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More than pipe dreams

Ed Power catches up with Finbar Furey ahead of a documentary that charts the life of the musician

Finbar Furey is remembering the time he received a pep-talk from Martin Scorsese. "I'd finished shooting my scenes for 'Gangs of New York'. Me and the wife were getting into a limo to go for dinner.

"As we're leaving, Scorsese runs up to me and says: 'You should be an actor, you have a great face for the screen.'"

What was Finbar Furey, the whiskery folk singer best known as frontman of The Fureys and Davey Arthur, doing on a film set with the director of 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging Bull'?

You expect it to be a long story, but it's a rather short one.

His friend Brendan Gleeson had recommended him to Scorsese for the part of a musician whose throaty rendering of the trad ditty 'New York Girls' sets the tone for the historical blockbuster.

However, Finbar's role in 'Gangs of New York' expanded when Scorsese encountered him in the flesh.

Seeing something unique in the Dubliner, he wanted Finbar to act as well as warble. Next thing, Leonardo DiCaprio was giving the singer a tour of the soundstage in Rome, where the movie was being shot.

Finbar's character, a rough-hewn bard, ends up with five minutes' screen time.

It is just one of the many extraordinary turns in the life of Finbar Furey, whose biography is full of unlikely guest cameos.

Born in 1948 and raised in hard-scrabble circumstances in west Dublin, in the 1960s Finbar criss-crossed America with the famously hard-drinking Clancy Brothers (hanging with Bob Dylan along the way), out-charted The Beatles with the Furey Brothers, sang on 'Top of the Pops' and counted Paul Newman as a fan.

To the person in the street, Finbar's work represents a sentimental strain of Irish traditional music, a sort of easy-listening mid-point between The Dubliners and the aforementioned Clancys.

The war stories he tells, though, are anything but quaint.

Finbar has certainly been through enough to appreciate the unhurried existence he leads today.

Several years ago, he started using painkillers to medicate shoulder pain. A visit to the doctor would have revealed he was suffering from a muscle strain common among musicians.

Unfortunately, he didn't seek help. He kept taking painkillers, fogging up his mind to the point where he could barely string three words together.

"The main muscle under my shoulder blade was wasted," he says. "I've been playing the uilleann pipes since I was a kid. If you're doing that two hours a night, it takes its toll.

"I'd also been putting my arm over the electric guitar and the banjo. I think Eric Clapton may have suffered from the same thing.

"Usually you get it treated after six months. I had it for three years. I was going off my head," he says.

At first the painkillers helped. However, he was allergic to the active ingredient and the agony in his shoulder kept getting worse.

He started to lose his hold on reality.

"I couldn't hold a conversation," he says. "My head started to go. They were also destroying my stomach.

"It all came to a head when I was doing a little show for Padraig Harrington after he won the British Open four years ago.

"Eamonn Coghlan was there and saw me in agony. After I finished the gig he recommended a doctor. They did a cat-scan and put me straight into the hospital. Within three weeks, I would have lost the use of my right arm completely," he adds.

Finbar will depart for the US in a few days, for one of the longest tours of his career. He is promoting his new album 'Colours' -- an evocative collection with cameos from Mary Black and 'X-Factor' graduate Shayne Ward.

Coinciding with the uptick in his profile, RTE will next week screen a documentary about his life, 'Finbar Furey: Free Spirit'.

Finbar came of age musically in the 1960s. It was a good time to be an Irish trad player.

With the success of the Clancy Brothers, four tankard-clinking Tipperary singers in matching Aran jumpers, America was crying out for folkies from the old country.

Finbar and his brother Eddie went to the US and were soon playing to packed audiences often, but not always, comprised of misty eyed Irish-Americans.

In the middle of one such jaunt, they were approached by the Clancys, then superstars who counted Dylan and The Beatles as fans. Tommy Makem was leaving the line-up -- would Finbar join?

He agreed on the proviso that Eddie (whom the Clancy's hadn't been pursuing) be brought on board too.

They said yes and, a few months later, he stood on stage in Carnegie Hall, wondering how exactly he'd ended up there.

The Clancys liked to enjoy themselves. Liam Clancy, the group's de facto leader, once told the story of nearly being shot at the Playboy Mansion after accidentally striking the girlfriend of an armed plainclothes detective with a beer tankard (filled, naturally, with Champagne).

Out of respect to the Clancy's memory, Finbar prefers to draw a veil over whatever rock 'n' roll excesses he may or may not have witnessed.

"We were kids," he says. "We minded our own business. I never saw the lads go on stage and not woo an audience.

"And I'm not talking about a pub audience -- I'm talking 8,000 people. Carnegie holds 2,200. They filled it for a week."

The Fureys had nearly a dozen hit singles, including 'When You Were Sweet Sixteen', 'The Green Fields of France' and 'The Red Rose Cafe'.

Stepping away from the group was difficult but, by the early 1990s, Finbar needed a change. It did not go well.

"I was completely lost," he remembers. "I was looking for a direction. I wouldn't let the band go. It was my heart and soul.

"I was looking from a distance, making sure they [the rest of the group] were okay. It took a good seven or eight years to find where I was going"

Did Finbar seek solace in the bottle? He dismisses the suggestion. "None of my brothers ever went near the top shelf," he says. "You can't play the music we play drunk.

"You cannot drink yourself into oblivion when you have a set of uilleann pipes. The last thing you can be is drunk going on stage.

"Me and Eddie had been with the Clancy Brothers and all the heavyweights when we were kids," he continues. "We saw the lads that could drink and the lads that couldn't. The lads that could drink were the lads that didn't make it."

'Finbar Furey: Free Spirit' airs Monday RTE1, 9.35pm

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