The Eurovision of Things

That peculiar barometer of cultural life in 20th century Europe, the Eurovision Song Contest, may seem like an unlikely backdrop for any discussion on the changing face of Ireland. However, this festival of cultural kitsch and questionable hairstyles can tell us a lot about  Ireland’s journey over the last half century.


The secret history of the Eurovision includes some notable off-screen incidents. The 1974 Portuguese entry ‘E Depois do Adeus’ finished an unimpressive fourteenth in a field of seventeen in that year’s contest. Shortly afterwards on April 25th, the song took on a new and altogether different lease of life when it became the pre-arranged signal on Portuguese radio for a peaceful coup d’état to overthrow the forty year old Estado Novo dictatorship.


Whatever about its impact on Eurovision, the song can take some credit for altering the course of Portuguese history. And then of course, there was the fall of the Berlin Wall. Put to one side for one moment its impact on European history and think about its seismic impact on the same Eurovision Song Contest. Gone were those plaintive ballads from quaint countries like Ireland and in came the eastern hordes with choreographed displays of everything from flame throwing to heavy metal grunge.


The Eurovision is also a useful starting point in mining the cultural history of Ireland over the last 50 years. This story starts with a small country on the periphery of Europe winning the song contest in 1970. Seventeen year old Derry girl Dana, dressed in an embroidered white mini dress, charmed Europe singing a song called ‘All Kinds of Everything’.


By today’s standards, it wasn’t a particularly slick performance and the lyrics would be regarded as distinctly quaint, even juvenile. It was, however, charming and succeeded in capturing the hearts of the Eurovision juries. In these early Eurovision contests, Ireland’s ace card was the ballad with its narrative of an island on the periphery of Europe. There followed in the 1980’s and 90’s what could best be described as Ireland’s Eurovision golden age. Wins in 1980 and 1987 were followed by a stunning Eurovision hat trick in 1992, 1993, 1994 followed by yet another win in 1996.


One popular Irish media angle during this era was the perennial story of the RTE executives with furrowed brows, fretting over the financial cost of hosting yet another Eurovision should Ireland win yet again.  The Eurovision’s love affair with the emerald island culminated with Riverdance in 1994, when the Irish dance interval act literally stole the show at that year’s song contest held in Dublin. We pinched ourselves – could this really be us?


But then something changed. Old Ireland began morphing into New Ireland. No longer the land of cailíns singing ‘All Kinds of Everything’ or kindly old men posing with bikes beside signposts at deserted crossroads, we were now – in the words of that famous IDA advertisement – the ‘Young Europeans’, people who, at the drop of a hat, could code, produce Viagra by the ton and to top it off, could be ‘the craic’ at any social gathering. We were, above all else, new and modern - the most equal, the most politically correct and the most popular people not just in Europe but the whole world.


Irish people have a particular take on the word ‘modern’. In most European countries, while people view their grandparents and the post war world they inhabited as materially poorer, nonetheless, they are still capable of appreciating the richness and diversity of those worlds.

Not so in Ireland where terms such as ‘the 1950’s’ have a particular cultural resonance, more usually viewed as a place of stunted people living out unfulfilled lives in the shadow of an authoritarian state and church. In Ireland, merely introducing a term such as ‘the 1950’s’ into a conversation immediately changes the tone of the conversation in much the same way as mentioning terms like ‘holocaust’ does in other countries. Unlike many other European countries, there were no concentration camps or mass killings in Ireland but that doesn’t stop many Irish commentators from believing that Ireland emerged from a past that was every bit as despotic as any other European country of the time.


As well as being ‘modern’, New Ireland’s other great self-defining characteristic is that it is ‘equal’, or more correctly, a place where equality is enshrined in all aspects of government. In this regard, New Ireland’s elites like to regard themselves as special people. Going by their own narrative of themselves, not only did they invent the concept of equality but they are also the sacred keepers of the equality flame.


Like many societies before, New Ireland is mesmerised  by the concept of equality. This is by no means a new phenomenon. In fact, the notion of an equality based around economic equality played a key role in European history during the 20th century with the rise of various versions of socialism and communism. It may have been based on the noblest of ideals but the general consensus is that both the outcomes and the political philosophy underpinning it proved to be utterly toxic.


So what happened to Ireland’s Eurovision dream? Since the turn of the century, Ireland has only managed to make the top ten in the Eurovision on just three occasions. Unthinkable in the 1990’s, we finished last in the 2007 final and again in 2013. We’ve tried rock songs, pop songs and even in desperation, turned to old ballads. Our Eurovision low point surely was Dustin the Turkey’s 2008 tongue in cheek entry called ‘Douze Points’ – which singularly failed to impress the Europeans. These days, for a country so accustomed to winning, even reaching the Eurovision final is seen as a sort of moral victory in its own right.


Many trace Ireland’s dramatic Eurovision change of fortunes to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the new European world it created. Now, for every post-Communist country, nothing is more sacred than competing in the Eurovision Song Contest, supreme festival of dodgy lyrics and high kitsch. This has also seen the emergence of a new hybrid eastern European American English as the new lingua franca of the Eurovision. Even the signature ‘douze points’ now looks like being consigned to history.   


These days, there’s more than a touch of nostalgia about Ireland’s Eurovision golden age. In its Eurovision heyday, Ireland’s image of itself as the endearing, somewhat peripheral country on the edge of Europe served a particular narrative. In recent times, this has given way to a new image of Ireland as the modern, progressive utopia where equality comes as natural to people as coding.


Impressing others on the European stage with our modern and progressive credentials has now become part of New Ireland’s narrative of itself. However, given its Eurovision performances, it would appear that the rest of the world couldn’t care less about these or indeed many of New Ireland’s other deluded affectations.


These days, they’re dancing and singing again in places like Tallinn, Warsaw and Vilnius. It’s not just because of the Eurovision - they’re dancing and singing because of the demise of the toxic and failed ideology which promised much but which ultimately blighted the lives of those touched by it.


A phenomenon of the New Ireland has been the arrival of hundreds of thousands of these same people who are literally fleeing from the socialist dream. Some are here for an adventure and will, no doubt, move on again; others have stayed and made their homes in Ireland. However, none of them are under any illusions about the political ideology that formed them and their parents.


Meanwhile, at a time when a new Europe has finally shaken off the shackles of a toxic and failed ideology, Ireland, former Atlantic outpost and conservative backwater, is starting to fall in love with the exotic allure of a political system and its utopian promise of equality for all.