By David Hennessy
Margaret or Margo O’Donnell, the Queen of Country and Irish, reveals all about her 50 years in showbusiness with her new bestselling book, Queen of Country & Irish, The Promise and the Dream.
Margaret’s story is driven by a promise she made to her father on the day he died, she promised that she would look after the family after he was gone. This promise drove her to success but this success came at a cost. Margaret was only seventeen on the day her father passed away. However, Margaret took her promise so seriously that she couldn’t take its pressure and it “destroyed” her.
The new book takes its reader through the harrowing time when Margaret was the victim of a sexual assault from someone she knew and this traumatic experience led to her reaching for the bottle in a desperate attempt to survive. It also deals with rumours that followed her through her career. These included that she had had children and put them up for adoption, that she was Daniel’s mother rather than his oldest sister and that she was gay.
Margaret told The Irish World of the day her father passed away from illness: “When he was there, everything was okay. When he was gone, nothing was okay, ever again.”
Her father’s death came on the same day that Margaret’s band The Keynotes were first played on radio. After promising her father to look after the family, Margaret would have to sacrifice her own happiness and leave this band, moving to Dublin where she established Margo & the Country Folk: “In hindsight, if I had been able to stay, I think the result would have been the same because The Keynotes really believed in me but I didn’t have the time money-wise to stay until it got built up. I had to do something because we had rent to pay and I was in the position where I was offered £100 a week and in 1969 that was an awful lot of money.
“Leaving home was awful, I cried so much on that journey to Dublin. You couldn’t believe how lonesome I was, but leaving home was because of the promise. I hope that I make it very, very clear in the book that I’m not blaming anybody for the promise. I took the promise far, far too seriously. I had to go above and beyond. I always felt that I underachieved so therefore, I was always trying to reach higher.
“I was too naïve to think, ‘I only have to keep it afloat’. I went beyond what was expected of me. My father didn’t mean me to go into the depths of despair. I did it because I wanted to over achieve for them and I panicked. The promise brought me down through my own fault. My father didn’t ask me to put myself in danger or to start drinking under pressure. That’s not what he meant.”
Something that seemed to help Margaret cope with the pressure was alcohol but while it made her more confident onstage, it made her unable to sing as well as she could. Her drinking problem will nearly destroy everything she worked for: “To be quite honest, I’m quite lucky. Alcohol could be streaming outside my door and it wouldn’t even interest me now. All I did it for was effect and courage.
“I swear to God I was in such a place, I was terrified of the stage. I was terrified of the one place where I could bring joy to others and I didn’t want to be terrified of it so I found alcohol to be a crutch that would help me to walk up there with total independence, as I thought in my stupidity of drinking. I would walk up there thinking: ‘I can do this’. And actually all the time I was killing and destroying the gift that God gave me. I was destroying my singing, the voice that God had given me to reach out to people. The real reason why people were coming into those halls in their thousands, I was abusing it. That’s what I was doing.”
Margaret says that she “cried a river” writing her memoirs over the last couple of years. Most upsetting was addressing rumours that had been said, and believed, about her for years. She had never dignified these with a response before: “All the rumours about me having kids, Daniel being my son, me being gay: All these kind of things, I didn’t deal with them because they were ludicrous. How did anybody know? Where did it start? I said many times to my family: ‘Let’s leave it’. The only person that I was afraid of it hurting really really badly was my mam and I said that to Daniel many times: ‘The only person this is hurting is mother because it doesn’t hurt me and you’.
“They were very ridiculous those rumours because nobody really knew the real me. I didn’t let anyone know the real me so how would they know if I had children? It actually went out that it was a very well know TV personality who had adopted my children so I didn’t deal with them because to me they were ridiculous first of all and secondly, because I didn’t feel I had to. I didn’t feel that I had to explain my private life to anybody but when I wrote the book, I said that I was going to tell everything and I had to brush on them.
“It was hard to deal with them, it wasn’t too hard to write my heart out about the drink but dealing with the other rumours, I realised in writing that they had affected me because I cried when I would write about it and say: ‘How could anybody say those things when they didn’t really know me?’ I hear a million rumours a day and I don’t listen to none of them. I don’t because I know what it’s like to be the target of rumours and it’s terrible.
“I would have loved to have children. Back in that era the one thing that was drummed into you: ‘Don’t get pregnant’. Because your life was over. It wasn’t accepted like it is today. If I was of that age now, would I have children? Absolutely, I love them. I think they are our greatest miracles.
“The first time I heard the rumour, I was out with this fella, we had been out on maybe two dates or something, and he just said to me: ‘Do you ever see your children?’ And I said: ‘What children?’ And he said: ‘The children that you had adopted’. And he didn’t say it with any malice or anything. He said it because he heard it and I suppose he believed it. That’s how I heard it first and it was so ridiculous. It wasn’t ridiculous to have a child but it was ridiculous in that era the fact that I didn’t have a child.”
Margaret writes about touring all over the UK and remembers playing at the well known Cricklewood venue, The Galymore and how sad it is that it is no more: “That Galty should never have been tossed. It was such an institution. I remember when I got Donegal Person of the Year, this man met me and he had a very very sad look in his eyes and he said: ‘Do you remember me?’ And I looked at him and said: ‘I knew you from the Galty’. He said: ‘I spent my life in London and I succumbed to the demon drink but the Galty was the only home I knew’. I was his connection to home with the songs and the Galty was his home.
“Places like the Galty were institutions for the Irish that needed to be there. I would love nothing more than to stand on Cricklewood Broadway and point to the Galtymore today and say: ‘That’s where we brought our music, that’s where we met, the heart of the Irish music’. I was only there once since it was brought down and I must admit I cried.
For the full interview, pick up the October 25 Irish World.
Margo, Queen of Country & Irish: The Promise and the Dream, is published by The O’Brien Press and out now, priced £16.99