THE BOSNIAN looked confused. Newly escaped from Sarajevo to be part of his nation's first representation in the Eurovision Song Contest, his English stretched no further than the pick-up line he had tried at his hotel the night before ('Hello, you are very beautiful. We go jig-a-jig, yes?'). And now he had encountered Noel C Duggan.

'A great picture opportunity,' Mr Duggan said, leading the Bosnian by the elbow. 'Can we get you on a horse? Don't worry if you can't ride. We'll sort you out. We've been to Bosnia as it happens. Osijek is it? Lovely place. Tomorrow? Lovely.'

After Mr Duggan had shaken him by the hand, slapped him on the back and moved on, the Bosnian turned to a passer-by and said: 'Who he?'

'That,' said the passer-by, 'is Mr Millstreet.'

Tomorrow night the Eurovision Song Contest, that annual celebration of lyrical masterworks such as 'Diggi-loo Diggi-ley' (Sweden 1984), 'Bana Bana' (Turkey 1989) and 'Boom Boom Boomerang' (Austria 1977), will be beamed to 1 billion people across the world. It will come live from Millstreet, a community of 1,500 in the middle of rural south-west Ireland. And the man entirely responsible for this coup is Noel C Duggan.

'I was watching Eurovision last year, and when Linda Martin won for Ireland, something inside of me tinkled,' said Mr Duggan, who is known to everyone in Millstreet as Noel C. 'I knew it meant Ireland would host the next competition.

'She was singing a song called 'Why Me?' and I just thought, 'Why not Millstreet?' So I pulled out me jotter and wrote a little letter there and then, offering my place free of charge. I didn't hear anything for two months. Rumour has it it took 'em that long to stop laughing in Dublin.'

Millstreet may be, as one local euphemised, 'on the periphery of Europe', but for the past 50 years Noel C has been on a one-man crusade to move it to the centre. Tomorrow will not see the culmination of his dream; it is the start.

'I bet you thought this place would be Hicksville,' he said. 'Well, you're wrong. There's 1,500 people in this town. And we've got 500 permanent jobs in hi-tech and service industries. There's no emigration, no unemployment, no violence, no pollution. You, my boy, have just entered paradise.'

Since October, when it was announced that Millstreet was to host the competition, paradise has been boiling with anticipation. This week the whole place was en fete. In the High Street, every house and pub - there seemed to be about the same number of each - had been spruced up, painted, decked in flowers. Each Euro entrant has been adopted by a local business. 'Shalom, Israel,' said the hand-written sign in the window of Pat's pounds 1 Shop ('Nothing over a quid').

On the village green a large tent, called the Euro Dome, was hosting nightly concerts by top Irish acts. On Tuesday it was the magnificent Saw Doctors, complete with their song about the disgraced Bishop Casey of Galway, with a chorus that would win Eurovision hands down: 'Glory, Glory, God almighty/Off with me collar and up with yer nightie.'

The biggest shop in the High Street and the one with the grandest decorations had 'Noel C Duggan' in 5ft high letters across its frontage. Noel C's family has been in business in Millstreet for 146 years, as what he calls 'general providers'. His shop can provide you with anything from a kitchen sink to large quantities of structural steel.

But that is only part of the Noel C scheme of things. When his son started to take an interest in show-jumping in the Seventies, Noel C bought him a horse. Then a stable. Then he built an outdoor arena for him to compete in. Two years ago, using a lot of his own structural steel, Noel C built the largest indoor showjumping arena in Ireland, hosting an international meeting twice a year. It was this building he offered to Radio Telefis Eireann, the Irish broadcasting organisation.

'We were approached by a range of venues, and initially this was not one we fancied,' said Bob Gehan, the assistant director-general. 'The technical problems were huge. But Mr Duggan offered it to us for free and the local development committee came up with a lot of the difference of funds, and we decided we could make a go of it.'

It was a public relations master-stroke. The unlikeliness of the host town, the cheek of Noel C and a little help from the Bosnian entry have given the creaking Eurovision contest unheard-of exposure. But it was what the competition could do for Millstreet, rather than what Millstreet could do for the competition, that excited the locals.

