SHE was Ireland’s leading country music star, even
out-selling the Beatles in the 1970s, but now Margo
O’Donnell says she fears poverty after being “raped” by the
music business for 30 years.
The elder sister of Daniel O’Donnell says a promise she
made to her father before he died tied her to singing
country music until it nearly destroyed her. “I have to be
honest and tell it like it was — a horrid business that
raped me for 30 years.
“I have lost millions by being used by people in the
business,” said O’Donnell, 55. “Every pound I earned had
someone else’s name on it.”
O’Donnell wanted to be a nurse but, after her father died
suddenly when she was 16, she felt compelled to honour a
promise she made to him on the day he died that she would
look after the family. “I wanted to get married and to have
three or four children. Instead I am on my own and taking
each day at a time to cope with my past.”
O’Donnell’s mother, Julia, was left penniless with her
five children in a council cottage in Kincasslagh when the
49-year-old farm labourer died.
The 10 shillings the 16-year-old Margo earned each time
she performed with her band kept the family going. Within a
year of her father’s death O’Donnell appeared on the Late
Late Show, which launched her career. She got a manager who
paid her a weekly wage.
“I was 17 and just so naive. I had absolutely nobody with
me to look after me,” she said. “It was the money that
really forced me to take the job. It was £100 a week and
that was a lot then and would mean that I could look after
the family and honour my father’s promise.”
All O’Donnell’s earnings from a gruelling tour schedule
were sent home to her mother, who used them to feed and
clothe Daniel, James, Kathleen and older brother John, who
worked in a local shop. Within two years she had her first
No 1 single and her wage was increased to £200 a week.
However, O’Donnell received nothing from the sale of her
records. “Of course I didn’t even know what royalties were
back then and I certainly didn’t get any.”
In 1974, when severe head injuries suffered in a car
accident left her out of work for more than a year she
received no pay, despite the fact her records were
outselling the Beatles. “It was a very hard time for me. And
after it I really hit rock bottom.”
The singer turned to alcohol, which combined with the
painkillers she was taking left her severely depressed.
She became dependent on anti-depressants during the early
1980s. During this time, without her knowledge, her master
tapes had been sold on to a Belfast company that was making
a fortune by releasing them.
After counselling and a stint in rehab the singer
launched a court battle in the 1990s to win back her master
tapes but found her health was deteriorating. She was forced
to stop touring after being diagnosed with a rare blood
disorder called dyscrasia.
In 2002 when she won her court case a judge said that her
tapes should have always belonged to her but she had no way
of going after the millions that had been lost over her
career in royalties and releases.
O’Donnell’s psychiatrist told the court that the singer
had suffered emotionally and physically over a 30-year
period in the music industry and was now worried about her
O’Donnell’s story will be told in A Little Bit Country on
Friday, April 7 on RTE1 at 7.30pm