When the 66th Eurovision takes place in Turin this month, there will be a small group of familiar faces – all ensconced in their own living rooms – tuned in and texting each other, armed with a unique insight into all that’s involved in the biggest song contest on the planet.
Because they were there; Ireland’s stars in the era when we dominated this event like we owned it – among them the man marking the 25th anniversary of his own unforgettable night, when he came second in Dublin’s Point Depot to 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 ‘heads up’ from the great Terry Wogan that he couldn’t, and wouldn’t, win it!
That was for two reasons; Ireland had won four of the previous five contests and RTÉ was running out of money to host another one – and the UK, the biggest single contributor to the European Broadcasting Union which hosts the contest, hadn’t been close to a win in years and needed one or they’d pull out for good.
So they entered their big guns – Katrina and the Waves – and the Crossmolina man who has lived in Galway for decades carried Ireland’s hopes on home soil.
“I was told I just couldn’t win. Terry Wogan told me to my face, and so did Pat Kenny. RTÉ couldn’t host another one, and the UK put everything into winning that year,” he reflects, a quarter of a century on.
Except, for most of the contest, he nearly did – because that 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 stationed in front of the two of us as the votes came in – but in the end it was their night,” he says.
The Mayo man has been a singer as long as he can remember and, like most of Ireland, the Eurovision was an annual event in the family home.
“I remember sitting down to watch with my parents and sister and us cheering when Ireland got twelve points – but then my father urging caution and saying, ‘it’s not over yet’. His words came back to me and stayed in my heads that night in the Green Room – even when the UK gave us the twelve points!”
Ireland had won one 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 was in the 1990s, winning in 1992 with Linda Martin, ’93 with Niamh Kavanagh, ’94 with Charlie McGettigan and Paul Harrington, and ’96 with Eimear Quinn.
What ended up as Mysterious Woman started out as ‘European Woman’, but it didn’t make the Eurosong cut in the year that Eimear Quinn’s The Voice was selected. It went on to become ‘Mystery Woman’ and finally Mysterious Woman – and went down a storm in the hands of a 28-year-old singer who’d been making a name for himself before life took this turn.
“I’d always been singing and writing and performing; at the time Louis Walsh was looking after all my bookings! I was playing 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’d known Charlie for years, but in greater depth since a shared trip to Nashville in 1995.
“That 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 – went out to engage with people like Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Clint Black and 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 Late appearances along the way too.
Eurosong was held in Waterford RTC, where a previous winner – one Johnny Logan – was in the audience. He heard Marc sing, knew it was a winner, and found Marc’s mam and dad in the crowd, staying with them for the triumph he knew was coming down the tracks.
“I’d actually crossed paths with Johnny years before that, back in 1981. When I was at home and going to school, I always had the guitar with me. And every morning I used to pass this house and I’d see this guy with his jeans and black leather jacket coming out. He’d see the guitar and nod hello.
“He was an electrician called Sean Sherrard, who was working 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 build-up to Eurovision was more hectic than the contest itself. Because Ireland was hosting it, Marc found himself at the parties for all the other participating 26 countries and in the eye of the media at a time when Eurovision was a very big deal.
What he didn’t know was that the organisers had received a coded message to tell them that a bomb would go off in the Point Depot at 8.20pm on Eurovision night – the exact time that Marc, singing fifth, was to be on stage.
“They decided to keep it from me until one of the tabloids rang me up on the Wednesday to ask me if it worried me. It was the first I knew of it!”
There wasn’t a bomb obviously, but there was a global audience of 350 million. However, as he walked on stage and the lights went up during his promo video, Marc was able to pick out the six people he’d secured tickets for; his parents, his sister and brother-in-law, his manager Don Collins and Don’s wife Kay.
“I could also pick out Terry Wogan in his broadcasting box and Pat Kenny in his,” he recalls.
Marc’s fear wasn’t coming second; it was coming second last – but if he had nerves, then they were conquered by tiredness.
