Trials of an Artist, Mother, And Would-be Politician
Irish singer Dana carries her deep religious convictions into a secular world
February 08-14, 1998 Issue | Posted 2/8/98 at 1:00 PM
Singer-songwriter Dana has performed for Pope John Paul II on many occasions including in 1993, at the World Youth Day in Denver, where her song We Are One Body was chosen as the theme. Last November, Dana, noted for her high pro-life profile, stood as a candidate in the Irish presidential elections. Recently, she spoke with Register editorial assistant Geraldine Hemmings about the election, her faith, politics, and her hopes for the future.
Hemmings: You entered the Irish presidential race as a dark horse, but by the end of the campaign you were making great strides. Why did you decide to enter the race? Did you really hope to win, and to what do you attribute your respectable finish—third among five candidates?
Dana: At the very outset, it was with the belief that I would not win and that it would be a very difficult road, but that it would be an opportunity to speak some truth that needed to be spoken.
What is happening in Ireland today is a reflection of what has happened in America and what is happening throughout the world. After 30 years of heading down a “liberal agenda” road, America knows the truth. Their society is fractured and broken because their families are fractured and broken.
The family and the whole definition of family is being systematically broken down and I believe that those three elements, belief in God, understanding of the family as the fundamental unit of society, and the protection of life at every stage are central to me as a Christian—as a Catholic Christian—and, as it happens, central also to the Irish constitution.
Now though, there is an automatic attachment of adjectives to anyone who says they are Christian, which includes words like “rightwing,” “anti-this,” “anti-that,” “narrow-minded bigot.” It's almost subliminal at this point. The minute you say “I'm a Christian,” you can almost see a glazed look come over the eyes of anyone that you are speaking to who is not of the same frame of mind.
Ireland is quite unique in that it is one of two countries where the people have the last say and not the government. That being the case, why should the government undertake to change that Constitution and those fundamental values within it without reference to the people?
One of the reasons I believe I challenged and broke the system in Ireland was that I spoke from the heart to men and women who share the same beliefs as ours.
Do you think that there exists a tactical agenda to demean Christianity?
There is a definite push to secularize Ireland. It has been a long-term tactical agenda that these adjectives automatically apply when you say “Christian.”
Anti-abortion is almost automatically linked to being Christian. I prefer to say pro-life because of this “anti” image. You are almost anti-social if you are Christian. If you are Catholic then it is even worse.
There are people in the country who are now afraid to lift their head and say that they are Catholic because it is like lifting your head in a firing range. People have been battered into a sense of insecurity and have become afraid to stand up and to hold their head high and be proud. I would have just as much respect if someone stood up and said “I'm a Muslim” or “I'm a Protestant,” but by God I am going to stand up and say that I am proud to be Catholic.
In deciding to run for office, you said the Constitution belongs to the people, but they no longer are in control of it. Would you clarify?
I felt that the Constitution belonged to the people, but that it was quite solidly in the hands of the political system, which is OK as long as the political system reflected the people. But if it doesn't, it has to be challenged. So … I just went forward in being a pro-family, pro-life, Catholic Christian. I was simply challenging the system to gain ownership of the position of the presidency for the people.
Within the constitution that is what it says. It is the direct choice of the people. And really we didn't know all the ins and outs. I'm not a politician and I've never been interested in politics because, although there are good people in politics, survival in politics means compromise.
There are some issues that I cannot and would not compromise on. So I had the luxury of knowing that this was a non-partisan position and also of being able to say that I could do this and it had to be done.
Were the people receiving a voice in government?
They definitely were not. Not only were they not having a voice, the political leaders were actually dragging them with a ring through their nose in the direction that they wanted and that was towards a secular Ireland, where the definition of family would be changed, where abortion on demand and divorce would be available.
Was the relationship between the politicians and the people less than democratic?
Looking at the recent history and the relationship between the politicians who are elected by the people and are supposed to represent them and who are supposed to uphold the constitution of Ireland, on the issue of the divorce referendum, the actions of the government at that time were deemed by the Supreme Court and the High Court to be unlawful, illegal, and unconstitutional.
The government of the day used $750,000 of taxpayer's money to promote their pro-divorce stand and did not allow any taxpayers' money to fund the anti-divorce stand. Not only that, but out of 166 members of the Dál (Upper House of Ireland's Parliament), one stood for antidivorce. So the party whips were obviously being controlled.
