Legendary Irish singer Daniel O’Donnell readily admits that he doesn’t write many songs. But two that he has written came to him almost as inspired works when he was on pilgrimage in 2002.
“When I went to Medjugorje, I didn’t intend to write songs,” O’Donnell told OSV News in a recent interview. “I just felt I wanted to go.”
However, while he was in the town in Bosnia and Herzegovina — which despite being an unapproved Marian apparition site welcomes millions of pilgrims a year — O’Donnell wrote a hymn about the Blessed Mother, titled “Sweet Queen of Peace,” which he said he “felt very compelled to write.” “I felt drawn up the mountain and wanted to sing ‘Sweet Queen of Peace,'” O’Donnell said.
He also wrote “When Darkness Falls,” a hymn in praise of the crucified Lord and trust in providence. Ascending the very rugged terrain in Medjugorje, O’Donnell recalled having a walking stick in one hand and a flashlight in the other. He looked up into the darkness of the sky, saw the stars and remembered thinking what would become the song’s opening lyrics “when darkness falls, I feel you close to me.” He didn’t have a free hand to write that evening, but pledged to put it to paper when he returned home. He did. And recorded it.
Born the youngest of five children, O’Donnell grew up in a small sea town in County Donegal in northwest Ireland. Although he considered a career in accounting, O’Donnell began his music career in 1980, getting his start with his sister Margo, who was by then a famous musician in Ireland. About a decade later, after a run of sold out shows, O’Donnell was hit with exhaustion.
He recalled in his 2017 memoir “Living the Dream” that “when I faced an uncertain future, I started to seek solace through my faith. And I began to think: Well, maybe there’s something else HE wants me to do. … I’m very pleased that HE didn’t want me to do something else.” By the mid-1990s, O’Donnell was a household name throughout the U.K.
Now at 62, O’Donnell shows no signs of slowing down. He appeared on the U.K. music charts earlier this year for an unprecedented 35th year in a row, this time for his latest album “How Lucky I Must Be.”
One of Ireland’s most beloved singers, O’Donnell has garnered a substantial American audience as well. His PBS specials first appeared in American living rooms over two decades ago, and he now has a weekly television program on satellite and cable via RFD-TV. On Dec. 15, he will wrap up a monthlong tour of the U.S., where he held concerts in the Northeast and Florida, as well as a string of performances in both Branson, Missouri, and Shipshewana, Indiana.
His music is mostly secular country and pop, with Christian mixed in. Irish music, O’Donnell tells his audience, often tells a story and is related to American country music, and he considers the genre his favourite. His most recent tour included many religious Christmas carols, but also standards such as “Footsteps,” about the Lord’s presence in our lives, and his take on the Rastafarian ballad “By the Rivers of Babylon” about the Hebrew exile as recounted in psalms 19 and 137.
O’Donnell doesn’t wear his faith on his sleeve, though. “I’m not in the world telling people what they should do, and I don’t judge people at all because we never know how anybody’s life is,” he said. But his strong Catholic roots have shaped and informed his work throughout a successful career.
An intentionally strong sense of family comes across for O’Donnell’s audience, which he called “just an Irish thing.” Concert-goers have no doubt how much the star loved his late mother or how devoted he is to his wife of 22 years, Majella, or their children (Majella’s from a previous marriage), and three grandchildren.
And O’Donnell is known for his great connection with his audience. After his concerts, he takes the time to meet and greet those who come to hear him perform-many of whom he has got to know over the years. “I always say, a show doesn’t change the difficulties that anybody might have in their lives, but it might diminish it for a period. Lots of people say the music is a comfort. But that’d be true of a lot of singers, not just me.”
“In life, if there’s something you can do to make things better, even for one person, it’s great to be able to do it,” he told OSV News. “And I’ve had the opportunity to be able to do it in abundance. It’s been a great opportunity. It’s a great way to spend your life.”
O’Donnell recalled how “things very much revolved around the church” in his earliest years, including attending October devotions and novenas in May. He loves going to Mass, which he insists is not out of obligation but because he recognizes its great value. “It’s a good thing for me,” he said.
The singer’s Catholic culture is often evident on his social media, and O’Donnell regularly lends his musical talents at his parish, where he often sings in the choir when he’s not on the road.
O’Donnell has had his own share of struggles in life. His father died when he was 6. His wife battled breast cancer. He’s had his own difficulties in his career. But he keeps a healthy perspective. “I don’t know that anything that’s ever happened to me has been as bad as happens to some,” he said.
In 1998, O’Donnell became very involved with raising money for Romanian Challenge Appeal, a charity that helps orphaned Romanian children find a place in society. During this time he urged Irish families to give a temporary home to them.
He recorded the song “Give a Little Love,” which speaks of the importance of showing love to others in need. When O’Donnell sang the song he was drawn in his mind to images he was shown of a Romanian orphanage. He asked the songwriters and record company to use the song to raise money. Having gone to Romania, he realized the enormity of the horrible living conditions of the children.
“People who have celebrity should realize that they can do things that people who are not celebrities can’t do,” O’Donnell told OSV News. “There were lots of charities I was involved with at home, but I felt others could help them, too. I felt that maybe nobody would ever come across this charity again.” For his work, O’Donnell was named an honorary citizen of Romania in 2000. He recalled the experience as “a privilege, really.”
“Achievement is not on the world stage. It’s what you can do. And the least person can achieve more if they’re given the chance,” he said.
When O’Donnell is asked to pray for others, he said he immediately prays to their guardian angel to take care of them. “I say, ‘Angel of God, his/her guardian dear … .’ In that moment I’m thinking about that person. I pray to all the angels of the people who ask for prayers, too.”
He also is drawn to the rosary, calling it “powerful.” “That’s very much the thing of Medjugorje, too. It’s beautiful,” he said. “The positivity, prayerfulness, all in one place. Amazing.” He hopes one day to return.
Picture: Irish Catholic singer Daniel O’Donnell performs at the Blue Gate Perfoming Arts Center in Shipshewana, Ind., during his recent U.S. tour. (OSV News photo/Andrea Rentschler, Blue Gate Theatre)