RTE One, Monday 11 May at 9.35pm and BBC One NI at 10.45pm
BBC 4 Friday 15 December at 11pm
50 years ago, an 18 year old schoolgirl left the Bogside in Derry and headed off to Amsterdam to represent Ireland in the 15th Eurovision Song Contest. What happened that night was to change her life forever.
Dana the Original Derry Girl is an emotional and honest look back at that young schoolgirl’s incredible life story, retracing her steps to the stage of the RAI theatre, where against the odds she became Ireland’s first Eurovision winner.
At a time when the violent conflict of the Troubles was dominating the news and peoples’ lives back home, Rosemary Scallon, better known as Dana and often referred to as ‘The girl from the Bogside’ literally became a national hero overnight.
Dana relives that overwhelming moment on stage when she won, before travelling back to Northern Ireland to call at her old family home and visit her former school. Studying for her A levels when she won, Dana was totally unprepared for the instant celebrity which followed, she recalls how the whirlwind of sudden success left her feeling lonely and isolated and how she tried to run away from it all one night.
That win was 50 years ago and the programme looks at the fascinating story of what happened afterwards, including her successful pop and TV career in the 70s; her marriage to Newry hotelier Damien Scallon; her move to Alabama and religious music with performances for the Pope before entering the spotlight of Irish politics.
The highs and lows of her career are laid bare including Dana’s reflection on how at the height of her career a medical scare meant she couldn’t sing, the scary times which followed ultimately led to her marrying Damien when she realised “her work didn’t hug her at night”.
Archive footage of their marriage being celebrated on the streets of her divided hometown highlighted the positivity her success achieved. “We didn’t realise it was the tenth anniversary of civil rights so there were international crews in Derry as well waiting for something terrible to happen and what they experienced was a party for the whole city, it was absolutely wonderful.”
Dana talks about being inspired by Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland, which she had missed, but it led to her and Damien writing ‘Totus Tuus’ her Number One hit.
She finally broke into the American market in the 1980s when her husband took a job as Manager of a Catholic cable TV network. Dana had time to focus on her family with people who didn’t know who she was or what she did before, but it wasn’t long before she got drawn into the American Christian music scene.
But perhaps the most surprising chapter in Dana’s story was her decision to enter the race for the 1997 Irish Presidency, changing the course of Irish presidential elections forever. Journalists were deeply suspicious and critical of Dana’s conservative views, but she confounded critics by finishing in third place, with just under 14% of the vote and as she put it herself at the time… “I may not be President, but I am a precedent.” Success in politics followed shortly after when she was elected as an MEP for Connaught Ulster, bringing the family back to Ireland from Alabama, when they settled in Galway.
It was during her second attempt at the Irish Presidency in 2011 that she got some devastating news. Allegations of historical sexual abuse against her brother John had been leaked to the press and were about to be published. That night on a live TV debate she issued a statement (without making any direct reference to her brother or the exact nature of the allegations), strongly denying the allegations. What followed was a stream of media coverage, which has had a profound effect on the whole family. A trial in 2014 found her brother not guilty but Dana is still coming to terms with this “worst of times”. In a very raw and emotional interview she talks openly about the effects the allegations had on her family and her health. “Like everybody’s life there are the really hard things that happen, they either crush you completely or they make you stronger and I’m working on that”, she says. After these difficult years, it was to music Dana returned, recording a new album in Rome in 2018.
Dana the Original Derry Girl is an archive rich trip down memory lane, with incredible access and an honest and sometimes raw look at the highs and lows of her incredible career. With contributions from the co-writer of All Kinds of Everything, Derry Lindsay, Senator David Norris, Dave Fanning and many others, the programme ends with Dana joining local choirs on stage in the Guildhall Derry, where she performed as a young girl to take part in a moving version of All Kinds of Everything.
Asked what advice she would give to her 18-year-old self if she could travel back in time, she pauses and says, “Just be kinder to yourself and enjoy it more”.