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When the 66th Eurovision takes place in Turin this month, there will be a small group of familiar faces – all seated in their own living rooms – listening and texting each other, armed with a unique insight of everything involved in the greatest song contest on the planet.
Because they were there; Irish stars back when we ruled this event as if we owned it – among them the man marking the 25th anniversary of his own unforgettable night, when he came second at Dublin’s Point Depot behind Katrina and the Waves.
Marc Roberts is a familiar voice on many fronts; from his work with Galway Bay FM to his Tribute Show to John Denver, and his own recordings and live performances, not to mention tours and duets with his great friend and supporter, Daniel O’Donnell.
But 25 years ago next week he was Ireland’s Eurovision representative with Mysterious Woman, a song written by John Farry which he took to second place – despite a ‘warning’ from the great Terry Wogan that he couldn’t and wouldn’t, win it!
This was for two reasons; Ireland had won four of the previous five competitions and RTÉ lacked the money to stage another – and the UK, the biggest contributor to the European Broadcasting Union which hosts the competition, had not come close. of a win for years and needed one or they would retire for good.
So they came in with their big guns – Katrina and the Waves – and the Crossmolina man who’s lived in Galway for decades carried Ireland’s hopes to home soil.
“I was told I just couldn’t win. Terry Wogan said it to my face, as did Pat Kenny. RTÉ couldn’t stage another, and the UK pulled out all the stops to win that year,” he recalled, a quarter of a century later.
Except that, for most of the contest, he almost did — because it was the first year of tele-voting and it wasn’t so easy to control the odds.
“For most of the night in the Green Room they had the cameras in front of the two of us when it was time for the votes – but in the end it was their night,” he says.
The Mayo man has been a singer for as long as he can remember and, like most Irish people, Eurovision was an annual event in the family home.
“I remember sitting to watch with my parents and my sister and cheering us on when Ireland got twelve points – but then my dad urged caution and said ‘it’s not over yet’ His words came back to me and stuck in my head that night in the Green Room – even when the UK gave us all twelve points!
Ireland had won a Eurovision before 1980 – Dana in 1970 with All Kinds of Everything – before Johnny Logan and Shay Healy’s What’s Another Year, then Johnny returned seven years later with his own Hold Me Now.
But we struck a rich vein in the 1990s, winning in 1992 with Linda Martin, 1993 with Niamh Kavanagh, 1994 with Charlie McGettigan and Paul Harrington, and 1996 with Eimear Quinn.
What ended up becoming Mysterious Woman began with “European Woman”, but was not selected by Eurosong the year Eimear Quinn’s The Voice was selected. It became ‘Mystery Woman’ and finally Mysterious Woman – and degenerated into the hands of a 28-year-old singer who had made a name for himself before life took this turn.
“I have always sung, written and acted; at the time Louis Walsh took care of all my reservations! I used to play places like Break for the Border in Dublin, where Colin Farrell used to teach line dancing as a warm-up before my gigs,” he says.
It was Charlie McGettigan who suggested Marc to John Farry for the song. He had known Charlie for years, but more thoroughly since a shared trip to Nashville in 1995.
“It was a joint initiative of IMRO, which represents Irish musicians, and ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) where six of us – myself, Charlie, Jimmy McCarthy , Mick Hanly, Sinéad Lohan and Eleanor McEvoy – came out to engage with people like Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Clint Black and many more,” he explains.
It was just another indication of his growing stature in the business here; he was also a frequent guest on everything from Kenny Live to Open House, with a few late appearances along the way.
Eurosong took place at Waterford RTC, where a former winner – a certain Johnny Logan – was in the audience. He heard Marc sing, knew it was a winner, and found Marc’s mum and dad in the crowd, sticking with them for the triumph he knew was coming on track.
“In fact, I had crossed paths with Johnny years before, in 1981. When I was at home and going to school, I always had the guitar with me. And every morning I would walk past this house and see this guy with his jeans and his black leather jacket coming out. He would see the guitar and nod.
“He was an electrician called Sean Sherrard, who worked with Kent Engineering, and they had a contract with Asahi in Killala. I told him the story years later when we were both on different paths!
The preparation for Eurovision was more eventful than the contest itself. Because Ireland hosted him, Marc found himself at the parties of all the other 26 participating countries and in the eye of the media at a time when Eurovision was very important.
What he didn’t know was that the organizers had received a coded message telling them that a bomb would go off at Point Depot at 8:20 p.m. on Eurovision night – the exact time that Marc, singing fifth, should be on stage.
“They decided to hide it from me until one of the tabloids called me on Wednesday to ask if I was worried about it. That’s the first time I’ve heard of it!
There was obviously no bombshell, but there was a worldwide audience of 350 million people. However, as he took the stage and the lights came on during his promotional video, Marc got to choose the six people he got tickets for; his parents, his sister and brother-in-law, his manager Don Collins and Don’s wife, Kay.
“I could also spot Terry Wogan in his broadcast box and Pat Kenny in his,” he recalls.
Marc’s fear didn’t come second; it was the penultimate – but if he had nerves, then they were overcome by fatigue.
“We did the full dress rehearsal in the morning – the one they tape live in case there’s a technical issue later, so they don’t lose the show – and when I went back to court at Berkley , I said I was going to lie down for half an hour.
“I was woken up by a call from the manager asking me if I wanted a glass of champagne before the bus left for La Pointe. I thought that would be lovely and asked what time they had in mind. He said now; the bus was leaving in ten minutes!
“I’ve never moved so fast – and 50 minutes later I was on stage singing for Ireland.”
The song spent eight weeks at number two on the Irish charts – spurned by R Kelly – and had every chance of charting in the UK before fate intervened.
“I had done the Richard and Judy Show and was lined up to do the Des O’Connor Show, which was then what the Graham Norton Show is now – but Princess Diana died and all the normal programming went away. been cancelled. And that was it.
Still, Marc had signed a five-album deal ahead of Eurovision and established himself nationally, with a growing base across Europe as well.
And while the record deal didn’t go as it should, he’s carved out a remarkable career since – combining his live work, touring and radio career to ensure he is always on the move.
He is on the air with GBFM every Saturday and Sunday with The Feelgood Factor and with Marc Roberts Country on Sunday evenings; his acclaimed tribute to the music of John Denver will take place at the Town Hall Theater on May 13 – and he has a new single coming out this summer.
“It’s a song written by the great John Prine, which I had recorded for my first album, but I wasn’t happy with the arrangement, so it never came out. Now we’ve remade some of it, kept more of it – and it’s releasing for the first time this summer.
As for Eurovision, he’ll be watching in two weeks, texting Johnny and Charlie and Linda and Niamh about songs, performances and outfits – just like so many others, with the added bonus of having been there .
“I wouldn’t change anything. Even being able to represent your country is just amazing, but I was so proud that he did so well – and I’m thrilled to continue doing what I love to do too.