“We done the full dress rehearsal in the morning – the one they record as live in case there is any technical problem later, so they don’t lose the broadcast – and when I went back to the Berkley Court, I said I’d lie down for half an hour.
“I was awoken by a call from the manager asking me if I’d like a glass of Champagne before the bus left for the Point. 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 never moved so quickly – and 50 minutes later I was on stage singing for Ireland.”
The song spent eight weeks at number two in the Irish charts – kept off by R Kelly – and it had every chance of charting in the UK else before fate intervened.
“I’d done the Richard and Judy Show and was lined up to do the Des O’Connor Show, which was then what Graham Norton’s show is now – but Princess Diana died and all normal programming was cancelled. And that was that.”
Still, Marc had signed a five-album deal before Eurovision and had established himself nationally, with a growing base across Europe too.
And while the record deal didn’t pan out like it might, he has carved out a sterling career ever since – combining his live work, touring, and his radio career to ensure he’s always on the move.
He’s on air with GBFM every Saturday and Sunday with The Feelgood Factor and with Marc Roberts Country on Sunday nights; his acclaimed Tribute to the Music of John Denver will take place in the Town Hall Theatre 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’d recorded for my first album, but I wasn’t happy with the arrangement, so it was never released. Now we’ve redone some of it, kept more of it – and it will be out for the first time this summer.”
As for Eurovision, he’ll be watching in two weeks’ time, texting Johnny and Charlie and Linda and Niamh about the songs, the performances and the outfits – like so many more only, with the added advantage of having been there.
“I wouldn’t change a thing. Even getting to represent your country is just amazing, but I was just so proud that it did so well – and I’m delighted that I’m still doing what I love doing too.”
Galway’s public hospitals short more than 160 nurses and managers
Galway’s two main public hospitals are short more than 160 nurses and clinical nurse managers, Saolta University Healthcare Group has confirmed.
And it has been conceded that staff shortages are impacting on the care patients receive, and on hospital management’s ability to reopen closed wards.
University Hospital Galway and Merlin Park Hospital currently have 141 staff vacancies for nurses.
This figure of vacant nursing posts is likely to be far higher because it does not include the number of staff nurses on maternity leave and relates only to vacant nursing positions.
A further 26 clinical nurse manager positions remain unfilled at UHG.
These are permanent posts and cover a wide range of areas across the acute hospital. The vacant positions are in the Emergency Department as well as on wards, and in areas such as patient flow, clinical facilitators and outpatient services.
Ann Cosgrove, Chief Operating Officer of Saolta, confirmed the staff vacancies in response to a question at the HSE West Regional Health Forum on Tuesday submitted by City Councillor Martina O’Connor (Green), a trained nurse.
Speaking to the Connacht Tribune, Cllr O’Connor said to be down 26 nursing managers and 141 staff nurses was “phenomenal”.
“It’s a huge number and it just goes to show how the hospital is trying to function without these front-line staff who are vital in the day-to-day care of patients on wards and in the Emergency Department,” she said.
Cllr O’Connor said it was “inevitable” that patient care was suffering due to the shortage.
In reply to a question from County Councillor Daithí Ó Cualáin (FF), the Chief Executive Officer of Saolta, Tony Canavan said the Cardiothoracic Ward at UHG has been relocated.
It has 10 patients currently with a further three beds to be opened in the autumn. And he said that the plan is to open 14 beds in St Nicholas’ Ward, “for which staff are being recruited”.
But Conamara Councillor Ó Cualáin, a nurse, said he was “extremely concerned” there were 141 nursing positions vacant.
“This is impacting patient care and putting nursing staff under extreme pressure throughout the hospital,” he said.
And he said it was impacting the reopening of 14 beds at St Nicholas, because it was not safe to open without more nurses.
“The recruitment of additional nursing staff needs to be undertaken as a matter of urgency and the delays encountered throughout the system from interview to staff being in position on the floor needs to be expedited. It currently takes between three and six months to have nurses in the vacant positions from the date they are interviewed,” added Cllr Ó Cualáin.
