Entertainment Music

Monday 25 June 2018

'I loved being a priest - but I have no regrets about quitting'

Deirdre Reynolds and Finbarr Wright
Deirdre Reynolds and Finbarr Wright
Finbar with the Three Tenors

Finbar Wright

Finbar Wright steps into the spotlight at the National Concert Hall in just a few hours' time, and by now, his nerves have probably already started to chime.

The world-famous Irish Tenor is set to celebrate 25 years in show business surrounded by family, friends and fans at one of the country's most prestigious music venues tonight.

And despite entertaining everyone from Pope John Paul II to Julia Roberts over the years, the laid-back Cork man admits he still gets butterflies before the curtain goes up.

"I always get nervous," says Finbar, "People say that's a good thing - but it really is. I've always found that the nights that I'm most relaxed are inevitably the nights that I make mistakes because you're just not as sharp.

"I've had open mouth situations where I've gone to start a song and can't remember the words."

Quarter of a century since bursting onto the music scene with his debut album, 'Because', the classically-trained singer - who got his big break on The Late Late Show - reckons it's gone by in the blink of an eye: "It's extraordinary. It seems like only yesterday, yet things have changed so much in that time.

"In those days, once you got on RTÉ, you were fine. The Late Late Show was the key to it, and it was the key to it for me. Nowadays people are so distracted by all the media that it's very difficult for new musicians starting out."

As Ireland's original 'singing priest', there was no fear of a young Finbar's voice being lost in the crowd as he performed for Pope John Paul II at the historic Papal Mass in Phoenix Park in 1979, which saw almost one in three citizens throng to the capital to catch a glimpse of 'il Papa'.

"It was an extraordinary moment in my life that I'll never forget," recalls the former priest, who's now a married dad of two. "Of all the Popes of the modern age, John Paul [II] was revolutionary, I suppose. Although the present fella is certainly giving him a run for his money. I think [Pope Francis] is fabulous."

As we meet at the Radisson Blu St Helen's Hotel for a spot of lunch, the jet-setting singer is looking surprisingly fresh-faced having just stepped off a red-eye flight to Dublin from Dallas, where he was touring with The Irish Tenors.

Even through the fog of jet lag though, and before facing into the three-hour drive home to West Cork, he has no regrets about swapping Mass for music all those years ago.

"I was ordained at the age of 22 and left seven years later," tells Finbar. "Maurice Cassidy, my first manager, was always very disappointed in that - he would have loved to have had a singing priest!"

"But, no, I don't regret it. Not that I [didn't] love my first career - it was great. I suppose the unfortunate - or fortunate - thing is that I was put teaching straight away. I was teaching Spanish and Latin up to Leaving Cert, and that's essentially what I did for seven years.

"It was a good education and everything ," he says, "I just came out the other end of it. Maybe if my soul had been fed a little bit more it might have been different.

"It was disappointing for my mother and father at the time, [but] that was old Ireland, you know. It was a completely different time and certainly a lot of things have happened since.

"I still have great friends in [the priesthood]," adds Finbar. "Funnily enough, Bishop [John] Buckley of Cork was the principal when I was teaching, and he still comes out to see me and the family every Christmas."

Ultimately, it was music - not religion - that proved to be his true calling in life, reflects Finbar, who's been playing piano since the age of six: "Growing up, we had a lot of music in the house. In those days, there was very little musical education in Ireland as part of the school system, and certainly in boys' schools, music didn't exist.

"I had a wonderful teacher, Maura Hourihan, who used to come out from Kinsale and teach piano. She gave me a great love for it without it ever being obvious; she let you play what you wanted and you wouldn't get any rulers over the fingers or anything like that."

"I always loved music and I've always been fascinated by the power it has," continues the star, whose name graces the cover of 15 solo and group albums. "I always remember this woman who wrote to me [to say] herself and her husband were watching me sing [Rodgers & Hammerstein show tune] 'Some Enchanted Evening' on television one night.

"After they went to bed, just as he was going to sleep, he was saying how much he loved the performance. During the night, he died in his sleep, so she was writing to thank me because her husband went to bed happy.

"As a musician, you're allowed into people's lives in a very intimate way. It's such a privilege."

Meeting his gorgeous wife Angela at music school is sure to have made relinquishing his collar a little easier too.

As well as celebrating 25 years topping the charts, the romantic crooner and college lecturer also celebrate their silver wedding anniversary later this year.

"A lot happened in 1990," laughs Finbar, who has a 22-year-old son, Fergus, and 20-year-old daughter, Ileana. "Angela and I originally met in singing class at the Cork School of Music.

"She still loves singing, but she's never had it as a profession. She's a business and marketing lecturer [at Cork Institute of Technology], so she's always kept busy at her own side of things, which has always been a good balance.

"We have recorded things together, and there's one [duet] on the website, 'The Lass of Aughrim', which we didn't release, but will this year, I think."

Packing out opera houses from Sydney Opera House to Carnegie Hall while performing alongside such musical legends as Montserrat Caballé and Jerry Lee Lewis, you would think it would be impossible for the Irish Pavarotti to pick just one career highlight from the past two and a half decades.

But the 57-year-old gives it a go anyway: "Of all those things, I probably enjoyed a video we did on Ellis Island with Martin Sheen the most. In the middle of the concert, he said, 'My mother walked through this very hall from Tipperary on her way into the United States', and I was totally taken aback.

"[She] probably [had] nothing except whatever she had in her bag, and there a generation later was Martin Sheen, one of the most successful Irish-American actors. It was just one of those very emotional nights. After that we did a concert at the Hollywood Bowl and they were all there - Martin, [and sons] Charlie [Sheen] and Emilio [Estevez]."

Gregory Peck and Julia Roberts are just two of the other part-Irish stars who've flocked to see the award-winning tenor in action.

"Meeting Gregory Peck was like meeting John Wayne," says Finbar, famous for his Spanish flair. "He was a legend. I was only a young fella at the time, but he was a lovely man, and so positive about Ireland. He was all chat about Youghal, and the time he was there doing Moby Dick. I remember him saying it was one of the most beautiful places on Earth."

For songwriter and poet Finbar, meanwhile, heaven on earth is curling up with a good book at home in Farran, or going hiking with his family: "The funny thing is, by nature, I would be very private. I write poetry and daft things like that.

"I've always made sure that I've had long periods where I wouldn't be on the road. With the kids growing up, I was adamant that I wasn't going to be in a situation where I didn't even know who they were. Some people get terribly driven by the whole thing, but it's not good for you physically or any other way."

As he toasts 25 years at the top though, Finbar - who replaced John McDermott in The Irish Tenors alongside Anthony Kearns and Ronan Tynan in 2000 - says it ain't over till the fat lady sings.

"The Irish Tenors started on PBS [Public Broadcasting Service] in the United States fifteen years ago," he explains, "and it's still going from strength to strength. We're as cranky and cantankerous and troublesome as ever, which is the only way to keep it, really!

"As a singer, I've always set out to entertain people," adds Finbar, who's currently working on a new album. "I've survived it all, through good times and bad. I'm very lucky.

"But there's always something to do - I hope to have another twenty-five years!"

Finbar Wright celebrates 25 years of international success at the National Concert Hall in Dublin ­tonight. Tickets from €22.50. See ­ www.finbarwright.com

Life in brief

Name: Finbar Wright

Age: 57.

Lives: Farran, West Cork.

Family: Wife Angela and two children, Fergus and Ileana.

Best Known As: One third of The Irish Tenors.

Likes: Reading and gardening.

Dislikes: Going through airports.

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