Margo has entertained audiences for almost six decades
Returning to the stage for the first time since the pandemic is an experience that singer Margo O’Donnell expects will be emotional as she returns home to sing for her people, once again.
The soft-spoken Donegal woman turned 70 the year the pandemic struck and she has not yet had the opportunity of celebrating the milestone event with her fans.
“I had concerts in for that year, they never took place … I haven’t really done much since then. I am not retired - I never use the word retired when it comes to singing because you will always sing,” she said.
The talented performer clearly loves coming home to perform to her dedicated fanbase: “I just like being in Donegal, I like coming back to Donegal and doing a show and you just never know when it’s going to be your last show,” the Kinncasslagh native said.
She hasn’t been home often due to the pandemic but travels, when possible, to see elderly neighbours who are close to her heart. Many of her elderly and loved neighbours have passed away over the years - leaving in their stead memories of times gone when Margo and her siblings played in the stone-walled fields of Kincasslagh.
“Since my mother passed away, I haven’t gone home that much anymore. In a very happy way, I go to my mother and father’s grave. In contentment, I go there.”
Francie O’Donnell, like many, left to go to work in 1968 and Margo recalls her mother talking about him up until the day she died.
“I knew that she went to dad. I think about her daily and sometimes when something funny happens or when I hear from somebody, I still, after nine years, I still find myself saying ‘Oh God, I must tell mam’ and then I realise that she is gone so the concert in Letterkenny is going to be an emotional one. I want to go home. I want to do the concert at home and I want to do it with the county people like David James and Shunie Crampsey. It is going to be a special show. I am so looking forward to it,” she said.
The band on the evening in the Mount Errigal Hotel will be the Ryan Turner band - a group of men that Margo said are like brothers to her.
Margo who has been singing and touring since the tender age of 13 has vast experience on the circuit and hopes younger stars will also have a wonderful career.
“I have had a wonderful career and have done almost everything I want to do and … and the shows that I do now are just other shows where I get to meet the people again. Music I always say is a cry from the heart,” she said.
She says each song has a story to tell and for her each song tells more than their own story; they own a piece of her heart as they place her back in a place and a time where that song was poignant to her.
“I have very, very special fans - the fans that I had when I started out with the Keynotes, any of them who are alive are still my fans and my friends today and they are the most important people to me. I wouldn’t have anything without the fans,” she said.
Margo began singing with the Keynotes when she was 12 years of age: “I was 13 on my next birthday.”
Margo used to sing in the local choir and when concerts took place in St Mary’s Hall in Kincasslagh the local priest would ask her to sing during the intermission. She was only five years of age when she took to the stage in the hall.
“During Lent, that time, there were no dances and the Keynotes used to put on a drama in the parochial halls and they knew I could sing.”
It was following one fateful summer that the young singer’s life changed completely. She had spent the summer in Ayrshire tattie hoking with her brother John and other relations. She came home on Saturday and on the following day, she and her cousin went for a walk. When she returned home, her mother told her the Keynotes had called to see if she would sing with them during school holidays and weekends.
Margo recalls the conversation: “My mother said their lead singer has got a real job, that was Enda Breslin, he went and joined the guards.
“Then with my father and mother’s blessing … with a stern set of rules set by my dad to Tony Boyle from Convoy to look after his little girl, I sang for the first time when I was 13, in Ardara, in October of 1964. At that time, I didn’t look at it as a job, I always wanted to become a nurse, get married and have a couple of kids,” she said.
In 1968, she recorded her first song with the Keynotes, ‘Bonnie Irish Boy’ - a song that was given to her by her late father, Francie, and at that time they didn’t have the means to play the song before the release date. Francie was extremely excited and eager to hear it. Unfortunately on the very day the song was released - a day that Margo and her family were due to celebrate - Francie unexpectedly passed away.
“It was to be played for the first time on radio on the sixteenth of August, 1968 and without any warning my dad died that morning and he never heard the song. So, when it was released mam and myself and John and Kathleen and Daniel - we took a little portable record player over to the graveyard and we played it over the grave. That was the day, I always say, that changed my life forever,” she said.
Before the doctor had come to see her father that fateful morning, Francie had asked Margo to kneel down beside his bed and asked her to look after their mother, Julia, and her siblings.
“I said to him, ‘but I am only earning ten shillings a night’ and he said oh you’ll manage it. So, he died about an hour after that. I took the promise very seriously and I recorded another song and it went into the charts. In 1969, I got an offer from a Dublin promoter and I left the Keynotes - I got an offer for a hundred pounds a week and a car and a driver on the road and I talked it over with mam and that was the answer to our problem. If I took that offer I could then keep my promise to my father,” she said.
Margo recalls that their uncles and aunties were very good to them: “Everybody helped along and the rest is history. I am at the stage in my life now where I can sit back and watch Daniel’s success. He was down in Killarney there for four nights and I was watching him on Facebook and I rang him then and told him I am so, so, so proud of you,” she says.
Margo accepts that while she herself has not been blessed with the gift of children, she has been very much blessed with good friends, family, and that God bestowed her with a gift the day she was born and she also accepts that God may take that gift when she leaves this world.
“I always feel like letting my feelings out and I wear my heart on my sleeve and I don’t think I have done much wrong to anybody.
“I have tried to help everybody but it is a rough business and it was rough when I started out for a woman because they weren’t accepted. It was no different in Nashville and Tennessee because fortunately I got to know all the ladies there and they had the same experiences as women have here,” she said.
Margo met Dolly Parton, recorded together and became friends many years ago. They spoke of their experiences and found many similarities on the path of their musical lives. On one occasion, Dolly brought Margo to the place she grew up and Margo was astounded at how remote it was.
“I said to her, I don’t know how you ever got out of it,” Margo said.
The singer says that as a friend Dolly has always proven to be honest and true.
She said if someone had told her as a teenager that she would meet the great singers she idolised she would never have believed them.
“I have an awful lot to be grateful for and it is great to be able to go out and make people happy by singing and talking to them,” she said.
Margo shares a strong relationship with her family. A number of years ago, Margo spent some time in St James Hospital and it was often her brother Jamesie who lifted her heart.
“James is special,” she said.
“We nearly lost James when he was six weeks old. We were in on the island where my mother was born and he got sick and John and I were wakened to say goodbye to him because he was quite ill,” Margo recalled.
The experience ensured Jamesie had a special place in all their hearts, not least of all his late mother, Julia.
“Everybody knows him. People will say to me when I am away, ‘oh we know your brother’ and I will say everybody knows Daniel and they say ‘no not Daniel, Jamesie,” she said laughing.
Margo enjoys many beautiful memories of her life shared with performers, fans and family and this October 6 is eager to weave more beautiful memories into the cloth of her life. She hopes to see all her fans and enjoy her time on her county stage in Letterkenny.
It promises to be another wonderful performance during a career which spans almost six decades.
Subscribe or register today to discover more from DonegalLive.ie
Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.
Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.