Previously Galway West TD Catherine Connolly (Ind) complained that St Monica’s Ward at UHG had been closed for two months this year due to low levels of staffing.
At the HSE Forum meeting last December, Saolta said it would embark on its largest ever overseas recruitment campaign to fill vacant nursing posts.
During that meeting Saolta said it had 600 unfilled nursing and midwifery positions across its seven hospitals in the West and North West but it did not give a breakdown.
Connemara ambulance service ‘only on paper’
North Connemara has an ambulance service on paper only because its crew is based mostly in Mayo.
Galway County Councillor Daithí Ó Cualáin (FF) said a new ambulance service for Connemara was announced with ‘much fanfare’ by the HSE after a lengthy campaign by locals.
But he claimed that the North Connemara ambulance crew is based mostly in Ballinrobe, County Mayo, and not County Galway.
“They start their shift and end their shift in Clifden but they spend most of their time in Ballinrobe,” he fumed.
Cllr Ó Cualáin told the latest HSE West Regional Health Forum that this was not what the people of Connemara had campaigned for when they lobbied for ambulance cover.
He said that the ambulance crew based in An Cheathrú Rua was being “pulled into Galway”, which left the Conamara Gaeltacht exposed.
He added that with the rising cost of fuel, it was not an efficient use of ambulance resources.
Cllr Ó Cualáin, a nurse, welcomed confirmation from the HSE that it intends to lodge a planning application in July or August of this year to covert the old health centre in Recess into an ambulance base to serve North Connemara.
John Joe McGowan, Chief Ambulance Officer HSE West, said the preparation of planning documents for the project was “at an advanced stage”.
Mr McGowan said that the North Connemara crews of Emergency Ambulance and Rapid Response vehicle currently commence and end their shifts in Clifden.
He said that during their shift they are “dynamically deployed within the area”.
If An Cheathrú Rua and Clifden crews are out on jobs, then they provide cover. If both Clifden and An Cheathrú Rua are at their stations, “they cover in Ballinrobe deployment point until such time as they are required back in either Clifden or An Cheathrú Rua”.
Mr McGowan insisted this was a “temporary measure” until the building in Recess is ready.
Galway County Council’s €16m budget overspend
Galway County Council spent €16 million more than it budgeted for last year – with almost half of that down to waivers for rates.
In the last financial statement for 2021, it emerged that the local authority spent €152.6m for the year, against a budgeted expenditure of €136.6m.
The main areas where the budget ran over was €7.2m more given in waivers for rates, €3.6m for the Business Incentive Scheme and €5m more spent on roads.
Government initiatives to offset the impact of Covid helped rein in the overrun, allowing the Council to post a surplus of €20,315 for the 2021 books.
“All areas of council services came under pressure from increase service demands and unexpectedly higher input costs than had been anticipated,” head of finance of Galway County Council Ger Mullarkey stated.
“This led to overruns in certain areas but through expenditure control measures and recoupment of revenue incomes by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, it was possible to offset the negative impact.
“Particular difficulty was experienced in housing where the voids and energy retrofit programme resulted in an overspend.
“But payroll savings due to recruitment timing and recoupments from department for lost revenue more than compensated.”
Total expenditure was €884,000 greater than budgeted for in housing. Covid-19 had an adverse impact on parking income, resulting in income running at 50% of budget. Overall, there was an overrun of €308,000 in roads.
Chief Executive of Galway County Jim Cullen told councillors that the local authority would need an additional €20m to provide adequate services in the county. The budget for retrofitting of council houses would need at least another million to make significant progress.
To date Galway County Council has completed energy retrofits to 117 properties, with works in train on 14 properties with a further 30 at tender stage.
All properties that received the energy retrofits achieved a BER rating of A3 or higher.
At Gort Mhaoilir in Athenry 26 properties completed last week received a provisional BER rating of A. A further 34 properties will be tendered this year under the current retrofit programme.
Goss expenditure amounted to €80.7m, with housing and roads and transportation accounting for 90 per cent of total spend.
The councillors agreed to adopt the financial statement.