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Margo O’Donnell reveals she promised her dying dad she would look after the ‘wee ones’

Margo says she took the promise she made to her father seriously and began to concentrate on her music career.

Julia O'Donnell with her musical son and daughter Daniel and Margo at her birthday party. Photo: Eoin Mc Garvey)

Margo O'Donnell

Jacket image of Margo O'Donnell

Eddie RowleySunday World

SHE was a schoolgirl singer who went on to become one of Ireland’s biggest stars during the heady days of the showband era back in the ’60s and ’70s.

Margo O’Donnell, the queen of country and Irish music, was so popular at the height of her career that riot police on horses had to be drafted in to control the crowd outside one of her London shows.

At one stage she was even out-selling The Beatles in Ireland, but in our Sunday Worldpodcast, My Country Life, Margo today tells how her life wasn’t always filled with glamour and excitement.

The legendary singer remembers a childhood tattie hoakin’ (potato picking) on farms in Scotland during her school holidays to contribute to the upkeep of her family.

By night, like the rest of the tattie hoakers, she slept in sheds that were used to house cattle in the winter.

“It was back-breaking work, but good fun too with sing-songs around a fire at night time,” she says.

At the age of 13, Margo, who was the second eldest of a family of five children to parents Francie and Julia O’Donnell, began singing with a local band called The Keynotes — and this would be the start of her phenomenal career.

“I always say I went from potato picking to showbusiness,” Margo laughs.

“I sang with them from ’64 and in ’68 we recorded our first single, The Bonny Irish Boy, which was a song my father had given me, and he was a wonderful singer.

"On the flip side of the little 45 record was Dear God. That was to be released on August 16 and it was to be played on RTE on the sponsored programmes at 3pm.”

However, tragedy struck the O’Donnell family on that day when her father Francie suddenly took ill and died on that same morning. “My father died at 11am, so he never heard the song,” she says.

While on his death bed, Francie called for Margo and asked her to look after her mother Julia, and the “wee ones”, who included her six-year-old brother Daniel O’Donnell.

Margo O'Donnell

“When we were waiting on the doctor Daddy asked me to kneel down by his bed,” she recalls on the podcast.

“He cried and I had never seen my father cry. He said, ‘Margaret, will you promise me that you’ll look after Mam and the wee ones.’ I was earning 10 shillings a night that time and I said, ‘How can I do that?’

"He said, ‘Oh, you’ll be able to do it.’”

Francie had spent most of his life working as a farm labourer in Scotland to support his wife and children back home in Kincasslagh, Co Donegal.

Margo reveals: “I heard my mother say one day to my amazement, ‘I was married to Francie for 22 years when he passed away and we lived together for 13 months.’”

Margo says she took the promise she made to her father seriously and began to concentrate on her music career.

Three weeks after Francie died, she released her first single.

“It made an impact in the charts, it went to number eight and Tom Costello, who was a big promoter, happened to hear it and a couple of promoters in Dublin made me an offer to front a new band,” she reveals.

Jacket image of Margo O'Donnell

“I got offered a hundred pounds a week with a driver and a car on the road. I promised my father I would look after Mam and the wee ones, as he said.

“John, the eldest, was doing local work in a shop in Dungloe, but he wasn’t earning that much. I talked it over with Mam.

"The 100 pounds a week and the car on the road and a driver looked so lucrative to Mam and me, and we sat down and talked about it and we decided that that was the road to go. And it was a way to make the promise good to my father. So I left school and I went down the highway of my life in showbusiness.”

- TO hear Margo tell the full story in her own words, listen now on My Country Life with Eddie Rowley wherever you get your podcasts.

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