Tuesday 24 April 2018

When they were sweet sixteen - Finbar Furey on his love for his wife Sheila

All-time great Finbar Furey bares his soul to Barry Egan, speaking about 'crossing over' when he almost died in 2013, his love for Sheila - his wife of 48 years - meeting Liza Minnelli in New York in 1968, and riding horses in his blissful youth in Ballyfermot

Finbar Furey and his wife Sheila. Photo David Conachy
Finbar Furey and his wife Sheila. Photo David Conachy
Finbar Furey with his five-string banjo - he’s also renowned for his piping and the low whistle. Photo: David Conachy

Apart from the man himself, no one knows - or could hope to know - Finbar Furey better than the woman he has been married to for almost 50 years, Sheila. He once described her as "the most perfect woman I've ever met".

Sitting in a bar in Tallaght, Sheila still retains her Edinburgh brogue (she hails from the Pentlands area of the Scottish capital). It becomes more pronounced in places when she talks of the love of her life, a subject she has never broached before with a journalist.

Finbar was outside getting his photograph taken, so I thought I'd ask her a few questions and see how we got on. And like her husband - whom she lives with in Rathfarnham, having previously lived in Dunmore East - once Sheila opened her mouth, there was no stopping her.

"Finbar is very emotional, very emotional - he would cry - and very romantic, very, very romantic," she says over coffee of the legend who wrote The Lonesome Boatman, the gentle soul she met in a pub in Edinburgh when she was 16 and he 17. They were married on October 30, 1968, in Juniper Green, Edinburgh.

"He is very focused, very deep. He's actually thinking about things all the time. He's always thinking about music, music, music. It is in his head the whole time.

"We'd be watching something on the TV and he'd disappear and come back and say, 'Have a listen to this'. It would be a song. Where it came out of I don't know. Maybe he doesn't even know himself. He's funny when he's telling me about a song. He gets absolutely lost in the music.

"This is what he does," Sheila says of her husband's beautiful, life-long obsession with music.

What is it like to be married to a man like that?

"I've been with him all my life," she smiles, with something that can only be described as pure undiluted love in her eyes. "He has never pretended. I don't think he could pretend. He is very honest. He has a restless spirit in his mind. He wouldn't be happy to sit back in a house in Lanzarote. We'd be there a couple of hours and he'd be looking for somewhere to play. He has been writing his autobiography for the last few years. He's nearly there. He's written it by hand and I've been doing it on the computer. He's got three other books in his head as well. We're going over to Spain to finish the book."

Even allowing for exaggeration, Finbar Furey won't have a problem filling a book about his life in Spain, or indeed anywhere. He possesses bucket-loads of what Carl Jung called that "life-giving leaping and twinkling of the soul". Like a gritty seanachai, he fills the room with golden stories from long ago...

His father Ted taking him around Ireland as a boy and watching and joining in with him on musical sessions in pubs around the country; playing in O'Donoghue's pub with Ronnie Drew once upon a time; appearing on Top of the Pops playing When You Were Sweet Sixteen and The Green Fields of France (Kool & The Gang were also on the bill that night); meeting Liza Minnelli with Edward Kennedy in the green room in Carnegie Hall in New York in 1968 and Minnelli saying to him: "Finbar Furey! Oh, my God! That's the strangest name I ever heard in my life!" When Finbar asked Liza what her name was, he promptly told her: "You sound like an ice cream."

He is pure entertainment. He is Irish folklore in motion. Emotive tales of days gone by blend into tales from more recent times...

From him having to give an impromptu performance with his uillean pipes at an American airport for the customs officers in the 1970s because they didn't believe that the contraption he had in his case was a musical instrument, to, a few years ago, being chased around Paris by homeless people looking for money from the Irish legend because he had given a lot of money outside one of his gigs to some homeless people the night before. "I was the Prince of the Paupers!" he says.

Finbar talks the hind legs off a donkey for four hours. Four hours admittedly went by in a blink. He talks and thinks about 200 miles an hour. It is hard to keep up with him. It's like he's got two brains, and two mouths, on the go at the same time.

