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."
Before I met him, I had heard about his heart attack, and so I had expected him to look shook-up, with a sickly pallor. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by his vibrancy. There's plenty of fizz in Finbar, but he accepts that his relentless working life was bound to take its toll on his body
"It's the life I lived for 50 years," he says. "The food I ate, the touring and the late nights and the whiskey. I liked the drop of vodka, especially when I finished a gig. I'd have three or four vodkas before you'd even think about it and then I'd polish off a bottle of vodka with a friend. There's nothing nicer. I always enjoyed it. But I had regular health checks."
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."
It was at that famous fair in Killorglin where his parents first met. Ted spotted Nora busking on her banjo. They married three days later. When Finbar was a young lad at the fair, he was sent to buy some butter. He spotted a tin whistle and bought that instead. His father was about to scold him but then he saw how his son had a natural ability to play a tune. Ted was a talented fiddler and pipe player, so it was no accident that it was in the genes. From then on, he encouraged Finbar, and indeed all his sons, to pursue their musical talents. Finbar went on to play the uilleann pipes and the banjo too.
"The house was teeming with music," he says. "I was always playing."
Finbar won several prestigious awards, including All-Ireland medals, for his skills on the uilleann pipes and whistle. Soon he and his brother Eddie were invited to play in O'Donoghue's pub – a well-known haunt for musicians such as The Dubliners. It wasn't long before they were invited to do a tour of the British folk scene.
"The English folkies never heard anything like us. We were cute on stage and we had charisma."
In 1969, Finbar and Eddie were invited to play with the Clancy Brothers in New York. They leapt at the chance and with that, they plunged into a whole different world.
"We were brought from the airport in a helicopter. It was incredible. I remember it was so noisy, all the cars and there were so many people rushing about like tiny ants. They brought us into Times Square with all the flashing lights. We stood there looking at Broadway and they said, 'This is what it's all about. This is why you practise hard.' I'll never forget it. The Clancys taught us so much."
They toured for three years and enjoyed every minute. But finally, Finbar tired of it. "There are only so many times you can sing I'll Tell Me Ma. The music was great but I had a pain in the face with it. I missed my pipes and I had itchy feet. I told Eddie that I was leaving and he came with me."
They toured Germany, which proved hugely successful and then they went back to Dublin and formed a band with their brothers and Davey Arthur. The rest is history, where they had many hits, including Sweet Sixteen and The Green Fields of France.
"We were starting to write traditional music, which was unique. It was a time of moving and trying new things. We were burning with confidence. I made a promise that we would play Carnegie Hall, and we did."
Finbar Furey has always been a restless soul. If he is not happy, or not developing, he has to move on. More than ambition, it is about being true to himself.
He always listens to his gut instinct. Just like with the Clancy Brothers, he decided to stop playing with his brothers. The relentless touring was too much, and he wanted to do his own thing.
And indeed, he has. In the past few years he even branched into acting, starring in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York and he was recently seen in Love/Hate where he played John Boy's father. All the time when he is at home in Rathfarnham, he is composing and singing and playing. Music consumes his life and always will but since his scare he has decided to take life at an easier pace. He is more careful with his concert schedule.
"I used to be like a bull in a china shop," he says. "I couldn't wait to hit the boards. I love what I do – you'd have to, to do what I do. But since the heart attack, everything seems bigger. The music is bigger and it means more. I've been thinking about things more and I've found that I've become more serene."
He pulls a face as if he is shocked at this new self.
"For the first time in my life I've turned into a wise old man. Friends tell me that I should sit back and teach the young musicians. I'm like one of those old Indians. I'm ready to sit by the fire, light the pipe. . . and talk shite."
With that, he doubles up with more coughs and another spluttering laugh. Then he's off to meet Sheila. "Keep it happy," he says, punching the air. "Give the album a good bang."
As he makes his way out, I watch his jaunty walk. Finbar Furey may have nearly died but he has bounced back, big time.
Finbar Furey in Concert is at the National Concert Hall on next Thurdsay, January 17. www.nch.ie phone 01-417 0000. For details of his albums visit www.finbarfurey.com