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Don the way up Daniel O'Donnell recalls his tough times on the road when he started out in showbiz

Daniel remembers nights when he and his band of six would have to sleep in the back of their van because they couldn’t afford accommodation.

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Daniel poses in an early photo shoot of his fledgling career

Daniel poses in an early photo shoot of his fledgling career

Daniel poses in an early photo shoot of his fledgling career

HE’S one of the most successful singers in the world today, a multi-millionaire entertainer still at the top of his game, with his latest self-titled album entering the British charts at number three after 40 years in the business.

But life hasn’t always been so sweet for Daniel O’Donnell.

Forty years ago on January 28, 1981, Daniel took his baby steps on to the stage for the first time, playing The Ragg in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, as a member of his sister Margo’s band.

He was strumming an electric guitar that wasn’t plugged in because he didn’t know how to play it.

Daniel would spend the next two years with Margo, learning the ropes (but not the guitar) before leaving to pursue his own ambitions.

He would go on to encounter many roadblocks and dead ends on his road to ultimate success.

Daniel remembers nights when he and his band of six would have to sleep in the back of their van because they couldn’t afford accommodation.

On one occasion, as they were preparing to take the boat to England for a gig in Manchester, the band’s van was repossessed because he couldn’t make the payments.

When Daniel told his then manager Nan Moy that they should hire another one, she informed him that there was more bad news.

The band’s equipment had been in the van – and had been repossessed too!

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Daniel had many mishaps along the road to stardom

Daniel had many mishaps along the road to stardom

Daniel had many mishaps along the road to stardom

Daniel and another band member, accordion player Ronnie Kennedy, then travelled to Manchester by plane and played with the venue’s resident band. And they rustled up some local musicians to play another gig the following night in a different venue.

Another time, Daniel drove down to Dublin with Nan to pick up his first ever colour posters. On the way back that wet, windy night they got a puncture in rural Donegal. When Daniel opened the car boot, most of the posters blew away across the fields.

Just another mini-disaster in a series of mini-disasters.

There were often more people on the stage than in the venues at his gigs in those early days. He recalls one night playing to six people in Julian’s of Midfield, Co. Mayo.

“My friend, Josephine Burke, was with me another night and she was taking the entrance fee at the door in The Sportman’s Arms at Ballyhay outside Charleville, Co. Cork,” Daniel recalls.

“The entrance was a long way from the stage, but I could see Josephine because there were so few in the place. We spent what we made that night on chicken and chips in the chipper.”

Today, looking back, Daniel has vivid memories of his first night on stage at The Ragg.

“I can still remember The Ragg so well,” Daniel tells me. “Stand Beside Me was the first song I sang. In one way, it just seems like yesterday, but I realise that 40 years have passed since that night.

“And how could anybody in The Ragg that night, including myself, have ever imagined what the years would bring?

“Sometimes I look back and the memories are not as clear as I would like them to be. I stop and think, ‘Did that really happen?’

“I was with Margaret for the first couple of years, and that was grand. That was enjoyable as there were no great demands on me.

“Then I made my own record in 1983 with the songs My Donegal Shore and Stand Beside Me. I released that and started my own group, Country Fever, in the summer of ’83.

“I had various members in the band and we’d play at weddings and anywhere that people would let us play.

“The years that followed up to 1986 were enjoyable, but also extremely difficult. For every step forward, there would be three steps back.

“I don’t know if that is why I have such interest in and compassion for the younger singers starting out, because I found it so difficult to get going at the start.

“Even though I had been with Margaret [Margo], when I started my own band there were very few coming to see us. And we were making no money at all.

“To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to do it. We were doing a wee bit better in England and Scotland than we were at home.

“Now some people will find this hard to believe, but so many people, who were not in the business, stepped in and helped me out along the way.

“One is a lady called Anne Birrane, who I got to know when I was playing with Margaret in The Two Brewers pub in England. Anne gave me the money to pay for the band to come over on the boat the first time we did a tour in England.

“Another woman, Bridie Gaffney, who died last year in Roscrea, God rest her, sent me 50 punts in 1983, and that paid the first insurance on the van. I didn’t ask her for that money, but these people, for whatever reason, were terribly good to me. I got a lot of help from people like that who loved what I was doing.

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A young Daniel with his sister Kathleen

A young Daniel with his sister Kathleen

A young Daniel with his sister Kathleen

“I still know people I met nearly 40 years ago when I was starting out, and I am in contact with them to this day.

“Anne Birrane was 89 on New Year’s Eve and I phoned her for a chat.”

While the early days in Ireland were a struggle for Daniel and his band, he did get a regular boost playing Arranmore Island.

“The only place we did well at home was on Arranmore Island in Early’s Bar,” Daniel says. “Poor Andrew [the owner] died last year. My mother was a great friend of his, and he said to her one time that he would like to get Margaret in to sing in the pub.

“I was with my mother and she said, ‘This fella has a band.’ So I went in that summer in August, 1983. And every year after that we’d go in four or five times to play Early’s. We would get 300 punts, and that was a fortune because we weren’t getting that anywhere else.

“So I was always very grateful to Andrew, God rest him, and his wife, Mary. And his son Gerry and his wife, Pat, who took it over when they retired.

“I haven’t been back for a few years, but I was speaking to Mary and I said when this pandemic is over we will go back again as a tribute to Andrew and do a night in his memory.”

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