Riverdance composer recalls Eurovision debut: ‘The place went mad’

The composer of Riverdance has recalled the “terrifying” moment the Irish dance spectacle made its debut at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest.

Bill Whelan’s music was the soundtrack to the fancy footwork of Michael Flatley and Jean Butler in an interval act that would change the world view of Irish dancing forever.

The eight-minute performance on April 30 1994 captivated the audience at The Point theatre in Dublin and millions of television viewers, prompting its creators to make a full stage show which still tours the globe 25 years on.

Grammy Award winner Whelan, 68, said there was hype building around the interval act even in the week running up to the Eurovision final.

He said people could hardly fit into the final rehearsal due to word getting out that there was a must-see showpiece at the interval.

Riverdance tour
Amy-Mae Dolan and Fergus Fitzpatrick appear in the updated Riverdance show to mark its 25th anniversary at the Hammersmith Apollo (Kirsty O’Connor)

“We had all the contestants from other countries coming in and sitting in for our rehearsals. And there was an incredible buzz,” he said.

Reflecting on the moment Riverdance was introduced to the world, Whelan told the Press Association: “I remember I was in the first couple of rows of The Point watching it. Now, for most people, it was an exciting moment.

For me, it was just terrifying, because here it was, it was completely live, there were three or four hundred million people watching it, and it was a large group of dancers and musicians all working live at the time.

“Anything could have gone wrong. All you needed was one person to slip or some lighting thing not to work, or the music to stop.

“So until that last line of dancers came up and we got that last note of the orchestra it was only then that I was able to look around – and the place had gone mad.

“All these international flags are flying everywhere, people are up on their feet.

“In those days a standing ovation was something that was rather rare. Now virtually every show you go to people feel the need to stand up, but in those days, 25 years ago, you didn’t see that many standing ovations.

“And here was the entire Point Theatre on their feet. And it was an extraordinary moment.

“None of us will ever forget it.”

Whelan, who now lives in Connemara, County Galway, said the show’s success was celebrated by a pub in his hometown of Limerick which played Riverdance at 6pm every evening.

“Everyone came in and they’d watch it, and instead of the news they watched Riverdance, and there was always a big cheer,” he said.

When the decision was taken to create a full production, Whelan had the show’s score written in two months.

“Then it got a momentum which nothing could stop. It just kept going,” he said.

The composer, who enjoyed 18 weeks at number one in the Irish charts with his Riverdance single, described winning a Grammy Award for the show’s music as a “dream moment”.

Whelan is currently working on music for an animated feature film which is based on Riverdance.

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