Friday 26 May 2017

Singer Tommy Fleming lost his parents on the same day - 'It was heart-breaking looking at two coffins in the church

Sligo's son: Tommy Fleming and Tina at their 2006 wedding with his mother Annie and father Paddy.
Sligo's son: Tommy Fleming and Tina at their 2006 wedding with his mother Annie and father Paddy.
Tommy Fleming. Photo: David Conachy.
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

On March 3, 2012, singer Tommy Fleming's parents, Paddy and Annie, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary by renewing their wedding vows at a mass in their Sligo farmhouse.

 It was very moving and poignant for their six children, hearing them repeating those vows first made in 1962, and during the meal and celebrations that followed, the family enjoyed reminiscing and sharing stories of their family life growing up in the house in Kilmactigue, near the village of Aclare.

Less than four weeks later, on March 30, the family gathered in the same house on a far less happy occasion. Paddy and Annie's six children were there to 'wake' them, after they both passed away in hospital, mere hours apart.

"People are always curious because they died the same day, and I think they presume it was due to an accident," says Tommy, now 45. "What happened was that I was just about to begin a ten-date tour in the UK, when my wife Tina phoned to say that Mam had suffered a stroke and her right side was affected. She had a stroke on her left side eight years previously and had made a full recovery, but this time was different.

"She was admitted to Mayo General Hospital, and a week later, Dad was brought in with heart complications. I was running back and forth between Ireland and the UK every two days, which was stupid, as professionalism can only go so far."

While he had been excited embarking on the UK tour, all Tommy wanted to do at that point was be with his parents. When it became clear that his 83-year-old mum was not going to recover, Tina, who is also Tommy's manager, advised him to pull the rest of the tour. He didn't care what the professional repercussions would be, and spent every day in hospital after that with his parents. Paddy and Annie were in different wards, but his dad was brought over regularly from the coronary ward to visit his mum, and they communicated through touch as she had lost the power of speech.

Paddy was 87, and in the previous year, his health had begun to deteriorate. He had heart problems and a touch of dementia and sometimes didn't recognise Tommy. He always knew his singing voice though, and would spend hours happily listening to his youngest son's albums. Tommy found his dad's mental deterioration very distressing, and accepting that his lovely, kind parents were ageing was difficult.

"My dad never raised his voice in his life, and he was a really patient, quiet and generous person," says the popular singer, who had huge hits with albums like The Voice of Hope, The Contender and Restless Spirit. "He never had a bad word to say about anyone, and would leave people's company if they were gossiping. I look like him, but am more like my mother in personality. Dad was the most unassuming, gentle and kind man, and although he had several fiery children, including me, he never reacted. Mam was just like me, I get my energy levels from her and my directness. She would tell anyone off, and I say it as I see it too, but as you get older, you realise you don't have to put up with things or waste your time anyway."

Tommy Fleming. Photo: David Conachy.
Tommy Fleming. Photo: David Conachy.

Tall, fair-haired Paddy and petite, dark-haired Annie had six children, Marie, JJ, Cathy, Belinda, Patrick and Tommy, who were born, in true Catholic fashion of that time, within seven years, like steps of stairs.

"If two people could teach you about a relationship or marriage, they could, because they never gave up," says Tommy. "They didn't have it easy as there was little or no money there, so as well as the farm, my dad worked in the county council. Mam was never one to complain, and she adored her kids. My parents weren't strict and they never raised a hand to us, even though we were always up to some mischief. They were an amazing couple in so many different ways, although they fought like cats and dogs at times, of course. They did almost everything together, but also did their own thing too."

Tommy's mother loved playing cards every Friday night, while his dad preferred watching The Late Late Show, reading his newspaper and listening to music. His older sister Marie moved back home when she went back to college to become a teacher, and she took on the role of looking after them, although they were quite independent and didn't really need looking after until the last few months.

