Riverdance and Moya Doherty

She is the woman who brought Irish stepdancing to the world – did she ever regret it?

Most people’s life stories evolve gradually over a period of years and often don’t amount to anything of great global significance. Moya Doherty’s already successful life story exploded into the stratosphere in the course of just six minutes in 1994.

Doherty is the latest guest in the University of Ulster’s Life Stories series, which hosts one-to-one conversations with prominent graduates from the world of arts and culture. Doherty will be talking to Professor Paul Moore about her childhood in County Donegal, the jet-setting existence she leads today and, inevitably, the R word – Riverdance.

Doherty was RTE’s executive producer on the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin, charged with conceiving a spectacular piece of entertainment to bridge the gap between the songs and the judging. That earth-shattering performance has since developed into a hugely lucrative global industry. Yet does she ever wishes it would go away and drown itself?

'Ah no, not at all,' she laughs.  'It does cast a very long shadow but that’s the power and the nature of the piece. It has been a joy and such an extraordinary journey. Maybe it has prevented us who are involved from expressing ourselves in other ways, because you’re so overshadowed by it – but who’s to tell?'

It certainly isn't something that Doherty expects to happen again.

'It was a moment of alchemy, a mixture of history, politics, entertainment, energy, new beginnings ... everything. Those of us who engaged on that journey came from such different places and spaces. It’s remarkable how life can just tackle you like that, disarm you.'

Doherty registers as a practical, pragmatic person, adept at making the most of every opportunity. Her parents were teachers in rural Donegal, who subsequently moved to work in Dublin, Her earliest ambition was to become an actress.

'In those days, you didn’t have the media and communications and acting courses you have now, so my learning was very much on the ground,' she reflects. 'My university degree was four years spent in RTE, working my way up through the system from secretary to executive producer of the Eurovision – and presenting along the way. Those were fantastically heady days. It was amazing not only that those opportunities were open, but open to a young woman.

'Before going to RTE I spent some time with TEAM educational theatre company, as I really wanted desperately to act. But after a year with them, I realised how darned hard it was. The money was shockingly poor and you had to be strong and courageous enough to take constant rejection. Then, I always questioned if I was good enough.

'It’s something I would love to return to. The great sadness is I don’t think a woman in her fifties could go back to acting if she hasn’t done it for 30 years, because it’s a layer upon layer of experience that you gain and garner. The thing is, in my mind, I’d still want to play Ophelia and Juliet and I hardly think that’s going to happen now!'

Doherty is a shining example of the busy woman syndrome, juggling a high-powered international career with family life. Beside her, through all the highs and the lows, has been her husband and business partner John McColgan.

'Any woman who works knows that experience,' she says.  'In many ways though, it collided with the years my children were very small and that was heart-wrenching for me, because what I did involved a lot of travel. There was the balance of pursuing this huge juggernaut while managing the preciousness of those years with children. But both of us being in it together meant that we could support each other, carve out the work and understand the needs of both business and home.'

She is in the throes of preparing for the Global Irish Economic Conference to be held next day in Dublin Castle and at which former American President Bill Clinton would give the closing address. She has met him on a number of occasions and amusingly recalls a conversation, at which her uncanny ability to spot a winner was much in evidence.

'It was immediately after Barack Obama had spoken for the first time at the Democratic conference in Massachusetts. A group of us were talking about the upcoming presidential campaign and who would the Democrats field. I said what about Barack Obama and several people asked who he was. I’ll never forget President Clinton’s line. He said, "oh, he’s a little-known Senator from Illinois." Life is a curious thing, isn’t it?'

Life Stories with Moya Doherty takes place in the Great Hall of the University of Ulster’s Magee campus in Derry on October 12 at 8.00 pm. For reservations call 028 71675456.