Secret Garden: An Instrumental Career Built On 90s Eurovision Stardom

Unquestionably Ireland’s most famous ever Eurovision took place in 1994. As well as an Irish win, through Paul Harrington and Charlie McGettigan’s ‘Rock N’ Rolls Kids’, a far more lasting legacy was established through the first-ever performance of Riverdance at The Point.

Because of the win, the contest returned to Dublin in 1995, a Eurovision long thought to have been deliberately lost by the home team, due to the cost of hosting the event the following year. In an odd twist, though the winner that year, Secret Garden, has substantial Irish links. Irish-Norwegian instrumental band Secret Garden (representing Norway) had met at the contest in 1994, and through their unusual (for Eurovision) haunting track ‘Nocturne’, brought a little Irish glory through violinist and Naas native Fionnula Sherry. The band have always lived apart, working together across two countries, with songwriter Rolf Løvland based back in Oslo.

Amazingly, 23 years after forming, and following Sherry’s spectacular recovery from two broken arms back in 2015, the pair are still going strong, and have just released the first ever version of their other big hit ‘You Raise Me Up’ to feature the vocals of Johnny Logan. Logan made the original recordings, only to be bumped in favour of Brian Kennedy on the single that was ultimately released, a point of some dispute with Logan that has finally been cleared up all these years later.

“It’s like a full circle being back,” Sherry says ahead of the pair’s Late Late Show performance just ahead of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. “I’ve actually played in a lot of Eurovision’s with the orchestra, as we were having that nice run of wins at the time.”

“We connected in ’94, and thought maybe we could do something together,” Løvland recalls. “I had a lot of instrumental tunes I was working on. I started to send some songs over to Fionnuala, and that was the beginning of Secret Garden.”

“I don’t think there’s been another song like our since,” Sherry admits. “We juxtaposed the idea of instrumental and lyrics, the vocal part was the introduction to the song [Nocturne], and the outro. It was planned for the album, the development of Secret Garden. It was halfway produced, and then it was suggested we do something very different for Eurovision.”

The CONIFA Diaries, Matchday 6: An Atmospheric Final, and An Encounter with Tibet

Karpatalya v Northern Cyprus, CONIFA Final at Enfield Town FC

There’s a park match taking place at the side of the pitch at Fisher FC, in the shadows of the towering buildings of the Isle Of Dogs. Kids in Bristol Rovers shirts and kids in Tibet shirts have little idea what’s going on over on the pitch, but their intense battle for supremacy isn’t a bad contest.

Bristol Rovers fans’ affinity for Tibet is a strange side angle on this tournament, one that’s jumped out like the Tottenham fans’ strange love for Hungarian side Szekely Land, and the Watford fans’ love for Panjab.

It’s the final day, and I’m completing my ‘clean sweep’ of every team in the CONIFA World Football Cup: by sheer good luck, the two I haven’t seen – Tibet and the United Koreans In Japan – have drawn each other in an 11th and 12th place playoff, in a convenient location in fairly central London that allows plenty of time to head over to the final.

Tibet have been followed passionately, by all accounts throughout the tournament, and while they’ve been close, they’re yet to pick up a win. They take the lead, through a powerful edge of the box drive, but spend most of the game pegged back into their own penalty area.

The largely dominant Koreans equalise with about ten minutes left, and threaten to snatch it. Instead, they win on penalties, though not before Tibet score their first, and their striker rips off his shirt and does a Hulk impression to celebrate. The Tibetans are sung out by the haunting melodies of their fans: they’ve massive underdogs and they’ve been close in most games, playing a multitude of players from semi-pro leagues. They’ve done themselves proud.

I decided to skip the third/fourth place play-off and spend a couple of hours writing – as you can probably imagine, I have a substantial amount of work to do on my CONIFA book now, and also a certain amount of football fatigue. The two games today bring me to a total of 16 live games in a nine-day period (and only six of those nine days had any games at all on them), so I’ve been going some.

The final, way up north in Enfield, drew in a massive crowd. An entire squad of Abkhazians were draped over the closed off area of the stand. Tuvalu players climbed trees to get a better look at the pitch. Behind one goal, a large group of Hungarians set off flares and sung throughout, while the Northern Cyprus fans responded with melodic pipe and drums, and countless flags.