As a young boy, Tommy loved milking the cows, singing his heart out while doing it as the barn had great acoustics. He had an idyllic childhood with loads of freedom, and he and his siblings all lived within a 20-mile radius, which means that their parents never suffered the pain of their children emigrating. When they became ill, the family rallied around, taking it in turns to be with their parents in hospital. They knew their mum was dying, but had no idea that their dad was too, as his was a slower, more long-term deterioration.

On the Friday morning that Annie died, it was Tommy, Marie and JJ who happened to be with her when she slipped away quietly at 9.15 am. The devastated family decided to bring their mum home to wake her overnight, and bury her on the Sunday. Shortly after she passed away, they had to tell their dad that she had died, and he wept when told the news, which broke all of their hearts further.

They accompanied their mum back to the family home, and Tommy recalls how upsetting it was watching the ten grandchildren welcoming their grandmother home in a coffin. Neighbours and relatives called in, and their dad was still very much in their thoughts as they phoned the hospital to check how he was doing. They were assured that he was comfortable, but discussed among themselves who should return to the hospital to be with him overnight as they didn't want to leave him alone.

Then the phone rang at 11.30pm, and the bewildering news that their dad had also passed away was imparted to them, mere hours after their mum. The six heartbroken siblings left the house to return to the hospital, wracked with guilt and grief because their dad had been on his own when he died. They weren't to blame, there was no sign that he was going to pass when he did.

"It was typical of him to slip off with no fuss," says Tommy. "Our worlds were turned upside down, as we had lost the two most precious people in our lives. but I honestly believe they wouldn't have managed without each other. I found some comfort in the knowledge that they were still together as they had been for the previous 50 years. My mother would open the fridge and say to my father, 'Taste that milk to see if it's gone off,' and he would actually do it. There was no way she was going into the next world without him."

The decision was made to defer their mum's funeral by a day, to allow Paddy and Annie to be buried together. The funeral in the Church of the Holy Rosary, Kilmactigue, where they had been married 50 years earlier, was huge.

"They deserved it because they were brilliant, although it was heart-breaking looking at two coffins in the church," says Tommy, who is a former member of De Danann. His Voice of Hope CD was the number one selling album in Ireland in 2005/6, while the DVD was number two. He was in no danger of getting a swelled head at home, however.

"My parents taught me humility, in a good way," he says. "When I was touring in my 20s and thought I was the best thing ever, my mother brought me back down to earth very quickly, although she was really proud of me. My dad reminded me that I'm just doing a job like everyone else. In their world, nobody was better than anyone else, and my love of animals, wildlife and the outdoors came from them."

One of Paddy's loves was gardening and Annie loved her chickens. so she would go out to the garden to chat while he was digging. "They talked all the time," Tommy smiles. "They were a great example to us, but I didn't realise it until they were gone."

After he lost his parents, the singer was plunged into grief and found it very difficult to talk about it. On one occasion, he was forced to bolt from a garage without paying for his diesel when he saw an elderly woman buying Emerald sweets, who reminded him of his mother doing the same thing. He returned later to fix up the bill.

"When my parents died, I was pissed off with both of them for a while, because there wasn't one of them left to talk it through with," he admits. "I was even getting mad at myself for getting pissed off. I was running from one thing to another, like writing my book or making the documentary, Behind The Voice, because really, I was running away from the grief. Even Tina was walking on eggshells with me, as she didn't know what to say or do, although sometimes a hug is all you can do. I was supposed to do an Australian tour in the October, but I cancelled as I couldn't face it. It was the first time in my life that I wanted time to move very quickly so that I could heal faster."

After almost four years of grieving, Tommy now feels able to talk for the first time about the loss of his parents, and says that little reminders of them tend to make him happy now, rather than sad. He busied himself writing his illustrated coffee-table autobiography, Let Me Begin, and releasing the Voice of Hope 10th anniversary edition, which includes a two-disc album and a special bonus DVD on the making of the show. The man of whom Alex Ferguson once said, "If Tommy could play football like he sings, I would sign him," is currently on tour and always in great demand, and he's particularly looking forward to playing the Bord Gais theatre in two weeks.

