Whether you love it or hate it, the Eurovision Song Contest has a long history in Ireland, as well as the rest of Europe (and in recent years, in countries not even remotely close to Europe!). This annual televised contest of musicians and performers giving it their all in front of the entire world – sometimes with questionable music, lyrics and outfits – to bring honour, fame and a crystal microphone trophy back to their home country is one of the best (or worst) TV events of the year depending on who you ask. And guess what, it’s almost time for this year’s competition! Ireland holds the record for the most Eurovision wins and every year our hopes are pinned on the Irish contestant – although in recent years we haven’t been so lucky in our victories. Nonetheless, here is a brief guide to the Eurovision Song Contest and Ireland’s history in the competition.
History of the Eurovision Song Contest
The Eurovision Song Contest began in 1956, at a time when Europe was still recovering from the hardships that resulted from the Second World War. As Europe rebuilt itself great efforts were made to unify the continent, so that countries could help each other regain what they had lost and so that the atrocities that had occurred could never happen again. Just one of the unification efforts was the setting up of the European Broadcasting Union, an alliance of public service media organisations. It was founded in 1950 in Devon, England and comprised of 23 broadcasting organisations from around Europe. Five years later, the EBU headquarters had been established in Switzerland and a committee was thinking up ways to bring together all of the member countries for a single televised event, preferably some kind of light entertainment programme. It was the Director General of Swiss television, Marcel Bezencon, who suggested an international song contest. Competitors would perform on the same stage and it would be broadcast simultaneously by each country in the EBU.
At that time, simultaneous broadcasting of large scale events was a very ambitious task to take on. Satellite TV did not yet exist, so a wide area international network would need to be used instead. This was considered to be a huge experiment in the world of television and technology in general. Luckily, the plan was approved a few months later by at the EBU General Assembly, and the first contest date was set for Spring 1956 in Lugano, Switzerland. Initially known as the ‘Eurovision Grand Prix’, seven countries participated in the first contest performing two songs each. Switzerland won. Over the years the format that is still in place today was established; each EBU country sends one contestant to represent their primary national public service broadcaster. They perform one song each, then each country votes for their favourite (voting for your own country is not allowed). Each country allocates points from 1 to 12 to their twelve most popular acts and the country who ends up with the most points wins. The winning country hosts the contest the following year.
As the Eurovision Song Contest gained popularity it opened up competition entry to a more expansive list of countries. Despite the title, there is now no prerequisite for countries to be within the boundaries of Europe to compete – the only criteria they have to meet is that they have broadcast the competition in their country the previous year through a national public service broadcaster, and have paid a hefty contribution fee. So don’t be surprised if you tune in this year to find an Australian act on stage – 2015 is their first year in the contest! These days there are usually between 20 and 30 countries participating in the final, and with that comes inevitable bloc voting – i.e countries with similar languages, tastes or cultural ties usually end up voting for one another. To try and counteract this, the public voting system which was introduced in the 1990s now only counts for 50% of the total votes, with the other 50% being decided by a selected jury. This had led to a somewhat more versatile list of winners in recent years, although complaints about biased voting are still raised every year.
In 2004 the Eurovision Song Contest had expanded so much that a system of semi-finals and finals was introduced. Only the ‘Big Five’ – i.e France, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain, the biggest financial contributors to the EBU – and the other ten highest ranked countries from the previous year’s results automatically qualified for the grand final. Everyone else competed in a live televised semi-final two nights before the main competition for a place. Soon there were so many countries entering that a second semi-final was necessary too. These days, the Eurovision Song Contest is broadcast online and on television to over 100 million people every year, with some estimates reaching up to 600 million people. It is broadcast all over world from South America to South East Asia, the Middle East and even South Africa. 2015’s contest will mark the 60th anniversary of the event and will take place in Vienna, Austria. 40 countries will take part in total between the two semi-finals and the final.
Notable Eurovision Winners
Abba: Without a doubt, the most famous act to achieve long lasting international fame as a result of the Eurovision Song Contest is Swedish four-piece group Abba. In 1974 their instant hit ‘Waterloo’ blew the rest of the competition away and they went on to become one of the biggest bands in history. Their legacy has lived on to the 21st century too, with the hit stage and screen musical, ‘Mamma Mia’. Featuring many of their most popular songs, it has won hearts all over the world since its first performance in 1999 and is still going strong today.
Celine Dion: While she is probably best known for her hit ‘My Heart Will Go On’ from the Titanic soundtrack – not to mention her many other power ballads from the 1990s – believe it or not Celine Dion’s career was launched by the Eurovision Song Contest. In 1988 she represented Switzerland with her song ‘Ne partez pas sans moi’ or ‘Don’t leave without me’, winning easily, and subsequently gaining international fame.