The CONIFA Diaries Matchday 5: Fantastic Semis Light Up The World Football Cup

Tuvalu v Tamil Eelam at Sutton United

“To understand Panjab, you need to talk about the partition of Hindustan, and the effect it had on people of any religion other than Hindu or Muslim. We were just caught in the crossfire.”

I love the conversations that happen around this tournament, and one of today’s was an in-depth lesson on the history of Sikhism, and the consequences of the formation of India and Pakistan on the religion. Panjab is one of the few entities that represents both.

This was a real ‘up and out’ day: four games of football in a day is, let’s be honest, too much. But it was necessary:

I’ve been quietly fostering a small behind-the-scenes goal over the last five days: to see all 16 CONIFA sides in action in person. That probably doesn’t sound all that challenging, given the tournament lasts ten days, but in realit,y it required two results to go my way today. I saw Panjab and Tuvalu for the first time at Sutton United, and I needed both United Koreans In Japan and Tibet to lose today so I can catch them playing each other before the final on Saturday. I don’t want to wish defeat on anyone, especially the loveable Tibetans, but I got lucky: it happened.

Seeing Tuvalu was just excellent. They’re one of those teams who can’t defend, at all, and as the game went on they played a higher and higher line, allowing a fairly weak Tamil Eelam team – a side who hadn’t scored before this game in the entire tournament – to simply play the ball in behind them and run onto it. That said, Tuvalu were surprisingly adept going forward, and smashed in a couple of brilliant goals, including one hit at pace on the volley from 15 yards, to lead 3-1. Both sides also missed a penalty, the Tuvalu ‘keeper making a diving save to keep out the Tamil Eelam finish.

Then Tuvalu capitulated, conceding three late goals to lose 4-3, the last two goals coming in stoppage time. Probably the game of the tournament so far, though you have to feel for the (smaller)  islanders.

After a brief lesson in the history of Sikhism and the importance of the Panjabi identity, I caught the first half of the North Indian team’s win against hosts Barawa, too, which ultimately ended 5-0. They were the highest ranked team coming into the tournament (though not the favourites), and looked very decent if lacking a particularly outstanding playmaker. They’ll play for fifth place next.

The CONIFA Diaries, Matchday 4: A Lull, A Protest, A Thrashing, and A Cracker

Sutton United entrance CONIFA World Football Cup

Every tournament, even a World Cup, has a lull: a moment when – if only for one game – you wonder if there might just be something better you could be doing with your time. Whether it’s England’s invariably turgid group games against ‘lower standard’ opposition at the World Cup, or a player dispute at CONIFA, a tournament wouldn’t feel quite real without it.

That moment has just arrived for me. It came somewhere between A Tuesday morning mini-scandal, and a quarter-final thrashing. Both involve unfortunate hosts Barawa.

Someone observed to me today that CONIFA seems to be taking part in large part on Twitter. It is an impressive social footprint the tournament is leaving across London, a part of which I am contributing to, in my own little way. It was through that particular medium that I learnt of a dispute over the results of Group A on Tuesday morning, after the final games took place on Sunday.

Barawa’s star man Mohamed Bettamer, a former Libyan international and African Champions League player, was evidently registered after Barawa’s opening game of the tournament against Tamil Eelam on Thursday night, and went on to be a critical player in both their loss against Cascadia, and in their win against Ellan Vannin. The latter result saw the Isle of Man side knocked out. Barawa won the game 2-0, and Battamer got a goal and an assist. Ellan Vannin vociferously protested. I gather, from asking around, that Cascadia weren’t overly happy with his inclusion, either.

Some have made the fairly obvious point that Bruce Grobellaar turned out for Matabeleland on Sunday, against Tuvalu, and also wasn’t on the squad list. I’m inclined to believe that CONIFA have been universally lax with the rules on player registration, as they suggest, given the obvious difficulties with sorting squads for a tournament like this. But the pure fury reigning down on the organisation from the Ellan Vannin side – and Barawa’s radio silence on the issue ahead of their game with Northern Cyprus on Tuesday afternoon – didn’t do the tournament any favours, right or wrong.