'This is worth millions, millions in publicity,' Michael Calnan, deputy leader of Cork County Council, explained. 'People will come to Millstreet in their thousands to see where Eurovision was held.'

Three days before the competition was to begin, they were already coming to Millstreet. Noel C's huge arena on the fringe of the town had been transformed into a sparkling hi-tech concert hall, studio and media centre. At the door, machines had been installed to frisk guests electronically, ready to bleep if anyone failed to leave all vestiges of musical taste outside.

'Equestrianism brings the rougher types,' Noel C explained. 'Eurovision's nice and sophisticated, so we've spent a bit of money putting in some carpets, soft furniture and plant pots in the foyer. I rather like the comforts. I think we'll keep them.'

Within the complex, bus parties, invited in by Noel C on day tickets, wandered around as if this was the eighth wonder of the world. 'I just come up from Killarney,' said one man. 'I wanted to see if there was any decent skirt up here.'

In the foyers, groups of nuns and schoolchildren and ruddy-faced farmers with leather elbow patches mixed with the visiting Euro-popsters who, with their streaked hair, rhinestone jackets and pointy cowboy boots, might have been beamed into the town from the Planet Naff. Through the throng Noel C made regal progress, stooping to pick up bits of litter, shaking any hand that was offered and many that weren't. People stopped him to have their photographs taken with him, or to ask if RTE or the Cork Examiner could have a moment of his time.

'Mr Duggan,' said a man with a burly belly. 'I've come all the way from Cork to shake you by the hand and say marvellous, congratulations.'

'You're a good man,' Noel C replied. 'Say seven Hail Marys.'

'We've met before, Mr Duggan,' the man continued. 'I came into your shop once, I reckon it must be 36 years ago.' 'Ah, but I'm remembering yer face now,' said Noel C, slapping the man on the back. 'I was behind the counter meself that time.'

The man drifted off into the main hall where the Luxembourg entrants were rehearsing, and Noel C whispered: 'Those things have to be done. I have to have these people on my side long after the Eurovision has come and gone. Of course people giggled at me when I started my crusade for Millstreet. Even 10 years ago there were plenty here who couldn't stop giggling. But now, well, they'd lynch anyone who criticised me.'

He is not exaggerating. 'Noel C? A genius, a bloody genius,' is about the least flattering remark you can elicit in Millstreet. The official talk had all been of the enormous economic benefits of Eurovision. 'Every boat will be lifted by the rising tide,' Mr Calnan said. But had Eurovision week been a boost for every business in the the town?

'Well,' said one man, picked at random in the High Street, 'I'm the local undertaker, so I'm hoping it won't be so good for me. We don't want anyone to miss this week.'

Padraig O'Driscoll, the town's septuagenarian travel agent, was full of praise for Noel C. 'He's had his rewards, but, heavens, he works day and night,' he said. 'He's good for the town, no doubt, though this has done nothing specific for my business. My business is for people wanting to get out, not come in.'

Much had been made in the publicity of Millstreet's unchanging character, but Mr O'Driscoll had seen enormous change in his lifetime in the place.

'When I was a boy, walking down the High Street, it was like taking a diploma at technical college. The crafts, the saddle-making, the blacksmithing, the cabinet-making.

'Now people pay an arm and a leg for some of the items that were produced here every day back then. Sure, they say we've got skilled jobs now, the computer production jobs, but I can't see anyone paying a fortune for a keyboard in 50 years' time, can you?'

Back at the arena, hundreds of journalists were filing copy across Europe. Anyone who came to bury the Euro event found themselves overwhelmed, like the character in Local Hero, by the delights of the place in which it was to be held.

'I came from Dublin thinking Eurovision was the saddest thing on God's earth and this was all a bag o' shite,' said the girl who was selling the Saw Doctors merchandising. 'But I've been knocked out by Millstreet, knocked out. That said, I can't see that anything would possess me to watch on Saturday.'

(Photographs omitted)

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