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Fionnuala Sweeney: The atmosphere in Millstreet was electric!

12 November 2016 at 08:00 CET
Fionnuala Sweeney presented the 1993 Eurovision Song Contest Fionnuala Sweeney
The 1993 Eurovision Song Contest was a landmark show in the history of the competition. It was the year that the contest welcomed new participating countries from eastern Europe and the year that a relegation system was introduced for the first time. The contest was held in the small town of Millstreet, County Cork, the most westerly location that the Eurovision Song Contest has ever been staged in. The host for the contest that year was Fionnuala Sweeney, who was recently voted one of the most popular presenters of the Eurovision Song Contest from the 1990s. Fionnuala kindly took time out to speak to about her memories from the time.

Belfast-born Fionnuala was working as a television journalist in Ireland when she was selected to present the 1993 Eurovision Song Contest. The choice of Millstreet, a small town in South West Ireland, with a population of just 1,500 people, was an ambitious endeavor for national broadcaster RTE. When the venue was announced, BBC reporter Nicholas Witchell quipped that the contest was to be held in a “cowshed”. He later apologised and would go on to be proved wrong after RTE staged a slick production, one of the largest ever produced outside Dublin. The people of Millstreet took great pride in having the international competition in their town. “The atmosphere in Millstreet was electric” said Fionnuala. “The week leading up to the Saturday night broadcast was a whirlwind involving the performers, the crew, the press and the fans not to mention the people of Millstreet itself. There was a carnival-like atmosphere amid an air of business. On the night, I watched the opening animation of the show backstage and became so engrossed in it that for a split second I almost forgot I had to walk onstage once it was over. That didn’t help my nerves!” 

In order to accommodate the growing number of countries eager to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest, a preselection was held. Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia all made their respective debuts in Millstreet that year. As Fionnuala recalls, “it was the height of the Bosnian war; the Bosnian entry had a message in keeping with the times its countrymen and women were experiencing. It was also a big moment for the delegation because they had travelled at some risk to get to Ireland to compete in the contest itself”.

1993 was also the final year that juries telephoned their results through and in 1994 satellite links were introduced for the first time. “What stands out in my memory was that when the juries were calling in their votes from their respective countries, there was a huge round of applause when the Bosnian call came through. The applause was in recognition of the difficulties of trying to get through live from a warzone and also in appreciation that the jury had managed to do it”. Fionnuala revealed that backstage there had been some concerns regarding the live links. “It was with great relief that everybody in the arena enthusiastically welcomed the distant, crackly phone line announcing the votes of the jury in Sarajevo”. 

Ireland’s Niamh Kavavangh won the 1993 contest, the first time that Ireland had won on home ground. After the UK’s Sonia took an initial lead, it became clear that it was a two-horse race between Ireland and the UK. Towards the end of the show the voting became tense as Ireland caught up with the UK, something that caused great excitement not only for the audience but for Fionnuala herself. “At some point during the voting I got carried away with the audience’s excitement in the arena at the prospect of another Irish win. So excited in fact that I unilaterally awarded Ireland 12 points from the Netherlands jury when in fact 10 points had been given. Needless to say, the Dutch were quick to clarify the situation and we continued with the vote”.

The Eurovision Song Contest is a very different show today compared to the smaller contest held in Country Cork all those years ago. The seeds of change were sewn in 1993 and the following year seven countries would join the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time. After Eurovision Fionnuala took up a job as a prime-time anchor on CNN based in Atlanta as well as London. Her work during the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006 received an Edward R. Murrow Award, presented by the Radio Television Digital News Association. She has also been part of two Emmy-nominated teams as a result of her work with CNN, winning an Emmy for the network’s coverage of the fall of President Mubarak of Egypt in 2011. Fionnuala looks back at her time in Millstreet with great fondness, “all in all, it was a wonderful experience; my pride at having been selected to represent my country has only increased over the years. When I see how the contest has evolved I am even more honoured to have been associated with it. Viva l’Eurovision!”

These days Fionnuala lives in Washington DC where she is Vice President & Executive Editor with The Cipher Brief, an online platform for national and global security news and analysis. While the subject matter is serious with expert commentary from US national security figures, her memories of the joyous celebration that is Eurovision remain as fresh as the event itself in 1993.