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Not Don yet Daniel O'Donnell thought about quitting singing 'because it just wasn’t working out'

"At that point I was very aware that of the people who’d been in school with me, some of them were now married, some had good jobs and houses and cars. I had nothing at that stage"

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Daniel contemplated calling it a day in showbiz

Daniel contemplated calling it a day in showbiz

Daniel contemplated calling it a day in showbiz

Realising that he had gone as far as he could working with his first manager Nan Moy, Daniel then asked Ritz Records to take over his career.

Based in London and run by Cavan man Mick Clerkin, Ritz had already achieved success with The Fureys, who had a hit with Sweet Sixteen, and Foster and Allen, who made it into the British charts with A Bunch of Thyme.

“In 1985, my album, The Two Sides of Daniel O’Donnell, had been released by Ritz Records. But we were making no headway as far as I could see,” Daniel recalls.

“So, on Friday, December 13, 1985 – and I’m superstitious – I remember stopping in Ballisodare, Co. Sligo, on the way to a venue and phoning Mick Clerkin, the boss of Ritz Records.

“I had decided to part company with Nan and I was hoping to persuade Ritz to take over total control of my career.

“The thought had also crossed my mind about giving it all up, because it just wasn’t working out. At that point I was very aware that of the people who’d been in school with me, some of them were now married, some had good jobs and houses and cars. I had nothing at that stage.

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After his initial struggles, Daniel went in a new direction in the mid-80s with a new management team

After his initial struggles, Daniel went in a new direction in the mid-80s with a new management team

After his initial struggles, Daniel went in a new direction in the mid-80s with a new management team

“Ritz, as it turned out, had been getting a good reaction to the album [The Two Sides] at that stage, but I wasn’t aware of it. Mick Clerkin said he felt it was worth persevering, that I should continue to give it a go.

“Nan and myself just didn’t have the know-how to make it work. We just couldn’t seem to do it. I decided we couldn’t go forward the way we were. I played up to January 1986 with the band I had at the time and then we wound that up.

“I went off the road in January and then on March 6 I returned with a new band that were the remnants of The Hillbillies/Jukebox. We started at St Cyprian’s Club in Brockley, Kent.”

Ritz also introduced Daniel to a new manager, Sean Reilly, who had managed Ray Lynam and The Hillbillies.

“I met Sean Reilly in 1986, before I went on the road with my new band,” Daniel says.

“From then on, Sean and I had a fantastic relationship. Margaret [Margo] talks about the hard times that she had, and there are other people who talk about the managers or the record companies that they had issues with, but I was very, very fortunate with Sean.

"Sean saw me as Daniel the person before he saw a product, and I think that’s very important.”

With a new band and fresh impetus, Daniel hit the road in 1986, hoping that his fortunes would turn for the better.

“We did a tour in England, and then we came back to Ireland,” he recalls. “When we came home we played at The Milford Inn [in Donegal] and that was the first time that we had a big crowd.

“The dressing room was below the stage, and Ronnie Kennedy, who was in the band, came in and said, ‘Jeez, there’s a huge crowd out there.’ The band went up on stage and I could hear the people shouting my name, ‘Daniel! Daniel! Daniel!’

“I was afraid to go up. I can remember thinking, ‘How am I going to go up there?’ It was overwhelming.

“But from that night on, the sudden change was like switching on a light. It was as instant as that after years of struggle. It was like going to bed in the dark and getting up in sunlight.

“And a lot of that was also down to the song My Donegal Shore, which people loved. The album [The Two Sides] was well received, but it was My Donegal Shore that made the difference. From then on it never stalled.

“I remember one time we were playing The Oasis in Carrickmacross. It’s a huge venue. We arrived early and the car park was jammed. I said to Ronnie, ‘There must be a wedding on here today.’ There was no wedding at all. They were all there early for my show. It’s like Nathan and the others doing the dances before the pandemic – if you weren’t there early, you wouldn’t get in.

“We played The Ragg a few times when I started doing well. And The Ragg would close the doors long before we would come on. It was the same with The Castle in Dungiven.

“I recall the crowd running in to The Beaten Path in Claremorris on St Stephen’s Night when the doors would open. There was a curtain behind the stage and I remember looking out through a gap and the door opened and the people ran like they were getting a Ryanair flight before you could reserve your seat.

“In 1984, we did The Irish Festival in Roundwood Park in London, and we were on at 12 o’clock in the day when people are just starting to arrive. In 1985, we were on at 3pm in the afternoon. And in 1986 we closed the show as the headline act.”

Daniel was finally on his way to the big time.

“It was like a snowball then at the top of a hill,” Daniel says. “It just got bigger and bigger and I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t control it to go any other way than the way it went.”

But Daniel has never forgotten those early struggles, and again he says it’s why he has always tried to support up-and-coming singers and has never seen any of them as a threat to his own career.

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Daniel O'Donnell with manager Sean Reilly in 1990

Daniel O'Donnell with manager Sean Reilly in 1990

Daniel O'Donnell with manager Sean Reilly in 1990

He says: “I have always done that, and I’ve never been afraid of promoting people because I don’t feel that anybody is a threat to me. When new people came along, I never felt, ‘Well, that’s me finished.’

“The people that like me are going to like me no matter who comes along. Other people might like somebody else better, but that doesn’t matter. There’s room for everybody.

“When I started out I used to wish that some of the established singers at the time would do something or say something to give me a boost. That’s why I’ve always encouraged young singers, and it’s great to have my Sunday World column to give them profile, as well Opry le Daniel on TG4.

“I don’t have a great deal of influence on who is on Opry, but I’m very aware of the young singers that are out there and I love having them on.

"That’s the reason I do Opry, to give country music a platform. And I think TG4 are super in how much time they give to country music.”

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