There should be no party whips (method by which parties ensure that party policies are followed by members) on a matter that is put to the people of the country on a moral issue—which divorce is. We are not talking about financial decisions here, we are talking about moral issues that are enshrined in the Constitution and upheld by the people.
Almost half the people of the country were left with only one member out of 166 [in Parliament] to represent them. In the abortion issue, the referendum that was put to the people, in the words of a [national] polling company spokesman, the wording of the referendum itself was so confusing that it reflected badly upon the politicians who drew it up. There was no need for it to be so confusing. Further, the people were told by one of the political leaders of the day that if they didn't take a little abortion they would be given a lot of abortion.
In other words, if you voted yes in this referendum you had abortion and if you voted no you had abortion—a totally unfair and unconstitutional referendum. So in major moral issues, not only did the people have no voice, the political leaders were moving against them and against the will of the people.
You are clearly a woman of high values but politics is a dirty game. Many politicians have started out with good intentions but, in the interest of getting things done, end up compromising their beliefs. What makes you think that this wouldn't have happened to you?
If it came to that, you would have to choose between your values and your career, and I would choose my values because at the end of the day if you sell your soul and gain the world, what good is it to you? And what good does it do your children—and their children? If we lose belief in God, and lose respect for life and the family, we have a society that is ruthless—that is aimless. We'd have a society without values and I could never compromise my values.
What about the ethics of politicians who want to get things done these days? Are you disillusioned with them?
My heart goes out to many of them who are very unhappy. Even though they were under the party whip, many of them stood with me. There was recognition that what I was saying was truth and that the fundamental changes that have taken place in Ireland during the past 10 years, far from improving the quality of life in the society—it might have improved what is in your pocket, it might have improved the infrastructure, maybe the roads and the buildings are better—have led to its deterioration.
No one should ever feel trapped in whatever profession or whatever lifestyle they are in. They should never feel trapped to the extent that they would compromise their deepest beliefs and values, because there is always another way.
The theme of Mary McAleese's presidency is “Building Bridges.” This means crossing the divides between north and south—Protestant and Catholic. President McAleese is Catholic, but she recently received communion in an Anglican Church and was criticized for doing so. Would you comment?
I know her desire was to build bridges but, if in building a new bridge you damage an existing bridge, how much further on are you? And, while you would have respect for another person's religion, you must show that same respect for your own.
As a member of the Catholic Church, you are called to obedience. Like any team of players, if you want to do well and get results then you have to play by the rules. Try going on the golf course in a pair of stiletto heels and see how far you get. Rules are there for a reason.
This is not a suggestion of the Church, this is canon law. Catholics must maintain a united stand. Just as in a family, parents must have a united voice, leaders must also have a united voice. If there are two different voices, what is that saying and doing to those of us eager to follow the teaching of the Church? It is causing them to be confused and divided.
You grew up in the north. How did the violence there affect you as a young girl? Were any of your family members hurt or killed?
No, not anyone directly, but we knew of people. We lived in the Bogside and my mother was there Bloody Sunday [the killing of 14 unarmed Catholic civil rights marchers by British soldiers in Londonderry, Jan. 30, 1972], so were the neighbors and friends. In fact, that was one of the questions that was put to me in a news interview at the time of the election. It coincided with the peace talks beginning in Northern Ireland. The newscaster asked me whether I viewed my pro-life stance as being detrimental or hard-line. I remember saying to her that it was a monumental time. The world was looking at the peace talks beginning in the north. How could I celebrate the beginnings of peace in the north and not be deeply saddened by the beginning of killing [due to abortion] in the south? I cannot separate violence at one stage of life from violence at another.
The peace talks are at a critical stage and appear to be collapsing.
I am saddened at the state of the talks at the moment because the will of the people is to have peace, and the politicians have to reflect it. Because I have never been in a political party, I have always very easily been able to move across the religious divide in the north, and because of my very strong pro-life profile, it's the Northern Ireland Protestants that have stood with me in the House of Commons in London and supported me in my pro-life work.
What do you think about Irish Nationalists who have labeled their cause as being the “Catholic” cause or are seen as the Catholic movement?
Irish nationalists, just by the way the country was divided, would have fallen into the Catholic side but it is interesting to note that initially in the push for freedom in Ireland, there would have been as many Protestant people involved in that kind of push for civil rights as indeed there was in the beginning of the whole civil rights movement in the north. It was both Catholics and Protestants and I think that that is the hope for the future, that wherever there are fundamental injustices, men and women of strength and of character stand together against it, whatever their religion.
