Support ESC Insight on Patreon

The HoD Spotlight: In Conversation with Ireland’s Michael Kealy Written by on April 12, 2016 | 7 Comments

Ireland will present their fiftieth entry for the Eurovision Song Contest this May, with Nicky Byrne and ‘Sunlight‘. As part of our Head of Delegation spotlight series, John Lucas speaks to Michael Kealy about ditching ‘The Late Late Show’, the changing face of the Song Contest and the pressure to stay ahead of the Swedes…

2016 marks twenty years since Ireland last won the Eurovision Song Contest, breaking their own record and establishing a tally of victories that at the time seemed unassailable. Since then, the Song Contest has changed immeasurably, and while their record still stands, at times it has felt as though the Irish have struggled to change with it.

Michael Kealy first took the mantle of Ireland’s Head of Delegation (HoD) at a moment when the Irish people were arguably at their most ambivalent about their place in the brave new world of 21st century, post-televoting Eurovision, as evidenced by the decision to send abrasive local celebrity Dustin the Turkey with the euro-baiting ‘Irelande Douze Pointe‘.

After a few years break, he returned in 2013 and has steered the country through a period that has seen broadcaster RTE try out a variety of different approaches to make Ireland a competitive force in The Contest again.

“It’s no secret that our results in the last few years haven’t been great” he admits, “but we constantly review our process with a view to finding the best possible act to get us into the finals and to give us a real chance of winning the competition from there. Typically, my job as HoD would involve co-ordinating an open song selection for our Eurosong national final. This year we decided to bypass that process and choose the song and artist directly.”

Ireland’s Professional Approach

Ireland’s Eurosong selection has historically been associated with the Late Late Show, and in recent years has proven more memorable for the antics of guest judges such as Linda Martin and Louis Walsh than the competing performers and their songs. Addressing this problem was a key factor in Kealy and his team’s strategy for this year.

“When you have an open selection, what tends to happen is that you get a lot of amateurs” he says. “You either get people who are at the very start of their careers, or people with day jobs outside the music industry. But Eurovision isn’t an amateur competition, and we need to raise the calibre of performing and songwriting talent and start appealing to professionals again.”

“From speaking to a lot of my colleagues around Europe at various meetings over the past few months, many of them felt that direct selection gave them the best results. I know for example that The Netherlands went through a period when they were really struggling to qualify, but they’ve had great success in the last few years by switching to an internal selection and working with established artists like Anouk and The Common Linnets. It wasn’t something we’d ever tried before, but after doing a bit of my own research, I felt that it could be something that was really worth exploring.”

As luck would have it, Nicky Byrne, a popular radio personality and former member of multi-million selling boyband Westlife, already had a song that he was interested in taking to The Contest. “The timing was perfect” says Kealy, “we were already looking at a different selection method, and the fact that Nicky was a professional who has sold 40-50 million records, and has a track record of performing at the highest professional level was very attractive to us. If we’d asked him to go through a national selection, I’m not sure it’s something he would have been as keen on.”

Whether or not internal selection becomes the standard for Ireland in the future is likely to depend on several factors, including Nicky’s performance in Stockholm. “Ultimately, our aim is to find the best act and song to go into the Eurovision Song Contest and win. Internal selection gives us a lot of control over what we do, and I think and hope it’ll make The Contest more attractive to professional singers and songwriters in the future. But I wouldn’t ever rule out involving the public again at some point. The best thing we can do is to keep trying different things to deliver the best possible results for Ireland.”

The Trouble With Sweden

It isn’t lost on Kealy that Sweden, the country currently snapping at Ireland’s heels with six wins to their seven, have one of the most successful public selection formats in Europe. But producing a Melodifestivalen-style show in Ireland would be a tall order.

“Sweden are going through a bit of a golden era at the moment” he admits. “They’ve been very shrewd in terms of how they’ve re-shaped their national selection in recent years, and they’ve really cornered the market in pop music, not just for Eurovision but across the global industry. We wouldn’t have the scale or the budget for a show on that level, so we have to be a bit more creative about how we go about things.”

“There was a show called ‘The Hit’ that we broadcast a few years ago, which was really good because it put the focus squarely on the songwriting. There was some discussion about possibly tying that to Eurovision, but at the end of the day it comes down to money, and producing that kind of show isn’t cheap. However, we do keep an eye on the talent that’s coming through shows like The Voice and X Factor, because I know other countries have had a lot of success with performers who’ve come up through those formats.”

Bridging The Credibility Gap

Like their neighbours the UK, Ireland does have a rich and varied music industry that tends to travel well, from the likes of U2 and Sinead O’Connor to modern acts like Hozier and The Script. So why doesn’t that always translate to Eurovision?