Bucks Fizz: British four piece pop group Bucks Fizz won the Eurovision for the United Kingdom in 1981 with their smash hit ‘Making Your Mind Up’ and went on to be one of the biggest selling bands in the UK for the rest of the decade. They notched up 3 number 1 hits, several top 10 tracks and 15 million record sales during their career. Although the line-up has changed several times since 1981, the band still perform as a four piece today.
Lordi: Finland’s entry in the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest was the already highly popular heavy metal band Lordi. The polar opposite to every typical Eurovision contestant, they performed their track ‘Hard Rock Hallelujah’ in full ghoulish costume and left all of Europe gobsmacked when they won. For them however, the Eurovision was just a fun detour for their already extremely successful musical career which had been ongoing since the 1990s, and they have gone on to enjoy even bigger and better fame since.
Conchita Wurst: 2014’s Eurovision winner was another act that turned heads when she took to the stage. The Austrian singer’s real name is Thomas Neuwirth, although when performing he adopts a female alter ego persona, with one notable male quality; a full beard. Conchita won the hearts of Europe and the rest of the world with her soaring voice and beautiful power ballad, ‘Rise like a Phoenix’. Her win courted controversy due to the reaction of more socially conservative participants, and she has subsequently become a gay icon.
Ireland first entered the Eurovision in 1965 and has had a long history of success. Of the 45 entrants we have sent to the contest, 25 of them have finished in the top 5, including 7 winners. We have placed second on four occasions and third once, and on an impressive 31 occasions we have reached the top 10. We have won the contest more times than any other country, and three of those wins were consecutive in 1992, 1993 and 1994. Our most recent win was in 1996, meaning that at one stage we had won the contest for four out of five consecutive years! There have only been two occasions in which Ireland has not participated in the Eurovision since 1965: in 2002 in Tallinn when the country was relegated because they failed to broadcast the previous year’s competition, and in 1983 in Munich when a strike at national broadcaster RTE meant the expense of sending over a contestant was too high. Unfortunately however, Ireland’s luck in the 21st century hasn’t been as good as the 1990s. Our most successful year in the past decade was in 2011 when the high-haired twins and former X-Factor stars Jedward placed eighth.
Ireland’s winners include:
Dana: Dana was still a schoolgirl when she won in 1970 with her song ‘All Kinds of Everything’, and immediately became a household name in Ireland. On the back of her win she launched a successful musical career and was a prominent figure in the industry throughout the 1970s and 1980s. She then turned her hand to politics. She was a candidate for the Irish Presidency twice but was unsuccessful in both attempts, and has also represented Ireland in the European Parliament.
Johnny Logan: Johnny Logan guided Ireland to Eurovision victory twice, in 1980 and 1987, and is the only contestant to have ever participated and won the contest more than once. He also composed Ireland’s winning song in 1992, which was performed by Linda Martin. After his wins his musical career faltered due to poor management, but he still regularly performs around Ireland and Europe today and is fondly known as ‘Mister Eurovision’.
Linda Martin: Linda Martin had already achieved some success in the music industry with the Northern Ireland band, Chips, in the 1980s. She went on to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest twice, although she only won once in 1992. She placed 2nd in 1994, narrowly missing out on victory by 8 points. She is still a prominent figure in the Irish entertainment industry today, mostly as a television presenter.
Niamh Kavanagh: Niamh Kavanagh’s win in 1993 was the second of Ireland’s three consecutive victories, and by far the most nail-biting of them all. Ireland and England were neck and neck right up until the last 12 points given by the last country to vote. After her win Kavanagh recorded an album, but then decided to give up a music career in order to spend more time with her children. She returned to the Eurovision in 2010, and is widely regarded as one of the best vocalists to ever participate.
Paul Harrington and Charlie McGettigan: This duo claimed another victory for Ireland in 1994, Ireland’s last consecutive victory and second most recent win. Their song ‘Rock and Roll Kids’ easily won by over 60 points, but the night was somewhat overshadowed by the interval act that took everyone’s breath away; Riverdance. Paul and Charlie went on to live ‘normal’ lives away from the spotlight.
Eimear Quinn: Eimear Quinn is Ireland’s most recent Eurovision winner, claiming victory in 1996 with her song ‘The Voice’. From an early age she had developed an interest in music joining several choirs, including well known group Anuna (which current superstar Hozier was also a member of before he found fame). After her win she continued to work professionally in the music industry behind the scenes, and still does today.