I understand the need for a laid back process around player registration – as CONIFA’s Secretary General pointed out on Twitter, several teams wouldn’t have made the tournament without it – but I also understand frustrations at the late inclusion of a clearly very good forward. There’s a bit of me that wonders if Ellan Vannin might have been better served taking it on the chin, but then again, I understand their frustration. Perhaps quitting the tournament and heading home early, though, was a little overblown (and yes, that’s exactly what they’ve done).

As a result, the lower-tier ‘placement’ games are heavily disrupted, with Tibet turning out yesterday against a late, volunteer opposition drawn from the local Turkish community, and given a by in a game that should have been against Ellan Vannin.

The Last Dublin Flea Market in Newmarket – May 2018

Newmarket Square on the day of the final local Dublin Flea Market

For the last five years, I’ve lived a short walk from two lively, varied and enticing markets in Newmarket, Dublin 8, called the Green Door Market and the Dublin Food Co-op. They are essentially warehouse buildings, but beautifully used ones.

The fast development of the area around Newmarket has been a mixed blessing for us: it’s included the arrival of a long-overdue public park, the Teelings Distillery, and big increases in house values (the latter goes for pretty much everywhere, of course, though I suspect our part of Dublin 8 more than most).

When an area starts to attract things like these markets, the long-term result is often the departure of the more inventive and low-budget things that attracted people to the area in the first place. The markets helped create an allure and, in turn, land value in this part of Dublin 8. That very same effect is now pushing them out as those shabby warehouses stand to be knocked down to enable development.

Taking a step back, I have mixed feelings about it all (the arrival of Weaver Park just down the road really changes our four-year-old’s life, for one). But I’m really, really sad to see the back of these rugged markets, a Sunday mainstay for us since 2013. I would far prefer they stay, but sadly it’s not to be.

For the final Dublin Flea market, I walked around quite emotionally snapping a few pics to remember it all by. These are below, taken on Sunday, May 27. The end of an era.

The CONIFA Diaries, Matchday 3: The Favourites Fall, and A Taste of Kabylia

Northern Cyprus and Abkhazia line up for the anthems in Enfield

“We’re Turks, not Greeks. I can’t imagine any player from Northern Cyprus would ever want to play for Cyprus, any more than he’d want to play for Greece” – it’s a quick outline from a fan, but a good summary of one of the most convincing arguments for the ascension of a non-FIFA affiliated country from its current status. Northern Cyprus have had players – like Muzzy Izzet – turn out for Turkey, but turning out for the current Cyprus team is just unthinkable.

The Turkish-Cypriots in Enfield on Sunday afternoon are passionate, and more than happy to lay out their position, as the inverted Turkish flag – red on white rather than white on red – of the Cypriot Republic sits draped all over Enfield Town’s Queen Elizabeth II ground.

The Abkhazians were somewhat less forthcoming on their relationship with Georgia – “we don’t talk about that,” two tell me, before launching into the longest national anthem I’ve ever heard in competitive sport, delaying kick off by a couple of minutes to allow for their solemn orchestral opus.

Two years ago, CONIFA’s second ever World Cup was played out in Abkhazia, a separatist region of north-west Georgia, with the hosts taking the title in penalties, and followed fanatically. Over 5000 people attended the final.

Their bid to retain the title crashed and burnt this weekend, first against Hungarians in the Ukraine, Karpatalja, with the late replacement side who’ve risen to the occasion beating them 2-0, and then with a 2-2 draw in which they couldn’t add to a late equaliser against Northern Cyprus in a ‘must win’ encounter.

This was an odd game, perhaps best described as melodramatic. It was poorly refereed, and with the Abkhazia side a touch aggressive, and the Northern Cyprus side willing to go down at the slightest touch, things were a little farcical at times. Nevertheless, Abkhazia opened the scoring with a thunderbolt of a finish from 25 yards, though Northern Cyprus has been in charge for much of the game. The Cypriots hit back to lead 2-1, before a late penalty and lots of farcical bickering saw out the game at 2-2, enough to see Northern Cyprus through in second in the group, and holders Abkhazia out.

Ellan Vannin, another side I had pegged as a potential winner, crashed out elsewhere as Cascadia got more than the five-goal goal win they needed against Tamil Eelam to overturn the Isle of Man side on goal difference, and see themselves through alongside hosts Barawa, who shocked Vannin.

