By Eileen Murphy
Daniel O’Donnell is unfailingly polite, with a courtly manner and self-effacing demeanor that seems oddly out of place in a singer who has sold millions of records throughout Ireland, the UK and Europe. Ask him what it’s like to be famous, and he’ll pause for a few seconds. "I don’t feel any better or any different than anyone else," he said. "I’ve just been very lucky."
But while luck is certainly a valuable commodity in the music business, O’Donnell, who this week embarks on his first U.S. tour, was also blessed with a talent for singing and the kind of looks that just beg to be photographed. And, most important, he seems to be every bit as nice in real life as his music, videos and television interviews make him out to be.
O’Donnell has built a career on the sort of old-fashioned songs that has made the "Irish Tenors" video and CD a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. "I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen," and "Danny Boy" were O’Donnell staples years before other they were rediscovered.
"These are the songs I grew up with," O’Donnell said. "It’s the kind of music I’ve always loved."
Given his relatively young age — he’s 37 — it’s natural to wonder whether O’Donnell had ever been tempted to more youthful music — like the demon rock and roll?
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"I actually was invited to audition for a pop band when I was about 16," he said. "But I knew, from an early age, that I wanted to be happy in what I was doing. It was more important to me than being successful.
"Not that I didn’t want to be successful. Of course, I did. It’s just that it was more important to me that I love what I was doing. And now I have the best of both world — I love my music, and I love being able to spend time here at home, and I love being able to meet my fans."
Daddy sang bass . . .
The youngest of five children, the singer hails from Kincasslagh, Co. Donegal. O’Donnell recalls growing up in a house that "was filled with music."
"We would sing together in the evenings," he said. "My mother, my sisters Kathleen and Margaret, my brothers John and James, my father, my uncles, my grandparents — everybody loved to sing. We sang all the old songs, which is, I guess, why I love this type of music so much. It was ingrained in me from an early age."
O’Donnell’s sister Margaret launched a career in show business as the country and western singer Margo. When he was 19 years old, O’Donnell joined his sister’s band — as a singer.
"I can’t play any instruments," he said chuckling, "not even the comb.
"Singing with Margaret’s band was a wonderful experience for me. I learned so much from her about the music industry, about touring and performing, and about the business end of things."
He paused for a moment before continuing. "I was able to experience everything with no pressure on me at all," he said quietly. "That made it much easier for me to learn the things I needed to learn."
His father died in 1968, leaving his wife, Julia, to raise the children on her own.
"She is a very strong person," says O’Donnell of his 80-year-old mother, to whom he is, famously, devoted. "She had to be both father and mother to us, and she did a wonderful job."
Like any mother, Mrs. O’Donnell worries about her famous son.
"I love to be out in the sun," said O’Donnell, "especially when I’m on holiday. And my mother always worried about that."
He chuckled. "I found that people I knew, friends and neighbors, were always reminding me to stay out of the sun, to wear a hat, and so on." After a while, it dawned on O’Donnell that his mother was encouraging the neighbors to warn him about sun exposure.
"My mother thinks everything that happens to you is down to staying in the sun too long," O’Donnell said. "If I had a sore throat, or had a headache or stubbed my toe, it was because I was spending too much time in the sun."
Fans in hot water
The subject of his fans is close to O’Donnell’s heart.
"It’s wonderful to be able to speak to my fans, to have a connection with them," he said. "It’s just the best feeling in the world. I love seeing them after a show, shaking hands with them, just the whole thing."
O’Donnell enjoys his fans so much that, on occasion, he opens his home to the public and invites them in for tea.
"We used to do it every year, right around the Mary from Dungloe festival," he said. "People would queue up for hours, and the lines were incredibly long. Sometimes people would stand out in the rain, waiting to get inside.
"We’ve scaled it back to an occasional event, though, because I realized that many of the same people would come every year. I worried about the expense of them coming all the way up here. The last open house was in 1997, and we’re having another one this year, the first Thursday in August."
So he’ll be out drinking tea with the devoted?
"Well, actually, " he said, conspiratorially, "I don’t drink tea."
Saints preserve us! So what’s in that delicate china cup?
"Hot water," he replied. "No lemon, no anything. Just plain hot water."
Calling all Irish
O’Donnell is happy to be touring the United States, but says he’s a bit puzzled by the reception — or lack of it — that he gets from Irish people in America.
"I love working here in the States, but I have to say that I am a bit disappointed that Irish people don’t come out to see us as much as I thought they would," he said.
"I find that our audience is mostly American. Right now, I’ve been working in Branson, Mo., and it’s been great. People — ordinary Americans, without any Irish connections — are responding really well to the music."
O’Donnell will appear in New York this week, as well as in Boston and Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., but says that he’s surprised at how hard it is to break into the U.S. market.
"It’s hard to travel in the U.S. because it’s so big," he said. "And I’m not sure I want to put in a great deal of time trying to make it here. I love touring in Europe and the UK, because I can go for a week and then fly home to Kincasslagh. When you come to the States, you need to stay at least a month."
Still, O’Donnell is touchingly grateful for his success.
"I’m blessed to have the kind of career I have, and the kind of life I have," he said with quiet conviction. "I love what I do. You can’t ask for more than that. I’m a very lucky man."
O’Donnell’s U.S. tour:
Washington, D.C., May 20, 7:30 p.m. — Birchmere, Alexandria, Va., 1 (800) 551-SEAT.
New York: May 21, 8 p.m. — Town Hall Theater, (212) 307-4100.
Philadelphia, May 22, 8 p.m. — Keswick Theatre, Glenside, Pa., (215) 572-7650
Boston, May 23, 7 p.m. — Berklee Performance Center, (617) 931-2000