“There’s a bit of a credibility gap when it comes to Eurovision in Ireland and the UK. It’s not necessarily looked at as a serious competition, whereas in Sweden and many other countries across Europe, professional artists see the benefit it can have on their careers and have no issues with getting involved. So while we do punch above our weight on the world stage, our biggest artists wouldn’t necessarily see Eurovision as a serious opportunity.”

“When you’re winning something, everybody wants to be part of it. During the 90s when we were doing so well, we did manage to attract some really strong artists and songwriters. When you’re not winning, it tends to look like a less attractive proposition. I think if we won again, that would certainly spark a revival of interest at that higher level of performing and songwriting.”

A Legacy Worth Defending

When Nicky’s song was unveiled back in January, the feedback from the international fan community was broadly positive, but the Irish media seemed to react a little more cooly. Now that their golden era is two decades behind them, is Ireland suffering from a loser’s mentality?

“The media in Ireland is always quick to criticise anything RTE does, so it isn’t a huge surprise that they’re not always the biggest cheerleader for our act. That’s fair enough and to be expected. Personally, when things don’t go our way it’s the artists I tend to feel for. In 2008 nobody was terribly surprised when Dustin didn’t qualify, but we had a lot of fun while we were out there. Last year Molly [Sterling] was a great performer and a great ambassador, and I know she has a great career ahead of her no matter what. We were all delighted when Ryan [Dolan] made the finals in 2013, and I still feel that we deserved a lot better than last place that year. But that’s the game.”

With seven victories and fifty years of participation to look back on, what does Eurovision mean to the Irish public in 2016? According to Michael, no matter what the results are, Ireland’s enthusiasm for the contest remains undimmed.

“The Irish public still feels a sense of ownership over the contest, we still have that title and rightly or wrongly we still like to think we’re the best at it. Most people have grown up with Eurovision, and it’s one of a small handful of TV shows that are considered a genuine must-watch every year. They love it when we do well, and they hate it when we don’t, but the support and enthusiasm is always there. It very much plays into our competitive spirit. Make no mistake, we want to win again and we’re going to do the best job we possibly can to make it happen.”

About The Author: John Lucas

A writer and content marketing professional with a passion for getting lost in strange cities and a strange fascination with micro states, John has been with ESC Insight since 2015 and has also had his writing featured in publications including The Guardian, Popjustice and So So Gay. Tweetable @JLucas86.

Read more from this author...

You Can Support ESC Insight on Patreon

ESC Insight's Patreon page is now live; click here to see what it's all about, and how you can get involved and directly support our coverage of your Eurovision Song Contest.

If You Like This...

Share This Post

Have Your Say

7 responses to “The HoD Spotlight: In Conversation with Ireland’s Michael Kealy”

  1. “There’s a bit of a credibility gap when it comes to Eurovision in Ireland and the UK. It’s not necessarily looked at as a serious competition, whereas in Sweden and many other countries across Europe, professional artists see the benefit it can have on their careers and have no issues with getting involved. So while we do punch above our weight on the world stage, our biggest artists wouldn’t necessarily see Eurovision as a serious opportunity.”

    i want to put this in trapstry from to show the haters for the UK what they’re bullsh*tting about.

  2. Cathal says:

    What RTE need to realize is you get out of ESC as much as you out in, that is why Sweden have 4 too 3’s in 5 years and Ireland have 1 too 10 in that time….Germany should be the country to look at, look how big ESC is now compared to what it was like before Lena won.

  3. John Lucas says:

    To be fair to RTE, Michael stressed repeatedly in our conversation that they simply don’t have the resources that the likes of SVT and NDR can work with. In terms of population, Ireland is one of the smaller countries in Western Europe – more comparable to the likes of Denmark and Finland than Sweden and Germany. They’re also still emerging from a major recession. As a public broadcaster, they’re working within a very limited budget. Could they have done better in recent years? Absolutely. But I believe that they’re learning and making a sincere effort to find a formula that works for them. Ditching the tired Eurosong format feels like a massive step in the right direction to me.

  4. Cathal says:

    I understand the point about finance and population but, with the music industry that Ireland has to get 1 last place and 2 NQ’s in 3 years is simply not good enough at all I am sorry. They should look at how NED and BEL do it, pick a talented artist (doesn’t have to be a big name) and equip them with a catchy modern song and then you’ve good a great entry (alas Jedward in 2011)

  5. John Lucas says:

    Isn’t that exactly what they’ve done this year though? I definitely get the sense that RTE have been paying attention to the Dutch model in particular…

  6. Cathal says:

    I like our song but I wouldn’t call it exactly “modern”. It does however give me hope for the future.

  7. Cathal says:

    One thing that just popped into my head, what about Hungary? Pardon my French but Hungary’s economy is f’ed yet they are to put together quite a decent selection show in “A Dal”? Personally I’d rather go with the dutch method because let’s face it, no top song writer will give one of there best songs to some nobody where as they would be much more willing to give it to a well established artist alas Nicky Byrne. But in the end the Hungary debate is quite an interesting one.

Leave a Reply