The CONIFA Diaries, Matchday 2: Mad Hungarians, Upsets, and A Trip Down Wembley Way

Szekely Land fans in Haringey Borough, for the game against Matabeleland

In the baking heat in Haringey, I’m trying to talk to a Hungarian about his side, Szekely Land. “We are Hungarian,” the half-cut fan and his mates yell repeatedly at a largely empty stadium half an hour before kick-off, pausing to whisper that they have a bag full of flares, and plan to whip them out as soon as the players appear.

He looks at the opposition and promises an easy win, dipping into the supremacy of Hungarians over Romanians, while his mate attempts to burn the lace off my shoe to use to tie his flag. He thinks he’s being subtle – I copped it straight away, but figured the cost of the shoelace is worth the madness of the ‘interview’ – and soon three inches of string carefully burnt from my rugged old pair of Sondicos is being used to attach a red, green and white flag with some dubious looking lettering to the pitchside railing.

Szekely Land are playing Zimbabwean rural underdogs Matabeleland in the blistering heat, and despite the advantage that might seem to afford the African side, Matabeleland are on a road to sad self-destruction. The men in tribal white and orange start strongly, pressing the Szekely Land side back and making several solid chances.

They implode shortly afterwards, their goalkeeper shown a straight red card only twenty minutes in for flying out of his goal and clattering a forward clear through on goal – the first decent Szekely Land chance. From then on, it was only a question of ‘how many?’ The answer was five, and with Padania and Sekely Land both two wins from two against Tuvalu and Matabeleland, Group C is over with a game to spare. It’s hard not to love the naive flare of Matabeleland, but in a stadium surprisingly dense in nutty Hungarians intent on ‘trolling’, maybe some things are for the best.

There’s always some fun to be had with Matabeleland, though. This time it came through the ‘keeper’s new way of firing the ball out: an incredible flat kick out of his hands that flew 70 yards at extreme pace, at no more than head height, and caught out Szekely Land several times. It was odd enough to have caught out almost anyone. No Bruce Grobbelaar this time for the Zimbabweans, but he’ll likely be playing tomorrow.

The results from around the ground started trickling in from CONIFA, and a couple stood out. Holders Abkhazia, beaten by this tournament’s Denmark (circa 1992), Karpatalya, another Hungarian ethnic minority, this time in the Ukraine. Western Armenia turned over CONIFA’s number one ranked team Panjab, and Cascadia got their act together to beat hosts Barawa, who looked excellent in their opener (full results below).

Working With: Story Terrace

In journalism circles, the first question anyone asks you is almost always ‘who do you work for’? It occurs to me, then, that it might make sense to start telling you, when I get the time to sort a post or two on the people who keep me so wonderfully busy.

I’m going to start with Story Terrace, a fast-growing producer of personalized, private books, who commission me to work with Irish clients from their office in London. They’re a little bit of a departure for me: I most often work with features going up to about 2000 words, but I’ve had assignments from Story Terrace in the tens of thousands, sometimes taking months to put together over a heap of different personal interviews. It’s a fantastic experience.

Typically, in my experience so far, the books come either as gift from family, or are bought by someone trying to tell a story of their life, who doesn’t feel able to do it themselves. More often than not, these people have had fantastically interesting lives. They’re often relatively late into life, and talking about some of the deeper connections they’ve made, and the experiences that shape them. At times, I’ve found it quite personally profound, too.

I can’t talk specifics, as every book I produce is private, and belongs to the person who commissioned it. If you don’t work in journalism, you’d probably be surprised to learn how much of the work we do is not credited by name, but assigned in some other, less explicit way. I don’t mind, at all: these stories are often some of the more interesting ones I get to write, and intensely personal. You can read my profile on their website, here, which I actually love in its own right. I was asked to sum up my own story in a couple of hundred words and relate it back to writing. It came out sounding far nicer than I could have anticipated.

I’m choosing now to talk about this particular work in part because Story Terrace are at a key moment in their evolution, and currently seeking crowdsourced investment, here (in fact, as I write this, they’re close to fully-funded). I’m no financial expert, but they look like a very solid investment to me. They’re currently selling books as well as they ever have, including the option to buy in Harrods. That means you can technically currently commission me in Harrods, should you want to, which I think is pretty mad.

The world moves in mysterious ways…

Check out some of my other writing clients here.