While of course it wasn't funny, a great example of his mum's humour occurred when Tommy broke his neck in a car accident 18 years ago. He fell asleep at the wheel late at night during a gruelling album-promotion tour, and drove into a tree. He was shocked but conscious after the initial impact, and realised to his horror that the car was on fire. He managed to crawl out the window and pulled himself up onto the road, just as the car exploded. ​

With no other option, Tommy began to drag himself home, and walked for ages until a neighbour eventually came along and picked him up. With no keys, he called out until his sister Belinda came down, and when she saw him covered in blood from a six-inch gash on his forehead, she insisted on driving him to hospital.

While Tommy suspected he had a broken wrist and whiplash, he was shocked to discover that he actually had a broken neck. He was transferred by ambulance from Sligo to the spinal injuries unit at the Mater hospital in Dublin, where a large brace, the Jerome Halo brace, was attached to his head and screwed to his skull in six places. Tommy refused to let any of the family see him apart from his sister Cathy, because he was afraid his mum wouldn't be able to handle it. He discharged himself after a week and his sister brought him home to recuperate, where his parents got the first glimpse of the dramatic metal frame he was encased in.

"I knew my mother would either be a blubbering mess or a tower of strength," he says. "She was never in the middle. She looked at me and I knew that if she cried, I would fall apart, but she said, 'You certainly outdid yourself this time. I never thought a brass neck could be broken.' She had a brilliant wit and my dad had a sarcastic humour and they made each other laugh the whole time. They were very understanding around things. My mam would have been the first one in the queue to vote yes if she had been around for the marriage equality referendum, as they didn't judge anyone. While she and dad were never the 'top of the church' people, they had their faith, and it was shaken to the core with all the controversy and scandal that hit the Catholic Church."

While the six siblings dealt with their grief in very different ways, they all still gravitate towards the family home, where Marie, who took care of their parents so well, generously welcomes them with open arms.

Tommy lives in Enniscrone with his wife, Tina Mitchell, whom he first met in 2002 when she was working in the advertising department of Midwest Radio. They fell for one another at the funeral of the station's sports editor, Willie McNeilly, and while Tommy was single, Tina was separated with two children, Orrie, 10, and Rebecca, 5. They are now 25 and 21, respectively, and Becky is studying journalism in Dublin.

Luckily they all got along really well from the beginning, and Tommy adores his step-children, and of course, their lovely mum, whom he says has been a tower of strength for him. He and Tina got married in October 2006, and began arranging the whole event with three weeks to go. There was no fuss, although they forgot the official notice that needs to be given, but thankfully a kind judge sorted it out for them in court. They had a great day, and Paddy and Annie were in the middle of the whole celebration, loving it all.

Having just celebrated 50 years of marriage before they died, what did his parents teach Tommy about relationships? "I learned tolerance and compromise above anything," he replies. "As the youngest of six, I was selfish, and it was my way or no way. It took a while, but I learned that relationships are about give and take. My parents also taught me the importance of spontaneity and to say thank you every now and again. These small things have become a big thing to me. I'm not religious, but I honestly believe that they are guiding me as I get older. My gut instinct has gotten stronger lately, and I really think it's all down to them."

Tommy Fleming plays The Millennium Forum, Derry, on February 19; Hillgrove Hotel, Monaghan, on the Februar 20; TLT, Drogheda on February 26th; Ulster Hall, Belfast, on the February 27; Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin, on February 28; The Court Hotel, Tullamore, on March 4; University Concert Hall, Limerick, on March 5; INEC, Killarney on the 12; Iontas, Castleblayney on April 28; and Ardhowen Theatre, Enniskillen, April 29.

www.tommyfleming.com​

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