International superstar Nanci Griffith said: 'As long as Dolores Keane is walking round this earth, I won't call myself a singer.' But Dolores's voice and life were overshadowed as she battled with drink. She seems to have won. Andrea Smith reports
'What I want to do now is to share my experiences with other people, bec-ause it does me good as I want to be truthful and honest to myself now. I'm not proud of the things that went wrong in my life and all the rest of it. There might be a tiny bit of self-pity there, because some things went wrong that I didn't have any control over, and I had a hard life in ways, but I suppose in other ways I didn't have the control because I had lost my self-image and my self-worth -- all that had gone."
While she has been through the mill in recent years, it is clear that when singer Dolores Keane walks into the Hotel Meyrick in Galway, there is a new-found serenity about her. And there's a determination -- a quiet but steely determination to get on with the colourful life that was interrupted for many years while she was trapped in the grip of alcohol addiction. An addiction that was so serious that it caused the demise of her relationship with her partner of 20 years, Barry "Bazza" Farmer, and led to two drink-driving cases, the first of which resulted in her being disqualified from driving for three years last December, with the second due, after a guilty plea, for sentencing next week.
But most of all, until she entered the rehabilitation centre Cuan Mhuire, in February of this year, the tentacles of addiction had also destroyed Dolores's love for life, her passion for singing and her ability to function normally like everyone else.
"I was walking around day and night in a blur and didn't know right from wrong," she says. "My memory was gone and my sister Christina would tell me that she had told me something the day before, and I wouldn't remember. It was desperate and so embarrassing, and I also had no interest in myself. I wouldn't have a shower for two or three days, didn't want to get my hair done or buy new clothes, and I was a wreck in every sense of the word. When I went to Cuan Mhuire, I was in such a state. I was at death's door, I really was, and it wasn't even completely due to drink. I'd usually have six cans of lager over the period of a whole day, although there were times when I'd go over that, but I think I was in a different type of stupor most of the time. I just couldn't break through the web of drink and medication and depression."
There has always been a huge public fondness among the Irish for the flame-haired Dolores, 58, and she is extremely warm and kind in person as well as being very funny and self-deprecating. The talent of this frank Galway woman is undeniable, with a voice that resonates with power and emotion on hits such as Caledonia, The Island and You'll Never Be The Sun. It was this that prompted international superstar Nanci Griffith to remark: "As long as Dolores Keane is walking around this earth, I won't call myself a singer. I think she's the voice of Ireland."
The place at Cuan Mhuire in Limerick was found by Dolores's friend Sarah Hasty Williams, an award-winning artist from North Carolina, in conjunction with the singer's worried family. Dolores didn't protest about going in, as she says she knew the time had come. Life was untenable and she was in pain and ready for change. A few days after she entered treatment in February, her partner Bazza left the home in Caherlistrane. They had been together for 20 years, and have a beautiful daughter Tara, 18, who has just completed her Leaving Cert. Although they weren't married, they had a blessing before family and friends a couple of years ago.
"Bazza had enough, he just couldn't take it any more," says Dolores sadly. "In a way, I was disappointed that he left when I needed him most, but I don't blame him. The way that he saw me was killing him, no more than everyone around me. He tried to help me, but all I did was abuse him verbally, demanding that he would go out and get me cans to drink. The more I think about it now, the more I realise that it was my fault, not Bazza's, and I take responsibility for that."
While Dolores hasn't seen her former partner since then, because he moved away from Galway, he is still in touch with their daughter. The singer says that, while they are separated, it isn't over -- for her anyway. "For me, there are definitely still feelings there," she says, quietly.
During her three months at the treatment centre, Dolores felt safe and very much part of the family there. She began to look "deep into" herself to see the roots of her addiction, and unravelled the sources of her pain through group meetings and individual counselling.
"It really helped," she says. "I talked and talked and cried and laughed and talked some more. There were a lot of scars from when I was young that I had always suppressed, emotional things that I'd hidden from myself and had never spoken about to my family. I didn't want to upset them."
When Dolores was seven, her sister Marian died from TB, and their late mother had a nervous breakdown with grief. Of the eight children in the family, Dolores was the one who reminded her mother the most of her sister, as there was only nine months between them and they had the same sort of hair. So Dolores went to live in Carragh with her famous musical aunts Rita and Sarah Keane, both now deceased. She adored them, and says that they were wonderful and did their very best for her. She honed her love of music while living with them, but says that, as they had never married and hadn't had experience of raising children themselves, they were possibly not as tuned in to dealing with the turbulent emotions of a young developing girl.
"If I had a problem, the elders would say to put the sign of the cross on it and it would be fine tomorrow," she explains. "But the thing was, everything wasn't always right tomorrow -- sometimes it was even worse. There were times when I felt stuck in Carragh, and I didn't really know my brothers and sisters that well."
