'Life was great till I lost it all. I never expected to get it back...'
When his son fell ill, Francie Conway's music career took a back seat, but the Kerryman is back with a new album, says Andrea Smith
If Francie Conway's late mum had had her way back in 1973, he would probably be in management at the Bank of Ireland by now. As it was, poor Peggy Conway watched the post for months afterwards, confused that the application hadn't even received an acknowledgement, especially as the manager of her local branch in Tralee had suggested that her only child would be perfect for the job.
"My mother actually filled out the forms for me, but she made one big mistake, which was asking me to post it," laughs the genial 59-year-old musician, over coffee at his local café in Rathfarnham. "It made its way into the closest bin I could find."
Francie's heart was set on music as his mum and dad Denis owned Mac's Bar, the first pub in Kerry to have live music. From the age of six, he was encouraged to get up and sing.
He attended the CBS school in Tralee, where by his own admission, he didn't exactly cover himself in glory. "I was never really academic and was a bit of a messer, and at the end of first year, a few of us were kindly asked to move on to another school," he smiles.
"My parents were not impressed. When I was 14, I started playing guitar and banjo with any group that wanted me."
At 17, Francie got involved with drummer Casba O'Callaghan. They started a band called Clutch that enjoyed quite a bit of success, and then Francie went off to Amsterdam, aged 18. As soon as he arrived, he fell madly in love with the Dutch capital.
"I remember calling my mum to pretend that I had lost my ticket to come home," he says. "I knew people from Tralee there who gave me asylum. Amsterdam ended up being my base for the next eight years, and I was happy out travelling around Europe gigging and busking and having a good time."
In what might seem like surprising news, one of Francie's busking partners was Alastair Campbell, former British prime minister Tony Blair's director of communications and strategy.
"Alistair was deadly," he says. "He was the best busking partner I ever had, and he was great craic. He used to dress up in a kilt and play his bagpipes, and we had an absolute ball. He was very opinionated and he really loved Ireland.
"Tony Blair was the first prime minister to give Ireland more of a welcoming hand, and I like to believe that Alastair brought him forward in that way. He's a fantastic guy and we're still in touch."
Francie's life changed in 1980 when he travelled to Sitges in Spain and ended up meeting two people who would change his life, all in the space of 10 days.
The first was Chris White, formerly of the band Argent. They ended up working together, a relationship that endured, and Chris brought some of his recordings to London, which led to Francie signing a major recording contract with RCA Records in London.
"I was pinching myself," he says.
The second person was a beautiful Swedish woman, Mona Klofver, who was interrailing around Europe and arrived into one of his gigs.
"She spoke great English, was blonde and drop dead gorgeous, and I fell in love," he says. "She went back to Sweden and we lost contact for a while, but then Chris called me when I was in Ireland and said Mona had turned up in London looking for me. She got a job as an au pair in Geneva, and I went to visit her and that was that."
The record deal gave Francie financial security, and he became very successful as a recording artist and songwriter.
After he released his album, Wake Up, seven songs were covered by other artists. He had a huge radio hit with the song, To the Edge of Time, which hugely raised his profile abroad.
"I came home to Tralee and bought a house outright, no mortgage or anything, and my parents were shocked," he recalls.
"I had a nice car and was living a good life, and I don't think they understood about the record deal. They probably thought I had robbed a bank.
"When they came to England, Chris played a recording of me performing at a Swedish festival where 25,000 people turned up to see me and it was aired on French television, and there were floods of tears."
Mona and Francie got married in Amsterdam in 1986, and moved back to Ireland and settled in Rathfarnham. They have three children, Emily (27), Nils (23), and Rory (18).
"Becoming a dad was huge for me," he says. "When Mona was pregnant, I worried about how I was going to divide my love between her and the baby. The minute I saw Emily for the first time, every doubt and worry vanished, and it was magic."
Life was good for the Conways until Rory was two-and-a-half, and their world fell apart when he contracted bacterial meningitis.
It was a dreadful time as the toddler was in a coma for a long time and had eight major operations.
His family played music to try to reach him, and one day, as they once more played his favourite song, Queen's We Will Rock You, his previously impassive face changed, Francie and Mona dared to hope that contact had been made, and the medics were amazed.
After that, Rory recovered slowly but surely, and the following summer, the whole family went to Switzerland where they placed flowers from their garden at Freddie Mercury's statue.
"Rory had no eyesight at that stage or use of his limbs, but we placed our flowers as our way of saying thank you," he says. "His sight, speech and everything eventually came back, although the illness left him very compromised.
"Thank God his personality wasn't attacked, as he's the most gorgeous, handsome young man and great company. He loves music and has been to more recording sessions than most professionals, and comes everywhere with me. He goes to Enable Ireland in Crumlin, and when he walks into a room he lights up the place. He's very special."
After Rory got sick, Francie stopped touring and recording and went off the road for a while, as making plans was impossible as they didn't know what the future held. He credits Ronnie Drew and Finbar Furey with encouraging him back into music, and when the Ryder Cup came to Ireland, he entertained the VIPs, which gave him the confidence to talk to an audience again.
"Life had been great and then I kind of lost it all," he says. "To be honest, I never expected to get it back again, but when Rory started to get better, it was all worthwhile.
"Finbar is a great buddy, and Ronnie was magic. He would be outside my door, lighting up a cigar, waiting for me to put on the coffee, because he knew it was a really hard time for me. I miss him around the place - he was a great, great guy.
"Then I got a call from David Richards, Queen's producer, who invited me to come to Montreux. We ended up recording and writing together in 2009, which was the big turning point for me. My life was beginning to come back again."
This week, Francie releases his fantastic new album, The Wild Atlantic Way, A Journey in Irish Music, which features collaborations with Finbar Furey, Altan, Sharon Shannon, Kila, Dervish and more. It's a gorgeous album, full of meaning and joy and a tangible passion for this country.
"The positivity that goes out with this album sends a good message abroad about the pride and spirit of Ireland," he says.
Francie is still devoted to Mona, who works as a beauty therapist at The K Club, and earlier this month won Irish Tatler's 'Best Spa Therapist Award 2015.'
Their daughter Emily is getting married next year, and is embarking on a new career in Dunnes Stores head office. Nils is away in America on a golf scholarship.
"Our family life is fantastic," says Francie. "I plan to start gigging again because it has been a while, and I've recorded more tracks now, one with Christy Dignam that will be heard soon.
"I am still working with all of the same people, and my life is very good right now. I'm a very lucky man."