As he does with his songs, Finbar draws you closer and brings your imagination alive with his poetic ruminations. He recalls the late John Peel on the BBC naming his and his brother Eddie Furey's single Her Father Didn't Like Me Anyway as his Record of the Year for 1972. "We beat The Beatles. I got slated by the traddies at home. I play too fast!"

You can't please the purists, I say.

"The purists couldn't fecking play marbles. And by the way, if someone wants to criticise me on my pipes, I'll give them the pipes and say, 'Let me hear you play them'. I play pipes different to anybody. I play in the Traveller style. It is very beautiful. It flows. It is like an Amazonian waterfall. It just rolls."

How does he think the world sees Finbar Furey?

​"Hopefully as a good person, a good musician and songwriter​," he says, and smiles again.

He celebrates and affirms life with his every wild tale, his every wild laugh. Echoing what painter Cezanne said about genius being the ability to renew one's emotions in daily experience, Finbar has put his art into his life. And he makes it all sound so real.

Ask him a simple question about his childhood and the answer is epic in the telling. And his green eyes will light up as he tells you.

"We had four horses. We had real butter. We were one of the few houses with real butter. And as the fella said to me every time 'your ma would give us a big lump of bread with real butter'," he says. "We were never poor.

"We didn't have much," he adds, his green eyes smiling now. "Nobody had much back then. I can't tell you how fantastic it was to grow up in Ballyer as a kid," he says of Ballyfermot.

"And the music was great. Our house was just full of singing, I think I came out of my mother singing," says Finbar, who was born in the Coombe on September 28, 1946.

"We never had any hassle. My father started all the hurling in Ballyfermot. He got all the boys hurling. He used to bring a rake of them to the canal on a summer's day. Hardly any of them could swim and my father would teach them. You know? He put a rope around your waist and he'd hold you up.

"For picnics," he continues, "we'd take one of the horses. My mother would make sandwiches with homemade brown bread and we'd head out to Lucan on the horse and we'd leave him in the field and go down to the banks of the river and do a bit of fishing and by the time we'd go back, my ma would have a fire going in the corner of the field and we'd have sandwiches.

"We'd come home absolutely drained from the fresh air. My father was a wonderful man. My mother was beautiful. She could read me like a book. She was a great banjo player and singer. If you had an album out, the front windows would be open in the house and she'd play it, full blast. 'That's the boys! They're over in America with the Clancys at the moment!'," Finbar says about when he and Eddie joined the Clancy Brothers in the late 1960s after Tommy Makem left the Clancys.

"My mother was very proud of us all," he says of his beloved Nora, who died on September 5, 1986.

His equally beloved father, Ted, had passed away on May 12, 1979, at the age of just 65. Finbar played The Cuilin on the pipes at the graveside of his funeral.

I ask him what emotions were going through his head - his heart - that day at the grave as he played.

"Great sadness and probably anger at the too-early end of a wonderful life well lived," Finbar says, "and the gap he would leave in all our lives."

Finbar can recall the impassioned support and guidance his dear da gave him literally from the beginning of his career.

"I was about five years of age," he begins. "My mother sent me to Puck Fair in Killorglin to get salty butter, county butter we called it." (Killorglin, ironically, is where his parents' romance began when they were in their teens: Ted saw Nora busking on her banjo and that was, as they say, that.)

"I was looking at the butter and I was looking at this old tin whistle. And it was the same price. So I said I want the whistle. My father caught up with me eventually and he asked, 'Where's the butter?' And I told him that I'd bought a whistle. 'Can you play it?' I told him I was going busking with Eddie. He was seven. I was five. We got lost in Puck Fair. And we've been lost ever since," he says meaning lost in the music.

"And from that day in Puck Fair, I learned to play the tin whistle. And then when my hands got big enough, when I was seven or eight, my father got me a set of pipes."

It wasn't long before he had won the All-Ireland junior championships for pipes, in 1961, and soon after three All-Ireland senior medals, and before he knew it it was Carnegie Hall in New York and beyond. All because of the guiding light of father Ted...

