Dolores Keane's demons: Through the glass darkly
Internationally acclaimed singer Dolores Keane talks to Barry Egan at home in Galway about her battle with alcoholism, the break-up of her 20 year relationship and overcoming breast cancer
If there is an unlikely story of survival, resilience and redemption in Irish cultural life, it is possibly Dolores Keane's. One of the founders of De Dannan in 1975, and once described by singer Nanci Griffith as "the soul of Ireland", she was acclaimed across the world. Yet the darkness seemed to follow Dolores wherever she went.
An alcoholic hitting the self-destruct button is nothing special in that regard in Ireland, but she probably hit it harder than most.
About 20 years ago, Dolores was so 'tired and emotional' in an interview with me that I walked out; and told her to f**k off, frankly.
Of course ,when I met the star in Galway last week, she doesn't remember the incident. Nor do I remind her of it.
After two hours in her company, I have to say, if there is a more lovely, a more charming person (with a coruscating wit, often at her own expense) than Dolores Keane, I've yet to meet her.
She drank red lemonade and ate biscuits, and talked in a West of Ireland burr that make her words seem sung rather than spoken. Her recollections are intimate and sad, but inspiring with it, because hers is an inspiring tale of self-recovery.
The fiery chanteuse – once one of Ireland's most famous singers – has come back from the darkening abyss of addiction and depression and reclaimed her life.
She is building something that wasn't there before. Of course, it is not as easy and trite as all that, but Dolores Keane appears to be in a happy place, both spiritually and philosophically, for the first time in an age.
She also got the all-clear on her breast cancer about six weeks ago. The emotions that released deep inside her were indescribable, cathartic certainly. "It was only then that I cried for the first time in a long time since I got the diagnosis," she says, "because I was holding strong all the time. But when I got home, then I cried."
As an actress in the past, Dolores says she has always had the ability to hide in plain space and "no one would know. It's all from the stage. I've never let it be known outside what goes on inside".
What goes on inside Dolores Keane perhaps came into being when she was eight years of age. Her sister Marian died of TB, her mother Bridie (who died in 2012 when Dolores was in the Cuan Mhuire rehabilitation clinic in Limerick for her drinking) became depressed and Dolores was sent to live with relations across the road.
Dolores's tendency to keep troubles inside her mind, she believes, came from living with her aunts and her grandmother.
"I would have picked that up from them. They were never ones for complaining or bringing attention to themselves," she says. "They could be going around in a lot of pain because of something or because of hurt. But I didn't bury my [hurt]; I came to terms with it and then left it there. I really don't know how I coped in a lot of circumstances."
I ask her to try to make sense of how she coped.
"I know for a fact that the drinking was...," she begins, before stopping herself: "I don't know what the drinking was about."
I say that perhaps drinking helps you have a private conversation with yourself.
"It does, yeah, but you can't face people as well," she says. "I was drinking for years and it never affected me, but I suppose with age. Then I thought I found – as every alcoholic will tell you – the answer at the bottom of the glass. But you don't. Then you are too pissed to do anything about it."
She is quite funny about it all, as spending time in the West with Dolores deconstructed becomes a scream. "What did I learn from my addiction? Never drink again," she laughs.
"But you know what I can't imagine? Is where I got the blasted money from! I was singing, yes, but when I stopped singing?"
"I was ready to give singing a break," Dolores says, because it was enabling her to be an alcoholic but, "I didn't know how to give up singing. But I did need a break from singing. I was burnt out."
In hindsight, Dolores believes that the heavy drinking was her way of "trying to get away from the singing and where she was in her life." Despite the praise and international accolades, Dolores wasn't happy "having to put the good face on. I had had enough of that."
"I was fed up with the road," she continues. "I was fed up with the songs I was singing. I was fed up with the approach of the bands I had and everything else. It was all the same old ding dong. I wanted to change all that. I wanted this new lease of life."
This was the period before she went into the Hope House, centre for addiction in Foxford, last July, for three weeks that saved her life.
It was also, she says, "a very dark time", because at that moment she broke up with her partner of 20 years, Barry Farmer, aka her beloved "Bazza".
"I have never seen him since. Nor heard from him. And then, when I was in there, that's where I found out that I had the cancer," she says.
I ask Dolores why does she think they split up?
"I was not a nice person. You know? It couldn't have been easy for him.
"I hold no animosity towards Bazza – or indeed anyone. If I met him tomorrow morning the first thing I'd do is go down on my two knees and beg his forgiveness."
What did she do that she needed to ask his forgiveness for?
"Well, I was drunk most of the time. I don't know. I suppose I was never there for him."
Obviously, there were two people in the relationship and this is only Dolores's side. From the outside it appears that Dolores agreeing to go into a clinic for addiction was her way of saying to Bazza – as well as to herself – 'I am going to sort myself out'.
She nods her head.
"I was serious. I had given up drink when I walked through the doors. I had given up drink when I had phoned my best friend and then I phoned Hope House and I asked them if I could come."
Her friend Mary drove her from Galway to the Hope House clinic in Mayo. On the journey, Dolores felt a sense, she says "of great relief. You see, I went to Cuan Mhuire in Limerick before that – in February, 2012, and it was my family who said: 'This is it. You have to go.'
This time is different, she implies.
Sixty now – she was born on September 26, 1953 in Sylane – Dolores says when she looks back on the 22-year-old innocent who got married to musician John Faulkner all those years ago, philosophically she realises she "learned an awful lot, but in my head I'm still the same kind of person. I'm still learning."