Three days into her stay at Cuan Mhuire, Dolores fell in the shower, and was hospitalised for her damaged knee. While there, it was discovered that the drinking and the years of being on medication for a duodenal ulcer and depression had caused problems with her blood, resulting in her needing blood and plasma transfusions. For this reason, she was able to perform only for one night of the A Woman's Heart concerts that were on at the Olympia around that time, and had to sing sitting down because of her injured knee. These days, she's only on one tablet for the ulcer, and while she's still on "the fags", she's smoking a lot less.
Dolores's musical career started at five, when she made her first recording for Radio Eireann, and she also appeared on many TV programmes, usually with Rita and Sarah. She became a founding member of the internationally-renowned De Danann, and moved to London for several years, where she formed bands with John Faulkner, who later became her husband, although that marriage broke up. They had a son together, Joseph, now 25, who was born with Laurence-Moon-Bardet-Biedl Syndrome, which affects approximately one in 100,000 babies. It took several years and much research before the condition was diagnosed. The syndrome causes obesity and blindness, which Joseph suffers from, although thankfully he has been spared any of the mental effects.
"I took it in my stride, but of course it broke my heart to know that he'd never see the moon or the stars and the changing of the seasons," she says. "He's doing great and we're blessed with him. He's a wizard on the [adapted] computer, sending emails and downloading DVDs, and he goes into Galway every day to work in the centre there and he's in love with the place. He does braille, and he's getting wittier and funnier by the day.
"Tara and Joseph were so supportive of me and still are. Some days I look at them and think, 'Where did I get them from?' Even if they weren't my kids, I'd still think they were two of the loveliest people around. They're kind, generous, lovable and outgoing, and they have a grand way about them."
Dolores finished in Cuan Mhuire in May, and six weeks later, her perspective has completely changed. She is optimistic, engaging with life again, and at peace with herself. She has made a few mistakes along the way she says, and would like to apologise to anyone she hurt, but the important thing is that she has forgiven herself. And she would like to tell people who are suffering that help is out there and not to be afraid to ask for it.
It's funny how life can change for you, she reflects. Years ago, when she was at the height of her career, she was doing benefit concerts for St Vincent de Paul and donating money to them.
When she came out of rehab, broke and in need, they gave her a trailer of turf, a mobile phone and food vouchers, and she is very grateful to them for that. She is getting advice and help on straightening out her financial affairs through Solas Family Resource Centre in Galway and MABS (Money Advice and Budgeting Service) and, while she can't drive for the next few years, kind people help her out with lifts.
"The main thing is that I didn't hurt nor harm anyone, thank God," she says, referring to the drink-driving charges. "I live out in the wilds so I'm reliant now on getting around on other people, and it's difficult if there's something I forgot in the shops or need a can of pet food or something like that."
All of this is said without a hint of self-pity, as Dolores Keane is not in the business of feeling sorry for herself. While she was in rehab, her family got in and decorated and repaired her house, and she was thrilled to come back home to it again.
"It was like Changing Rooms," she laughs, adding that every one of her family, from her musical brothers Sean and Matt down to her nieces, got in and worked on the redecoration -- planting flowers and installing lights and generally giving the place some TLC. She had helped them all out over the years, they said, and this was their way of repaying her and of acknowledging her commitment to sobriety.
While Dolores had lost the passion for singing and life on the road in recent years, these days she is fizzing with plans for a new album and concerts.
Actually, in a kind of Sister Act manner, she and some of the other residents got a little choir going in Cuan Mhuire, and she loved it and found peace in going to mass every morning. Last month she played to a crowd of 5,000 in Ballyhackett, and next month she will join Paidi O Se at a festival in Dingle. Then there's the A Woman's Heart concerts in the Olympia next month, back by popular demand, and she says that she can't wait to be back on stage with the other women, engaging with the audience and singing again with her band.
She is also confident of maintaining her sobriety, and says that she can go in to sessions in Taaffe's and Tig Choili's and it doesn't bother her in the slightest.
"If I had the slightest inkling that I was ever going to drink again, I'd be able to tell you this minute," she says. "As far as I'm concerned, drink doesn't concern me any more, as I have other things ahead of me.
"I'm so full of life and energy and enthusiasm, and I love life, love shopping and love going to get my hair done. My passion for life has come back, and I wouldn't let anything ruin that for me. I'm back!"
Catch Dolores Keane, Eleanor McEvoy, Sharon Shannon, Mary Coughlan, Hermione Hennessy and Gemma Hayes at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, for five nights from Wednesday August 29 to Sunday September 2
Tickets from €25 from Ticketmaster, www.ticketmaster.ie
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