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Sunday 15 December 2019

'Someone tried to run me over with an SUV,' says tenor Ronan Tynan

A decade after his public shaming, Ronan Tynan talks about falling victim to 'cancel culture' writes Niamh Horan

Rising strong: Ronan Tynan says his traumatic experience 10 years ago has made him more ‘compassionate, understanding and sorrowful’ when he reads about other people’s bad experiences. Picture: Steve Humphreys
Rising strong: Ronan Tynan says his traumatic experience 10 years ago has made him more ‘compassionate, understanding and sorrowful’ when he reads about other people’s bad experiences. Picture: Steve Humphreys
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Long before celebrities, politicians and high-profile personalities were cancelled on an almost weekly basis, tenor Ronan Tynan was the first Irish star to have his career wiped out overnight.

It's been 10 years, but he describes for the first time just how bad the backlash got.

"I'll tell you how bad that got. My life was threatened... I was nearly run over in a car. I got letters sent to me covered with talc and it was the time of anthrax," he says. "One guy in a prominent hospital in New York wrote to me and said 'if you ever have a heart attack and you come to this hospital, I will let you die'."

Sitting in the idyllic surrounds of Kilkea Castle, Co Kildare, he describes the nightmare he found himself living: "When you are walking on a street and someone tries to run you over with a black SUV, I had a friend with me and someone shouted 'you anti-Semitic [expletive]'," before they drove at him in their car.

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Tynan first made his name with the Irish Tenors and saw his star rise in the United States, singing God Bless America at the Yankee Stadium and performing sell-out shows at Madison Square Garden. But his life changed in seconds, right outside his apartment door in October 2009, when he was coming back from grabbing a coffee downstairs.

Here is how he recalls what happened: Two older Jewish women were looking at an apartment on his floor. During a brief conversation, Tynan cheerily told them he was a singer and the pair turned cold - apparently not wanting to live down the hall from someone who would be singing all the time.

Three weeks later, a different realtor was showing another client around the same apartment. Recognising Tynan from Yankees' games, he told him that his client could become Tynan's new neighbour, but reassured him that he shouldn't worry - "they're not Red Sox fans".

Tynan laughed and replied "at least they weren't those Jewish ladies", recalling, in his mind's eye, the previous incident. When asked what he meant, Tynan didn't go into detail and instead laughed and said: "Well, that would be scary."

The story spread like wildfire and Tynan was accused of anti-Semitism. The Yankees fired him and he watched as - within the space of a week - his career and reputation were burned to the ground.

With the stress, he says: "I thought I was going to have a heart attack. That is the truth."

A letter from a well-known businessman said it all: "He said 'a slip of the tongue and you may as well have cut your wrists'."

A decade later and he says the internet never allows him to move on: "It's still there, you never escape it."

On the growing number of people who face public humiliation in the age of the internet, he says: "It's definitely made me more compassionate, understanding and more sorrowful when I read about all the other people. One slip of a word and people will condemn you. I know this is ... but it's like 'crucify him' and no one allows you the privilege [to respond]."

Tynan's life reads like an epic tale of triumph over adversity. He was born with phocomelia, causing both his legs to be underdeveloped. His twin brother died at 11 months and, aged 20, he had to have his legs amputated following a horrific car crash. But rather than be defeated by his trials, he went on to qualify in medicine from Trinity College, Dublin, win 18 gold medals and break 14 world records as a Paralympic champion and from there he became a global success with the Irish tenors, selling millions of classical albums, singing for two Popes and three American Presidents.

While some people would have been crushed under the pain of his early life experiences, Tynan says the secret to his mindset came from his mother - who never treated him any differently because of his challenges.

"Growing up, there were no allowances," he asserts. "Tom [my brother] went to school in short pants. So did I, even though I was wearing prosthetics. She fostered a pride in who I am, so that I never thought of the limbs."

His parents also gave him an old lazy white pony called 'Sunbeam' to strengthen his legs. Tynan spent day after day trying to get him to break into a canter. When eventually it happened, his father raced out of the house - to his delighted yelps - and threw his arms around the boy. "Perseverance," they told him, would get him everywhere. Whatever he put his mind to: "Keep at it. Just keep doing it."

Years later, operatic notes could be heard rising from the old milking sheds of their Kilkenny farm, where Tynan would sing with his father, while milking the cows. One day his father turned to him and said: "Ronan, you have got to do something with the voice." But his mother was vehemently against it. She told him: "Ronan, medicine is a vocation, singing is an avocation. Leave it where it should be." But the determination she had already instilled in him won through.

His talent would give him a seat on the front row of history, singing at Ronald Reagan's funeral and most recently for George Bush Senior on his death bed. The former president had stood by Ronan at his lowest time during the 2009 controversy, and in turn, the Kilkenny man was there to grant him his last wish.

Describing the experience as "incredibly humbling", he recalls how the statesman was still making jokes shortly before he died.

"I said 'sir, you look amazing' and he said 'clean your glasses'. I laughed and gave him a hug and then I said 'would you like a song?' He said 'I would love that'."

Tynan began with an old Irish love song for Bush, who had lost his wife, Barbara, only months before.

"It's not for the parting that my sister pains

It's not for the grief of my mother

'Tis all for the loss of my bonny Irish lass

That my heart is breaking forever."

Then he sang the hymn Ag Criost an Siol. Finally, he turned to the president and said: "We are coming into Christmas - what about Silent Night?"

As he sang the words, Ronan recalls the president "started to sing with me... he held my hand and then I went. An hour and a half later, he passed".

Since the fateful day outside his New York apartment, Ronan has been living in a sprawling home in Boston, which he values most of all for its privacy. Although he has achieved so much, he says he has yet to settle down, which he partly puts down to his independent nature. "Do you know what [my sister] says about me? She says, 'He can't be harnessed, you can't put a bridle on him.'"

He also attributes his single life to the career path he has chosen.

"The work hours and the crazy personality that goes with it. Listen, all singers are neurotic, totally neurotic," he laughs. "They wake up and it's like 'Ahh ooooo aaaah, oh my God! I can't sing!' And then everything goes down the tubes - your mood - everything!"

Still, he comes across as affable and down-to-earth. Despite his global success, he has made it his business to come home and perform in aid of charity in the intimate setting of St Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny, on January 4 - with the possibility of another date being added due to the demand. The performance will be part of 'Yulefest Kilkenny' festival, which runs until January 6.

Having given performances to so many world leaders and having the greats - from Bono to Pavarotti - praise his vocal talents, I wonder if he has mused over who he wants to sing at his own funeral. Although only turning 60 next year, he says he has it all planned out. Be still my soul and Going Home are his picks.

And for the performance?

He laughs at the absurdity of the question - as if it could be any other way.

"I will be singing them!"

You will be singing at your own funeral?

"Oh damn right! I'm not paying anybody else. If the best is in the grave, then get him out of it!"

For more information on Tynan's performance and the rest of the Yuletide Kilkenny events, visit www.yulefestkilkenny.ie

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