What did he learn about life from his father? "​Everything really," Finbar says. "To be honest, I'm proud of who I am, and of course, music.​"

What did he learn about life from his mother? "Everything as well from her point of view. She was a great reader of character and was a romantic who loved the old songs, musicals, and I got that from her.​"

And what would he like to teach the world with his words, with his music?

"As Woody Guthrie said, 'I won't teach but they can steal it from me if they like'.​"

The importance and influence of Finbar Furey in the history of Irish music cannot be over-estimated.

His new album Paddy Dear, an impassioned piece de resistance, is thus far the album of 2017. RTE producer Aidan Butler said recently that Paddy Dear is "the album we all have been waiting for from Finbar, a man at peace with himself, and his music. His voice rings true in every lyric, and proves just how good a songwriter he is. A contender for Album of the Year".

His is an extraordinary 50-year return journey from Australia, South Africa, America and beyond all his life, often with Sheila by his side. The nation's phenomenal reaction to Finbar's recent performance with Christy Dignam on the Late Late Show was hard evidence of just how much Ireland loves him. "I love music," he says. "It's in my blood."

What makes him angry about Ireland? ​

"That emigration is still having to go on and on.​"

Finbar emigrated, so to speak, from The Furey Brothers in late 1996. When his younger brother Paul died suddenly in June 2002 of cancer, Finbar felt guilty that he wasn't there for him. "I kept blaming myself, thinking that if I'd been there he mightn't have died."

In reality, of course, there was nothing he or anyone could have done to save Paul. "I was very down at the time. I felt terrible. He was my younger brother. I remember thinking, 'Stupid music. It robs your life'. I couldn't practise for a year."

Then in 2013, Finbar almost joined Paul - and his parents Ted and Nora - in the great gig in the sky.

"I had no fear whatsoever. I believe there is something there," Finbar says, meaning in the next life, "but I don't think we have the brains to know what it is.

"The only thing I was thinking of was Sheila. I was looking at the sorrow that was in Sheila's face. I was telling her and the kids [Martin, Aine, Caitriona, Robert and Finbar] 'It's OK'. I remember when they put me into the ambulance and the doctor said to me, 'You are going to have a massive heart attack in about five minutes'."

Did he worry that this imminent heart attack was going to kill him?

"For some reason, I knew I was coming back. When I woke up, I could see the monitor. The doctor kept saying, 'Focus'. I said, 'Go away and leave me alone. I'm quite happy'. I was told that I checked out [died] on them three times. The last time they thought I wasn't coming back."

What brought him back? The desire not to die yet?

"It wasn't my time. I was very peaceful, trust me. I remember taking my watch off and giving my wallet to Sheila. I remember hearing one of the doctors say, 'He's not going to make it'. But in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I thought, 'I'll be back!'" Finbar Furey laughs.

And he was back. "I remember giving Sheila a kiss on the cheek. And then I threw up badly. The doctors say that probably saved my life.

"I can't remember being in pain. I had some peaceful dreams. To experience death, you know, I didn't want to come back, it was that peaceful. It was beautiful. All I can tell people is don't be afraid of death. I've been there. I've crossed-over. I saw a lot but I couldn't describe it to you. It was completely different to anything I've ever seen before."

Finbar says he didn't see any white lights or visions of his dearly departed parents or even his little brother.

"No, but I made one up for the craic, because there was a fella annoying me. I said to him, 'I saw my brother'."

And what did your little brother say to Finbar in this entirely made-up experience to get rid of the annoying eejit?

"Paul said, 'Wait till the oul' fella gets his hands on you!'" Finbar Furey says, his six foot frame physically rattling with laughter.

At this point, the Scottish woman who changed his life as much as his music comes back to the table in Tallaght.

"She is my pillar. She susses everything out. I'm very impatient. She's not. We never go to bed on a row. We always talk it though. She is the smartest, loveliest, women I've ever met."

Long may they continue to make sweet music together.

Finbar Furey's new album Paddy Dear is available online and in shops nationwide. Finbar will perform all over Ireland over the next few months, including Vicar Street in Dublin on February 9, May 4 and May 7. www.finbarfurey.com

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