Known to her many fans throughout the world as Ireland’s ‘Queen of Country’, Margo O’Donnell spoke to the Donegal Democrat about life growing up in rural Donegal, some of the hard decisions she faced in her life and her successful battle with alcohol at an evening where all the ashes of the past were thoroughly raked through.
Margo said, “My infant years were divided between Acres, Burtonport, my father’s home, Owey Island my mother’s home, Forfar, Scotland and finally Kincasslagh, Co. Donegal.
“My early days of education were spent at Belcruit national school, Dungloe national school and finally Loughanure technical school. At a young age, while still at school, my brother John Bosco and I spent our school holidays picking potatoes or ‘tatty hocking’ as it was known in Ayrshire and Renfrewshire, Scotland like many young people did from West Donegal.
“I always used to sing as a child and in 1964, I was approached by the Keynotes Showband, a local group of lads from home to sing with them. With my parents consent and strict orders from my dad to look out for me, I joined them and would sing locally at weekends and school holidays, and then we ventured to Scotland.
“If the truth be known, I never intended it to be my full time occupation. I always wanted to be a nurse, work at that for awhile, get married to a nice man, settle down and have three or four children but fate had other plans laid out for me.
“I recorded my first album Bonny Irish Boy/Dear God in 1968 with the Keynotes. The week of its release, my dad passed away suddenly.
“This had a profound effect on me. My father was the sun, moon and stars to me and my life would never be the same again.”
Margo added that for her mother Julia it was a particularly hard time - a widow at an early age with a young family to raise in West Donegal.
“I suppose both John Bosco and I took on the roles of breadwinners. We really felt that there was a responsibility on us to help my mother, something I will never regret when I look and see how well they have all done and when I still see that sparkle in my mother’s eyes.”
Margo continued,”Life is full of ups and downs and, believe me, l’ve had my share of both but I am still here many years on.
“The showband life wreaked its toll on us all in those days. We were on the road night after night from one part of the country to the other. Drink was very much part of the showband culture. It was part and parcel of the life - a few jars with the lads after the show and, of course, when you were popular everybody wanted to buy you a drink.
“I suppose it was inevitable that it would get the better of me and what followed was a few years of both alcoholic drinking and depression.
“It can be very much the hidden disease, especially when you are in the public eye. People see the bright side of you when you are on stage or making public appearances without realising that you are suffering inside.
“Without being long-winded, I eventually recognised my problem but most importantly, accepted it and took the necessary steps to deal with it. I have many happy days of sobriety behind me now, I think about 20 years but I don’t bother counting the days and just take each day as a brand new day.
“Don’t get me wrong - I have had many happy days and hopefully many more to come. Really what life is all about is striking the right balance.”
Margo spoke of one incident that had a major impact on her recovery. “Something always happens in our life that brings about major change. There is always a reason that influences certain directions in life.
“I remember going into a small club in Fulham and I could hear some one whispering my name repeatedly. I couldn’t see anybody at first and eventually I saw this man sleeping rough.
“I stopped and he said to me ‘All I want to do is to go in and hear you sing but I am barred. I just want to hear you singing ‘At the Close of an Irish Day’
“I spoke to the priest who was running the dance and I persuaded him to let him in. The man just wanted to come home to Ireland and get sober.
“A year later, I went back to London and found him and brought him home and got him into treatment. He had done a lot of damage to himself but he became sober.
“This man who had suffered so much over the years unfortunatley died after six months but to this day I still remember him telling me that his six months of his sobriety was the happiest time of his life.
“Maybe this man’s story might help someone who is going through a tough time at the moment and in the present economic climate I am sure there are many. The most important thing to remember is that there is help out there.
“I am sure if a doctor was to tell a terminally ill cancer patient that if they followed a certain pathway that they would recover, they would jump at it. There is life after alcohol and a very enjoyable life. It’s all a matter of getting out there and enjoying it.
“It really is great to wake up in the morning and remember where you were the day before and, more i mportant, to be able to appreciate both the good things and good people that surround you on a daily basis.”
Asked whether she will ever write her full life story, Margo replied, with a twinkle in her eye, “There is a good book in everyone and I can say that there is an autobiography in the pipeline. When I do get around to it, it will be no holds barred - it will be warts and all!”