This evening we received the sad news of the passing of Noel Kelehan. For Irish Eurovision fans and indeed for much of the general Irish public, Noel’s name is synonymous with the contest and his passing has saddened people in Ireland and abroad.

While he is best remembered for his Eurovision conducting duties,  Dubliner Noel Kelehan was also a distinguished musician, composer and band leader. Noel spent most of his career working for RTÉ where he composed music for radio and television and conducted bands and orchestras for live and pre-recorded television shows and his various bands were a constant presence on RTÉ television for many years.

Born in 1935, Noel Kelehan's first love was jazz music and he had a special affection for the Miles Davis quintet of the fifties. While he was largely self taught as a composer and arranger, Noel received classical training in piano theory and harmony. As RTÉ television came on the air in 1962, Noel was playing piano with jazz guitarist Louis Stewart and bassist Jimmy McKay. In 1964 he went to New York City to further his musical studies. He wrote such works as "Cuchulainn's Lament" for piano and orchestra, which was performed by the RTÉ Light Orchestra; and "Dubliners", a three movement suite premiered at the Festival of Light Music in Munich in 1967.

In 1971 the Noel Kelehan Band recorded an album of Irish traditional melodies brought up to date and called “The Golden Heritage of Irish Music”, released on CBS Records. It includes some Kelehan originals such as "Irish Blue" and "Shannon Song". It was however in jazz music that Noel felt most comfortable and he worked with many famous international names. 

It is however his Eurovision conducting and arranging that Noel will be most fondly remembered by fans of the contest. Noel made his Eurovision debut in 1966, walking on stage with singer Dickie Rock in Luxembourg. Noel also conducted and helped arrange the Irish Eurovision entry in the following three years. However in 1970, Phil Coulter was brought in to arrange the Irish entry “All Kinds Of Everything” and the conducting duties in Amsterdam were performed by Dutchman Rolf Van Der Linden. 

Noel returned to the contest in 1971 and conducted the home country’s entry “One Day Love”, sung by Angela Farrell in Dublin. After a five year hiatus, where he concentrated on working with his band, Noel returned to the contest in 1976 conducting the Irish entry “When” sung by Red Hurley and he would conduct every subsequent Irish Eurovision entry, apart from 1979, until the orchestra was replaced by backing tracks in 1999. Noel also played a major part in re-arranging several Irish entries, making significant transformations from the versions heard in the Irish National Song Contest. 

Noel conducted a total of six Eurovision winners, although he is unseen before the Irish entry in the 1994 contest, where the orchestra played a minor role in backing Paul Harrington & Charlie McGettigan. It was however the 1993 contest that provided the most emotional contest for Noel. After the Bosnian delegation came under shellfire as they tried to leave war-torn Sarajevo, the Bosnians travelled without a conductor and Noel was asked to take the baton for the newly independent country’s first Eurovision entry. That poignant moment must have tempered the euphoria that came with Ireland’s dramatic victory, later in the evening. 

In 1994, Noel became the busiest conductor of the evening, as he not only conducted the winning Irish entry "Rock'n'Roll Kids", but also those from Romania, Greece and Poland, meaning that he played a part in both the wining song and the runner-up. By 1997, Noel had become the unofficial leader of the Eurovision conductors and led a protest when NRK originally decided not to show the conductors and instead just use a national celebrity to introduce each country’s entry. Fearing that this was the start of phasing out the role of conductor, the protest was a success and NRK changed their plans. However in 1999, when Israeli broadcaster IBA used a small venue in Jerusalem, there was supposedly no room for the orchestra was it was dropped and has not been used since, making way for backing tracks, a move which disappointed Noel and many Eurovision fans. 

  • EUROVISION SONG CONTEST ENTRIES CONDUCTED BY NOEL KELEHAN
    Ireland 1966: Come back to stay
    Ireland 1967: If I could choose
    Ireland 1968: Chance of a lifetime
    Ireland 1969: The wages of love
    Ireland 1971: One day love
    Ireland 1976: When
    Ireland 1977: It's nice to be in love again
    Ireland 1978: Born to sing
    Ireland 1980: What's another year
    Ireland 1981: Horoscopes
    Ireland 1982: Here today, gone tomorrow
    Ireland 1984: Terminal 3
    Ireland 1985: Wait until the weekend comes
    Ireland 1986: You can count on me
    Ireland 1987: Hold me now
    Ireland 1988: Take him home
    Ireland 1989: The real me
    Ireland 1990: Somewhere in Europe
    Ireland 1991: Could it be that I'm in love
    Ireland 1992: Why me?
    Ireland 1993: In your eyes
    Bosnia & Herzegovina 1993: Sva bol svijeta
    Romania 1994: Dincolo de nori
    Ireland 1994: Rock'n'roll kids
    Greece 1994: To trehandiri
    Poland 1994: To nie ja
    Poland 1995: Sama
    Ireland 1995: Dreamin'
    Ireland 1996: The voice
    Ireland 1997: Mysterious woman
    Ireland 1998: Is always over now?

1993 Eurovision wnner Niamh Kavanagh reflected the feelings of many on her Facebook page tonight when she said "I cannot say enough about a talented and beautiful man, who I had the honour to know. He will be sadly missed." Eurovision fans everywhere will fondly remember Noel, who has been fighting a debilitating illness for several years and we pass on our sympathy to his family and friends. My he Rest In Peace.