Dana: Mother Angelicas Songbird Gets Political

Most Americans have probably never heard of the European Parliament. With good reason. Though its members represent the people of the European Union, it has very little power, and even Europeans hardly bother about it.

But many American Catholics have probably heard of the singer Dana Rosemary Scanlon who has been the featured singer on Mother Angelica’s Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) for six years. In June, elections to the Parliament were held in the 15 member states of the Union. Dana was elected as a representative from her native country of Ireland.

No surprises were expected from Ireland. Pundits confidently predicted that the candidates who were supposed to be elected would be elected. But in the West Ireland constituency of Connaught/Ulster, Dana’s election stunned Ireland’s complacent political establishment. What surprised’ the establishment is she did so with hardly any money and without support from a big party machine. What worried the establishment was that she is known not only as a singer but also a pro-life, orthodox Catholic.

The establishment went into denial. She didn’t because a latent, orthoxdox, pro-life vote is out there waiting to be tapped. She won, the pundits opined, because she is famous and because the people who voted for her are stupid. One commentator actually said that Catholics should be disenfranchised. Others said it was a rebellion against the ruling Fianna Fail party, which is mired in allegations of corruption.

A Rising Star

Certainly Derry-born Dana (that is her stage name, Rosemary Scanlon is her real name) is famous. She sprang to public attention in 1970 when, at the age of 19, she won the Eurovision Song Contest. This annual Europe-wide singing contest is watched by tens of millions of people across the continent during its finals. In 1970, Ireland wasn’t in the habit of sending forth talent to win international competitions. It was a small, fairly poor, inward-looking society that provided a quaint, rural theme park for American tourists as well as pretty backdrops for films like The Quiet Man.

Since 1970, Irish artists won the Eurovision four more times. Smash hits like Riverdance have raised the profile of Ireland immeasurably. Former president Mary Robinson has wowed audiences the world over. An Irish cyclist won the Tour de France, and Ireland’s soccer team has reached the finals of the World Cup twice. The Celtic Tiger, Ireland’s booming economy, is a talking point on the business pages of newspapers worldwide. A British newspaper has even called Dublin, a boom town if there ever was one, “the new Paris.” Northern Ireland politician John Hume won the Nobel Peace Prize and an Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In 1970, all of this was yet to come. Dana’s Eurovision win was like a shooting star. It blazed a trail of light across a dark sky and delighted people at the time. Everyone over the age of 35 can vividly remember the sweet, pretty Irish teenager sitting on her stool singing “All Kinds of Everything.” The win imprinted itself indelibly on Ireland’s collective conscience, and everyone took great pride in it. It showed that Ireland could compete and win on the international stage after all.

Shaking Up the Status Quo

Because her winning the Eurovision would never be forgotten, it did not really matter that 27 years passed before she would grab public attention again. In 1997, she stunned the nation by returning to Ireland from the United States and running in the presidential election. Although Fianna Fail’s Mary McAleese won, Dana took a very creditable 14 percent of the vote after being totally dismissed by the Irish media.

At first her candidacy was treated as a joke. Many people asked, “Who does this singer think she is running for the presidency?” Others who hadn’t lost track of her were even more dismissive. They knew she had become a Christian singer and a gentle but outspoken advocate of pro-life and Catholic causes. Most of her recent recordings are religious, and she had sung for the pope on a number of occasions, including the closing Mass in Central Park during John Paul II’s October 1995 visit to the United States. Dana was best known in the United States for her television series for EWTN in Birmingham, Alabama, where she and her family lived from 1992 until she won the election.

Dana’s entry onto the political stage surprised none more than herself. Despite growing up in the bitterly divided town of Derry in Northern Ireland, she somehow managed to remain apolitical despite the violence and civil strife that was beginning to tear the North apart at exactly the time she won the Eurovision. Her singing career and her very strong, close-knit family managed to insulate her against all that.

Her family and that of her husband, Damien, are devoutly Catholic, but at first, she made no real connection between her religion and involvement in public life. What really deepened her faith was her contact with evangelical Protestants in America. They made her more aware that faith cannot be external and must be lived out day by day. When talking to her and listening to the language she uses, it is obvious the deep influence evangelicals had on her. In turn, her deepened faith led her to become more interested in social issues with an obvious moral dimension, foremost among them abortion. Later, her interest in social issues led her to think about politics more generally. When the idea of running for the presidency was presented to her and after much thought and prayer, she accepted.

It was inconceivable to the Irish establishment that this throwback to Ireland’s benighted rural Catholic past should run for an office held by sophisticated, educated, and, above all, liberal Mary Robinson. Unperturbed, Dana pressed on, and by winning 14 percent of the vote, she unsettled a left-wing clique that thought it had the nation firmly under its control. She was a joke no more.

