Thursday 21 November 2019

Hothouse Flower Fiachna O'Braonain is back

Hothouse Flower Fiachna O'Braonain reinvented himself when the band took a break. Now he is a broadcaster too. But he tells Ciara Dwyer that his greatest role is being a father to his five children.

Fiachna O Braonain
Fiachna O Braonain
The Hothouse Flowers

Ciara Dwyer

Fiachna O'Braonain is up for life, and it shows. It's in his energetic walk and the way he laughs heartily. On the day that I meet the Dublin-born musician and broadcaster, he cuts an elegant figure in a beautifully cut suit. He looks like he has stepped off the streets of Paris. In fact, he bought it there. He has a French connection.

Many years ago, a 21-year-old French student called Francoise stayed with his family in Dublin, while she studied for a Masters. Fiachna was seven at the time. That summer, she brought him home with her to Paris for a holiday. He still has the scrapbook. They visited the Louvre, the Sacre Coeur and the Paris Car Show.

"Everyone was incredibly elegant," he says.

It obviously rubbed off on him. He would write about his little outings and Francoise would teach him to translate his sentences into French. These summer holidays became an annual event and much later on, he fulfilled a fantasy of living in Paris. He was also drawn to the African quarter there. He ate tagine and heard Moroccan music. Eventually, he came full circle. Last year, he went to Morocco for a TG4 programme, Ceolchuairt Maraco, which will be broadcast on January 13. He was on a quest to explore the connection between Moroccan music and traditional Irish music. While there, you see him busk in Marrakech's famous square, Djemma el Fna and he even played the tin whistle to a cobra. He performed with the master musicians of Joujouka and he sang a sean nos song to a female performer, Ayoua, who gave a musical response of her own. While the programme is in Irish, with subtitles, you get to see him talk in French. Watching it, you get the feeling that he is good at enjoying life; that while he lives his life, which has had both vicissitudes and joys, he is upbeat.

Take the morning I met him. After I admired his clothes, he told me that he has been wearing the same suit for the past few years. This is what fatherhood has done to him, this time round. These days he lives in Wicklow with Siona Ryan, his partner of seven years, whom he describes as "amazing." They knew each other years ago when she was working with record companies and he was busy with the Hothouse Flowers. They got together when they met at a friend's 50th birthday party. She was living in London at the time and Fiachna was based in Paris. They travelled to see each other and eventually, they decided to move back to Dublin. They moved in together and now, they have two children - Gabriel (3) and a six month old daughter, Sadhbh.

He tells me that the baby is teething and that their little boy woke in the night and took hours to get back to sleep. But this is not uttered with a trace of a moan. He may be tired but it's clear that he enjoys it all.

"In so many ways, I think men, in particular, are more equipped to deal with it when they are slightly older," he says.

He knows a thing or two about fatherhood. At the height of his Hothouse career, at the age of 24, he became a father for the first time. He had twin girls - Kasia and Liadain, now in their twenties - with his former partner Jadzia Kaminski. She is now married and lives in Kilkenny. They have remained firm friends, and he even attended her wedding with Siona. One night Jadzia and her husband babysat Gabriel, while Fiachna and Siona had a night out. As he says himself, "It's a very happy outcome."

"I'm not going to say that it was roses in the garden all the time," he says. "But at the end of the day it was about respect. We treated each other and the kids with the love and respect that they deserved, and that enabled us to move forward. When we went our separate ways, the kids were about three. We were told to read a book called Mom's House, Dad's House. It was about creating this positive spin of being in two separate homes and it worked because the girls ended up boasting about having two houses."

Now the twins are accomplished young women. Liadain is a theatre director and Kasia is a photographer. He also has an eight year old daughter, Ellais, from a brief relationship with a woman in France and he sees her regularly too. All his children gathered in his house over the holidays. He relished having them all together.

At the same time as the relationship with Jadzia crumbled, the Hothouse Flowers took a break. Liam O'Maonlai the lead singer, wanted to take time out to grieve the death of his father.

"I probably would have been happy to carry on performing with the band, but in retrospect, it afforded me an opportunity to just stop. It was time to go and do other stuff. I was living in a cottage in Rialto but I needed to carry on working. I had two kids I needed to support."

Did he panic?

"Not really," he says. "But I did have a meeting with the bank manager to tell him about the situation, and that the income had gone away. He told me I was capable and that I could do other things."

It wasn't long before the phone rang and singer Michelle Shocked asked him to join her in LA to work together. She gave him a slot in her show and he began writing songs and singing them. He put out a solo album and some of those songs which he wrote in the US ended up on a later Hothouse album. The band performs regularly and indeed, they are playing in St Patrick's Cathedral, as part of Temple Bar Tradfest on January 28. There is an instinctive bond between them on stage. He and Liam went to the same primary school and have been performing music all their lives. First, it was traditional music and also, a rock band at school, entering competitions. In the summer of 1985, when they had completed their university exams - by then Fiachra was doing law in UCD - they hit Grafton Street and busked all day, calling themselves The Benzini Brothers.

"It was the most glorious summer that one could ever have," he says. "We made enough money to go to the pub later on and get a bowl of pasta in the Coffee Inn and then go on to the Pink Elephant. We won the street entertainer of the year award and ended up on the radio."

He ditched his law studies for music and Liam packed in his course too. But this was no great matter, as all his life he had always wanted to be a musician. While Fiachna still performs with the Hothouse Flowers and has vowed to Liam that they will make another album, when the stars align, he now has a rich and varied career. When the band took a break, he got into broadcasting. He presented an Irish programme about choirs and then, someone suggested that with his rich, warm voice, he should consider doing some radio work. Now he does voice-overs and for over three years, he has hosted RTE Radio One's Late Date, when needed. At the moment, he is on at weekends. He knows that it is a sacred slot. Fiachra used to listen to his predecessor Val Joyce on the way home from gigs. Fiachra enjoys the variety of his working life but for him, family is what it's all about.

"Fatherhood changes the way you think about the future. It makes you get your act together in a way that you otherwise mightn't do," he says. "Being a Dad all over again, in my late 40s, I think I'm savouring it more. That's probably because I'm not on the road, but also, you calm down as you get older."

"The idea of deciding to have kids, to consciously go and have kids with somebody that you love and with somebody that loves you and that you know you're going to be together forever, is something that doesn't come along every day of the week, so I grabbed it wholeheartedly," he says." It's the most amazing thing that has happened. Of course, I think about what age I'm going to be for their 21st birthdays, but they are now the raison d'etre and the reason I'm having 17 cups of coffee this morning as I talk to you."

"Kids give you that reason to live. This stage is hard work but it'll fly by. I'm savouring every minute of it now. "

Ceolchuairt Maraco is on TG4 on January 13 at 9.30pm. Hothouse Flowers play the Temple Bar Tradfest at St Patrick's Cathedral on January 28 at 8.30pm tickets €35.99

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