A seat in the European Parliament in Ireland (MEP) recently opened. You have expressed that this may be the way forward for you. Is this the opportunity you've been waiting for?
Yes, it has been suggested that I look at that way forward, though not particularly this seat. I would be very interested because Europe has had a tremendous influence [on Ireland], both good and bad. The obstacle at the moment would be that for five days a week I would have to live in Brussels, and I am a mother first.
Looking at your life up until now—your popularity as a singer; a fulfilling life as a mother bringing up a family with strong values; your strong running in the presidential race—you would seem to be many people's idea of the “successful woman of the '90s.” Is there more to it than meets the eye?
You may look at me from the outside and see these different departments of my life. I don't. I see the central things that occupy my mind and my heart. I can look back at a time in my life when my career and everything I touched turned to gold. I was on television often but inside I was not at peace. I may have had everything going for me then but inside I was in turmoil. Getting your life in order starts from the inside out.
The central thing in my life is my relationship with God. When that is a central relationship, it puts everything else in order. Living my life as a Catholic is where I find my fullest relationship with God, and it's an ongoing relationship that develops more and more as time goes by like any relationship. I have a very good husband but, again, it's a relationship that you have to invest in. You are all the time working on that—and your relationship with your children is never at a standstill.
Do you ever tire of being in the public eye?
Yes, but I never get tired of the people. I have lived all my adult life since I was 18 in this kind of world and in this kind of arena. It's as natural as breathing. But what does upset me is when I am away from my children, and the pull between work and home. It seems, though, that this is how our life has been laid out. I would say to my own children and Damien, my husband, that if a mother can be at home with her children then that is the place to be. It can't always be that way though.
In the mid-70s it was suspected that you had throat cancer. What were your thoughts at the time, so early on in what seemed to be a very promising career?
I didn't know that it was possibly cancer until after the operation, and by that time they had already discovered that it wasn't. But looking back to the time when I lost my voice, I couldn't sing at all—I couldn't speak. I could honestly say that it was the greatest blessing of my entire life because it took away all the crutches and it left me with me. I really had to look at myself and at my life and where I was going and what I believed. I think that looking back I could only be thankful for that happening because I was able to look at my relationship with God and others.
Where did you get the inspiration to write the song
I was at a youth gathering at one of the cities in North America. It was obvious that in an attempt to keep the young people in the Church, they were trying to sugar coat [the Catholic faith]. There was no reality of evil, there was no hell. The whole question of pro-life, which I spoke on, was that I had no right to speak on that in a country that wasn't my country because I was not living here at the time. I had just moved here. It was quite obvious that instead of teaching them hard truths, they were offering a “feel good” approach to keep them in the Church. I felt that it was wrong and it was also insulting to their intelligence. These were 14-, 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds, and it would be much better to tell them the truth and to assure them that when they had to stand for the truth they would not be alone.
The song was chosen because my sister wanted me to sing at one of the events. She sent a tape with a few songs on it including We Are One Body. She had a call from the committee asking her if she wanted to enter it into the competition for a theme song. She said no, and then asked me if she had done the right thing. I said absolutely. I didn't want to enter any competitions.
Then the committee rang back about three weeks later and said that they had chosen it as the theme song of the event. I couldn't believe it. This couldn't possibly be. It was amazing!
You work with EWTN. It was recently reported that Mother Angelica, the station's founder, has been healed of some long-time physical infirmities. What do you think about this?
It's absolutely beautiful. We are continually surrounded by miracles every day. When it happens to someone you know, it has an even greater impact. And you know miracles are not just for the individual, when a miracle happens, it affects us all.
Where did you get the name Dana from and what does it mean?
It's from an Irish verb. It means to be bold.
Did you have any role models in your life?
My mother and father were the greatest influence on my life and now at this stage I think the Pope is just one of the most incredible human beings. I think that he will certainly be considered as Pope John Paul the Great.
What did the Pope say to you in Denver?
He said that his greatest regret was that his mother wasn't Irish!
History: Born Rose Mary Brown in London, August 1951; educated in Thornhill College in Derry; won 1970 Eurovision contest for best singer in Europe; had several top-ten hits in the United Kingdom; moved to United States, 1991; sang theme song for World Youth Day Denver '93 for Pope John Paul II; ran for Irish presidency in 1997.
Personal: Married Damien in 1978; four children.
Favorite book: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
Favorite films: A Man for All Seasons, Home Alone II.
Most influential saint: St. Jude and Bl. Faustina.
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