A Second Chance

Unable to find a job in Ireland following her strong showing, Dana returned to EWTN. Her many critics thought they had seen the last of her. They were disappointed and soon began to worry, because reports began to surface that she was thinking of running in the European elections. The months passed and finally, with only weeks to go before the election, she arrived in Connaught/Ulster announcing she was indeed a candidate.

Again, the left-wing snobs came out in force. How dare this rank amateur, this Catholic singer, even think of gate-crashing politics where “professionals” only need apply, they exclaimed. What they really meant is that traditional-minded Catholics need not apply because other rank amateurs, usually of the liberal variety, have run for and won office at various levels of politics, including the national parliament, and they never ran into this kind of criticism.

As best they could, the media ignored her campaign. They wanted to avoid a replay of the publicity Dana received in the presidential election. But the silent treatment didn’t work. She beat the favored Fianna Fail candidate for the third and final seat from Connaught/Ulster in the European Parliament.

Why did she win? Three reasons: her fame, her winning personality, and the hard work of pro-life activists energized by the fact that at long last they had a candidate who stood a realistic chance of winning office.

When she ran in the presidential election, her fame almost guaranteed her acres of newspaper coverage. She was a novelty candidate and made for good copy. However, this alone was not enough to win her support, especially after the novelty had worn off. She had to translate the bubble of attention into votes. People who liked her because of her Catholic and pro-life views formed an automatic base of supporters, but the remainder had to be convinced she wasn’t a cranky, right-wing candidate.

Dana’s winning personality and basic intelligence came into its own as her campaign unfolded. When people realized that her sweet demeanour was utterly sincere, that she had a sense of humor about herself, and that she was obviously, palpably a woman of integrity and decency, she began to attract solid support beyond her Catholic base.

During the course of the presidential campaign, some interviewers tried to expose her lack of real political knowledge, often with barely concealed contempt. This impressed no one. In fact, if anything, it won her further support. Politicians with policies are a dime a dozen compared with politicians with principles. Policies change with the latest opinion poll, but principles are forever. While Americans fully appreciate that Bill Clinton is the master of policy details, it’s hard to know what he really believes in or what he is unwilling to sacrifice to expediency. With Dana, what you see is what you get.

Many young, articulate pro-life activists were attracted to her campaign in the presidential election (see the March 1999 issue), and the same people readily enlisted in her latest campaign. They were the ones who did the hard work of knocking on doors, putting up posters, and handing out leaflets. Dana didn’t need support from a big party machine because supporters gravitated toward her as if by a law of nature.

The Secret of Her Success

After the election, a debate broke out over how to interpret her win. To what extent was it a pro-life vote? Did people vote for her simply because of her fame, or was it a protest against the main parties? The political establishment quickly decided that her victory was an aberration, so it did no to dwell on its stinging loss for very long.

In Ireland, as elsewhere, most people vote with bread-and-butter issues uppermost in their minds, so even though a majority of Irish people still attend Mass and are anti-abortion, no one really knows how many cast their vote mainly on the basis of what a candidate thinks about abortion and other issues important to Catholics.

Before the return of Dana to Ireland, there was no opportunity to test the size of this vote because every pro-life candidate until now has been too low-profile to attract attention. However, while it is true that some voted or Dana as a way of rebelling against the main parties or simply because they liked her, a poll of her supporters would certainly find a very high percentage who voted or her because she is a pro-life Catholic. If one had to make an educated guess, probably two-thirds to three-quarters of her supporters fall into this category. Since 14 percent voted for her in the presidential election, the latent conservative vote in Ireland may amount to about 10 percent of the electorate. But Dana is certainly about more than simply the pro-life movement. She conjures up for many people an image of a gentler Ireland than the land of the Celtic Tiger.

While it is wonderful that the Irish economy is booming at last, the old saying about people knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing is in increasingly true of Ireland today. The gods of new Ireland are sex and consumerism. Dublin’s burgeoning professional class may know the worth of their share portfolio, but there’s a good chance they don’t know the name of their neighbor or the person they slept with last night.

Those who voted for Dana are uneasy about where society is headed. Dana is a reminder that people matter more than money, principle are more important than policies, and there was a time when we didn’t have to lock our front door before popping into a neighbor’s for a cup of tea.

The vote for Dana was largely a pro-life vote, but it was also a signal to the political establishment that many people are uneasy about the pell-mell rush to embrace all things modern. As yet, there seems to be little willingness to listen. So be it. Their refusal will only cause the rebellion to spread beyond the borders of Connaught/Ulster until it reaches Dublin itself.


  • David Quinn

    David Quinn is an Irish commentator on religious and social affairs. For over six years, he was editor of The Irish Catholic, a weekly newspaper. He has written weekly opinion columns for newspapers such as The Sunday Times, The Sunday Business Post and the Irish Daily Mail. Quinn has contributed to publications such as First Things, The Human Life Review and The Wall Street Journal (Europe edition). Currently, he freelances and contributes weekly columns to the Irish Independent and The Irish Catholic. He appears regularly on Irish radio and television current affairs programs.

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