Finbar Furey is bouncing back to health after the sudden heart attack that almost killed him. It came after years of long touring that inevitably took its toll. Here he tells Ciara Dwyer how the illness has changed his outlook on music, and his life
Two months ago Finbar Furey almost died. "A fella asked me if I had an out-of- body experience. I said I had. I nearly froze me ass off trying to get in the ambulance. I thought yer man would never close the door." The musician throws his head back and gives a splutter of a laugh. If you can joke about a brush with mortality, you're winning. But of course it wasn't funny at the time.
The day in question began as normal. It was his wedding anniversary, and as is his wont, Finbar planned to pack a lot in.
"That morning, I'd played a game of golf with my sons Martin and Finbar. After that I came home and I got this indigestion in my chest. I'd just eaten a piece of chocolate. I was on the phone but all of sudden I was too sick to talk. I lay down and I remember saying this is very serious. I was supposed to go into O'Donoghue's to meet up with a few friends and after that I was going for a meal with my wife Sheila, but I was so sick I could hardly put my boots on.
"Sheila was by my side and our daughter Caitriona called an ambulance. She told me to keep coughing because that would keep my heart going. They said I was having a heart attack. The ambulance fellas were brilliant.
"I remember holding Sheila's hand and saying, it's okay."
Many years ago Finbar wrote a powerful piece of music called The Lonesome Boatman. (It has since become an established part of the canon of Irish music.) The song was inspired by an image that came to him – it was of a boatman bringing a man from this world to the next. He wrote it for his father, who had inspired him with his passion for music. Playing this haunting composition is one thing, but how did it feel when it looked like he was the one going on the boat?
Was he scared that he was going to die?
"Not an inch," he says. "I didn't care for me, but I cared for the people that were around me."
When Finbar woke up in hospital, he saw his wife and their five children – Martin, Aine, Caitriona, Robert and Finbar – gazing lovingly at him. "Sheila was asked to get them all. That's how close it was." He pauses, as if the enormity of it has yet to sink in.
At 66, Finbar thought that his time was up, just like his late father Ted, who died suddenly at a relatively young age.
"My father died at the age of 64," he says. "I remember playing handball with him in Listowel and he was dead a month later. I couldn't understand it. The doctors explained to me that these heart blockages are hereditary. I was very fit and that's the thing that got me through. And I wasn't carrying any excess weight."
As well as his genes, the heart attack was a result of living life to the full and burning the candle at both ends. Finbar Furey has lived a typical musician's life – late nights, drinking sessions and smoking his roll-up cigarettes – and he has the well-earned face to show for it.
No longer is he the heavy round-faced man we remember performing with his brothers (The Fureys) and Davey Arthur. Now his cheeks are hollow and his face is engraved with deep lines. His wild curls are cut short but he tells me that he always hated them. His mother Nora used to tell him that if he ate the crusts of the bread his curls would grow. He couldn't think of anything worse. "To this day, I still don't eat the crusts."
No wonder he was shocked by the heart attack. After the first stent was put in, Finbar was told that he would need two more. He went back for tests later on and the other blockages were gone. Just like Lazarus, Finbar has bounced back from the brink and is ready to live life to the full once more. He has a new album out – Colours – and a forthcoming concert in the National Concert Hall next Thursday. All this is before he heads off to do a tour in Australia.
The musician has spent his life doing long cycles of tours and then tiring of them when he wanted to be with his family. He met his Scottish wife Sheila in a pub in Edinburgh. But down though the years he has toured at crucial times in his life, like when his son Finbar was born and a day later he was off on the road. He would have preferred to stay home, but professional duty called. Roaming is in his blood. Finbar comes from a Traveller family but he explains that his family were settled Travellers. They stopped travelling when he was five. They lived in the Liberties and later they moved out to Ballyfermot, where they got a bigger house.
"We had a caravan in the garden and chickens. Every summer we'd head off travelling, usually to the Puck Fair."
Sunday Indo Living