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Tuesday 26 September 2023 Dublin: 12°C
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'Nothing feels authentic': Why is Ireland flatlining at Eurovision and what needs to happen?
Ireland’s dark decade continued last night – so how can we turn things around for next year?

Daragh Brophy reports from Liverpool:

THE WRITING WAS on the wall for Ireland as countries like Switzerland and Czechia were added to the list of ten countries progressing from last night’s Eurovision Song Contest semi-final at the Liverpool Arena.

Hot favourites like Sweden and Finland were already dead certs for the final on Saturday. Ireland’s Wild Youth – despite putting in a solid performance on the night – couldn’t hope to compete with those acts’ anthemic beat-heavy hooks, lavish production values and instantly memeable looks.

Once the likes of Ireland’s fellow mid-tablers like Switzerland started snaffling spots for Saturday, it was clear our entry would be edged out yet again. 

Wild Youth’s exit now leaves the course clear for Sweden’s Loreen – the favourite coming into the competition – to equal Ireland’s record of seven Song Contest wins. 

She’ll have stiff competition from Finland’s Käärijä, who, with his distinctive costume, trademark snarl and a mesmerising, nightmarish stage show has been capturing the imagination of fans both here in Liverpool and online (so much so that one poor unfortunate BBC reporter mistook a dressed-up Eurovision superfan for the rapper last night, billing him as the ‘Finland entrant’ in her broadcast).

kaarija-of-finland-performs-during-the-first-semi-final-at-the-eurovision-song-contest-in-liverpool-england-tuesday-may-9-2023-ap-photomartin-meissner Alamy Stock Photo Finland's Käärijä on stage in last night's semi-final. His stage show features a giant crate and a troupe of harnessed, perma-tanned ballroom dancers. Alamy Stock Photo

At the other end of the table, Ireland has had a pretty disastrous run of form in the contest of late. So how can we improve our odds of winning, or even being in with a shot at the title?

Irish Eurovision fans who spoke to The Journal outside the arena last night agreed something needed to change. Various opinions were offered on what, exactly, would give us more of an edge but the general view was that Eurovision had evolved and moved with the times and that Ireland’s approach simply wasn’t keeping pace. 

“It was a lovely song – it just felt a bit kind-of generic, but they really did a great job in the arena and got a really great reception,” Cian O’Mahony, from Bandon, said as he exited the venue.

“It’s just a shame. I don’t know what we’re not doing right. I feel like we’re writing a song for the Eurovision – but it should be just a great song that happens to go to Eurovision?”

Eurovision Song Contest / YouTube

RTÉ – who, as the national broadcaster, are tasked with choosing and managing our act each year – have tried pretty much every option available when it comes to picking a Eurovision entrant in the decades since our distant heyday in the contest back in the 1990s.

For a period in the mid-2000s we sent talent show winners; we’ve tried an ‘internal process’ whereby established singers or hotly-tipped new acts were chosen by the broadcaster; and for the last two years Eurovision fans – or, more specifically, Eurovision fans and Late Late Show viewers – have been given more of a say in who represents the country with public votes featuring as part of the domestic selection process.

Taking a dispassionate look at the stats, what we have to show for all that from the last twenty years is two lower top ten placings in the grand final thanks to Brian Kennedy and Jedward. More recently, with one exception in 2018, we’ve had a decade-long run of not progressing beyond the two weekday shows. 

A dramatic re-think

Philly McMahon is a co-director with theatre production company THISISPOPBABY. In addition to being a longtime Eurovision fan, he also worked as creative director for Ireland’s act in 2020, Lesley Roy, before the Covid-related cancellation of that year’s contest.

Based on his experience, McMahon insists what’s needed is a root-and-branch rethink of how Ireland approaches the contest. That, and a much higher budget.

“The naff impulse which you often see online is to kick people when they’re down. But nobody goes to Eurovision thinking that they’re bringing something substandard or something that’s not ready or is not exciting.

“That said, we do have to deal with Ireland only qualifying once out of the last nine shows. Anyone good at business or good at art reflects on why these things are not connecting with audiences.

“For me – in my vested interest as both a fan but also as somebody who puts on shows in Ireland – I think that RTÉ needs to recommit to the Eurovision and that often starts with budget, it starts with organisational buy-in. I think the Eurovison department has been starved of oxygen.”

McMahon is keen to make clear he’s not arguing for RTÉ’s longstanding head of delegation, Michael Kealy, to be be replaced.

“He’s not part of the problem. In a department that is starved of oxygen you don’t remove the one guy that’s offering air supply. My point is that changing head of delegation is not going to change the systemic problem that the process is underfunded. There is no strategy for Eurovision beyond panicking every January to get the song together.

“We actually need a longer strategy. We need development of artists, we need buy-in not only from Irish songwriting and peforming artists, but we need buy-in from our designers – from our lighting designers, from our costume designers.”

