Eurovision 2014 after winning the competition for Austria with Rise Like a Phoenix. Congratulations to Conchita. She certainly made an impression and was a gracious winner, defying homophobia and political differences that should have no place in music.
While the infamous Eurovision Song Contest isn’t really my cup of tea, I can’t help but well up when I see the archived images of what was undoubtedly Ireland’s finest Eurovision moment back in 1994.
20 years ago, Ireland hosted the Eurovision Song Contest as the previous year’s winner. The venue was The Point Theatre in Dublin. This was Ireland’s Eurovision heyday and in 1994 they became the only country to win the contest 3 times in a row. It was Ireland’s sixth time to win in the contest’s history, and Charlie McGettigan and Paul Harrington with their song Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids did so with the highest winning total ever recorded.
But one outstanding performance blew everyone else out of the water, and 20 years on continues to resonate around the world. What is most surprising is that it wasn’t a competition entrant, it was the interval act, there to entertain while the votes were being tallied.
If you ask anybody in Ireland to list three things that make them proud to be Irish, there is a good chance they will say Riverdance. No matter how bad things are, no matter how angry and ashamed we are at our politicians for taking us to the brink of financial ruin and responding to the crisis by targeting the vulnerable, Riverdance is there to remind us that we were a people and a culture and a society long before we were an economy.
It is hard to even think about Riverdance without feeling emotional and that wonderful music and dance captures the heart and soul of what it is to be Irish. The response of the 25 million people from all over the world who have seen Riverdance is a beautiful affirmation of that essence of Irishness.
The original Riverdance performed for the Eurovision opened with the haunting choral group Anúna. That faded and champion Irish dancer Jean Butler danced gracefully onto the stage. She was followed by a full-on Michael Flatley entrance, and these highly-skilled lead dancers led a chorus line of dancers through a beautiful , memorable performance that would change the way the world thought about Irish dance. The live audience loved it, and the standing ovation and sustained applause would be echoed at every performance of Riverdance thereafter.
Some months later, Irish state broadcaster RTÉ released a video version of the performance to raise funds for the people of Rwanda in the wake of the genocide which had taken place there. In Britain, Riverdance creators Bill Whelan and Moya Doherty were asked to stage a performance as part of the Royal Variety Show. The hunger for more was evident and a full stage show was created. 20 years later, it is still going strong.
I first saw Riverdance six years ago, when it came to Donegal. I thought I knew what to expect having seen many clips of the dancers, having heard most of the music, having spoken to lots of people who had seen the show. But nothing prepared me for the tidal wave of emotion that began with the first note and the first dancer and built and built to an explosive finale, taking the audience through hundreds of years of history, from little thatched cottages and heather-covered hills to survival on the streets of New York and back to 21st Century Ireland. Leaving the stadium afterwards, it was the outside world that felt surreal, the stage creation that felt real. That for me was the mark of a truly captivating performance. A box on my ‘to do’ list had been ticked. I had finally seen Riverdance. And I couldn’t wait to see it again.