Dolores, however, experienced a steep learning curve when she was pregnant with her first child Joseph.
The doctor in London advised her that such were the complications, that there was a good chance the child would be still born, or would barely see his second birthday at best.
"Then I want to be at his second birthday," Dolores told him.
"The night before Joseph's birth I was staying in the Irish Club with John and a dear friend Sarah," she recalls. "When I woke up in the morning I was covered in a rash. It was all over my body and my face. I suppose it was anxiety. It was an intuition.
"I was 32 weeks pregnant at the time. I said to the doctor: 'What would your advice be if I was 28 weeks? He said: 'Oh, abort immediately.' I said 'Well, it's a good job I left it for 32 weeks so, isn't it?' I couldn't have an abortion at 32 weeks."
Joseph – who is now 27 – suffers from Laurence-Moon-Bardet-Biedl Syndrome. His proud mother says that when he was five or six, she looked up the condition, because anywhere they went, no one had any information on it.
"The person tends to be obese and the sight is often affected, which it is with Joseph. He is clinically blind," she says adding that Joseph lives in Galway, on-off and between Dolores's house and Dolores's sister Christina's house .
"He also goes to a place in Galway – his work as he calls it. But he is doing brilliantly."
In a sense, did her son's own struggle in life from birth give Dolores an extra strength inside to fight and overcome her breast cancer? "Yes, it would have done. I would have gained an awful lot of strength from that experience and even more so from Joseph, because it is difficult to go through something like that and come out sane at the end of it, but it is more difficult when you watch your child like that; clinically blind ... It is very difficult. He can see a certain amount."
Unsurprisingly, Dolores makes the battle with breast disease into a funny story. Only Dolores could find comedy in cancer.
Last summer, Dolores said to her sister Christina that she thought she had cancer because she had a lump. Christina told her to shut up and stop being dramatic.
A few weeks later, Dolores went to her wonderful friend Dr Kevin Barry; who she says has a great sense of humour and in fact started singing Caledonia – "he was hopeless!" – and then arranged for his patient to go into Castlebar hospital for a check up.
"I'm not having a mammogram," Dolores roared at him.
"Why not?" he asked.
"Because they don't work!"
Dolores instead insisted she wanted a scan so she could see for herself. When she went into the hospital, she saw a little black spot on her scan.
"It was hiding itself in a lump of tissue. Then they did a biopsy," Dolores says before roaring with laughter: "Then, to keep my friend Kevin happy, I had the mammogram – and it didn't show!"
More laughter in an otherwise quiet corner of the Hotel Meyrick in Eyre Square, Galway.
"So, I said to Kevin, 'Do you know what you should do with those machines? I'm sure there are a few tinkers around Castlebar who are collecting scrap. Feck them out to them'!" she laughs now, having had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radio therapy.
She is the subject of a big documentary on RTE called Dolores Keane: A Storm in the Heart. Storm in the heart is right.
"I've had two partners my whole life. I'll have to go to Knock I think!" she laughs. "I met John [Faulkner] when I was 22. I was with him until we split up."
Dolores hasn't met anyone since she split up with Bazza. "I don't know what it would be like to be with someone, to be honest with you. Because, for a good while, Bazza and I were just kind of existing as a couple. You know?" she says, meaning intimacy.
"I still love him dearly. He is a very nice man. Great around the house and great with the kids. But he just couldn't handle ... he was very introverted. He wouldn't talk as much as I'd want him to talk."
How would Dolores feel if Bazza rang her now and asked her to try again?
"I would. I would, yeah."
Dolores lives in "a big house" she bought 25 years ago with her 19 year old daughter Tara and their respective dogs. Tara's dog, a husky, is called Angel, even though she's "an awful brat", laughs Dolores. "My dog is a shitzu. His name is Sammy. Then I have two outdoor dogs, watchdogs, Mitch and Nasher."
Dolores drove in from her home in Caherlistrane, Co Galway, to have afternoon tea with me in the Meyrick hotel in Galway city. I didn't recognise her at first. Gone are the lustrous long locks, reminiscent of a banshee Janis Joplin. Dolores has short red hair now. The medication she has been on for breast cancer has also put a few pounds on her.
Full of optimism, Dolores is planning a big tour for the near future. "I'm going to go back on the road," she says excitedly.
She can't remember her last gig. "Jesus, I don't know." Then she says that she did a gig when she was just out of Cuan Mhuire on a Saturday night for the Women's Heart Tour in 2012, with Mary Black and the girls.
(Lest we forget the 1992 album A Woman's Heart with Dolores, Eleanor McEvoy, Mary Black, Frances Black, Sharon Shannon and Maura O'Connell became one of the biggest selling records in Irish musical history.)
"I had to sit down for that show." Some might say that even sitting down singing, Dolores Keane is worth a million Lady Gagas singing standing up.
Dolores is, she says, also tentatively talking about going into the studio to record a new album. "My voice is okay but it is not as good yet as it could be," she says.
In terms of the disillusionment she felt a few years ago with her career and her music, Dolores believes now that her new music "could be different than before. I think it is going to be a lot livelier. The song decides. I was fed up before with listening to myself singing those kind of songs. I just could not give the songs soul because it wasn't in my soul any more. And it became very difficult for me to sing them."
What is in her soul now?
"It is full of hope and it is clean," she smiles. "It's like getting a cloth and cleaning a window and you can see through at long last."
Dolores Keane: A Storm in the Heart, 9:35pm, RTÉ One, May 12
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