RTÉ, he says, have put too much stock in bringing in overseas talent – particularly Swedish songwriters and creative directors – and need to do more to showcase what’s on offer here. 

“What you’re seeing is that nothing feels grounded or authentic as to what’s happening in the music scene in Ireland because we have this raucous, brilliant, fun musical history – and present.

“There’s so many interesting things happening in traditional music, in dance music, in pop music, in hip-hop and we’re not seeing any of those reach the outdated national final that happens on the Late Late Show. 

“The plan needs to happen first but what we need to do, starting as soon as possible, is start the search for the many songwriters who could come together to put on the green jersey to find a song.”

McMahon says one option could be songwriting camps, where songwriters come together with the goal of collectively finding the song that could go to Eurovision. 

“What I believe will start to happen then is that actually Eurovision will become part of the bedrock of the Irish music calendar. What you’re not getting currently is buy-in from our sophisticated songwriters and I think what we’ve done wrong in the past is trying to find something that is packaged and ready to go.

“We need to build it like you’d build a big theatre production. Build it like you build a big show, and the performer then becomes one of the amazing cogs in a bigger machine.”

liverpool-uk-09th-may-2023-loreen-from-sweden-sings-tattoo-during-the-first-semi-final-of-the-67th-eurovision-song-contest-at-ms-bank-arena-credit-peter-kneffeldpaalamy-live-news Alamy Stock Photo The staging for Sweden's Loreen features a giant LED screen 'sandwich' that gradually comes apart as the singer performs. Alamy Stock Photo

Songwriting skill aside, the investment in production values and in social media campaigns for Eurovision acts has also increased exponentially in recent years.

Over eight million tweets were sent in the week of the contest last year, and posts on the contest’s official Instagram account were seen 255 million times. Tiktok, now in its second year as the official ‘entertainment partner’ for the contest, is reporting a staggering three billion views for its #Eurovision2022 hashtag.

A quick check this afternoon showed the official Youtube video of Finland’s performance last night had racked up over 700,000 views. Sweden’s Loreen, with her LED screen ‘sandwich’ staging, wasn’t far behind. Ireland’s video was at just under 150,000 at the time of writing.

More can be done on all fronts to increase Ireland’s chances in coming years, according to McMahon.

“It starts and ends with the song but we can do better in every department.

“What I think we haven’t been doing is putting concept staging onto the Eurovision stage. I think it’s hard for people to understand just how expensive it is to do anything up there. Anything that you have on stage has to be struck in 30 seconds. If you let off pyro as Wild Youth did last night you’ve got to pay for every time that pyro is let off – so every single rehearsal, every single dress rehearsal, every single public show. And every time it’s a cost of thousands and thousands.

“If you’re puttting a giant crate - à la Finland – on stage that’s a huge expense. If you’re doing what Loreen is doing, I presume it’s in the €500k plus territory for the staging – that’s just the staging.

“We can’t compete with that. We’re not a drop in the ocean. However it’s also possible to do very atmospheric beautiful things with not a lot of money. 

“Staging is about creativity and what we often do with Eurovision – and I’m thinking of this year and last year – is that we create a pop music TV arena moment.

“We’re not really telling a story with the staging and what we need to do is a theatrical staging – tell a whole story.”

fanz Daragh Brophy / Irish Eurovision supporters Michael O'Mahony and Michael McElhone outside Liverpool Arena last night. Daragh Brophy / /

Ireland may not be featuring for the rest of the week here in Liverpool but the contest, of course, goes on. A second semi-final happens tomorrow night, and fans are already starting to gather at the arena for the next public dress rehearsal, happening in just a few hours’ time. 

Many of the Irish fans who’ve made the short hop across the Irish Sea are sticking around for the entire week, some to reconnect with friends from other countries that they’ve met at contests in previous years. 

Being knocked out hasn’t ruined their week by any means, the fans we spoke to last night insisted – but as one regular attendee, Belfast man Michael McElhone, noted:

“It would be nice one year if we actually had something we could solidly get behind.

“I miss the 90s because RTÉ really did do a great job during those years and it would be lovely to see how we do it now.

It would be nice if it could come back to Ireland.

As for that old argument – mooted many times across social media since last night – that we should just take a break from the event or give up entirely, it’s not a point of view that Philly McMahon has much time for. 

“There are so many of us that don’t feel like a case needs to be made because we love Eurovision and we believe it’s important not only in terms of Ireland’s place in Europe as European citizens but also culturally that we deserve to showcase our performers and songwriters amongst others. 

“It is an amazing coming together of people, it’s the biggest music event in the world with the biggest audience. Not only does it showcase the musical talent of a country but you get all of these snapshots of what each country is like.

“So, you know, it’s a huge opportunity. We never suggest that football teams should stop doing what they do when they lose, we rally behind them.”

RTÉ have not yet responded to a request for comment on the points raised in this article, but we’ll update it if they do.

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