Singer Sean Keane: 'I grew reclusive after Virginia's death - I just didn't realise it'
When his beloved wife passed away, Sean Keane found himself unable to sing. He speaks for the first time about his grief to our reporter
'Virginia was too young to die, but cancer doesn't care about age," is how singer Sean Keane sums up the passing of his wife on July 3, 2010. Virginia was only in her early 50s when she died, having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009. The diagnosis came out of the blue, after someone at the VEC she taught at in Galway remarked that she looked jaundiced. The chance remark led to a devastating outcome that came as a complete shock to Sean and Virginia and their young daughters Maraleeze and Jennifer.
The initial prospects were hopeful, with some radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatments early on, until surgeons in Dublin operated and discovered that the cancer wasn't something they could remove. When two people separately mentioned Brazilian healer Joao de Deus, or John of God, at the same time, the desperate couple took it as a sign. Four days later, they were in a little village, Abadiania, in Brazil, where the healer runs Casa de Dom Inacio de Loyola, a spiritual healing centre.
The centre has attracted controversy, and investigators have been critical of claims that Joao can bring about miracle cures and performs operations without the need for anaesthetic. On the other side are fervent fans, including Oprah Winfrey who visited the centre in 2013. She described how she arrived in Brazil as a sceptic during a troubled professional time, but felt "an overwhelming sense of peace". "It brought me right to the place I most needed to be to get perspective," she said.
Virginia and Sean spent two weeks there, and then travelled back and forwards for the next few months. While Virginia wasn't physically healed, there was a dramatic change in her outlook, and she and Sean came to view her illness and impending demise differently.
"We went to Brazil looking for a cure, but came back with peace of mind," he says. "We realised that death was something natural that we were all going to go through, and in a strange way, it could be as joyful as birth in another space. It had a profound effect on that time in our lives, and it lightened the way for Virginia and for us. At one point, she said, 'I don't know if this disease is a gift or a curse'."
Virginia spent the last few months at home, and Sean has a vivid picture of her in his mind lying in bed surrounded by books, helping Jenny through her Leaving Cert and Maraleeze through her college exams. "She was doing what she loved best - teaching," he says. "Virginia passed away in her own bed, and her funeral was almost a joyous occasion. The song, Don't Worry, Be Happy played as she left the church, so people probably thought we were mad, but Virginia didn't want misery and people wearing black."
For a long time after Virginia's passing, Sean completely lost interest in music. This was exacerbated by the fact that his wife worked with him in the business for many years, and he was lost without her, both personally and professionally. He was also focused on his daughters, as although they coped well, they were very young to lose their mum. "It was a hindrance for people to ask me about music," he says, in his soft, musical Galway lilt. "My friends and family wanted to get me out of the house, but I had no interest. Now that I look back, I had gone reclusive, but I didn't realise that at the time. I found myself in a space where I was happy in the house and in my own company, because if I went out into a crowded room, I would be looking for Virginia and would be constantly reminded that she was not there."
Sean, 55, is from Caherlistrane, Galway, and is the youngest of the late Matt and Bridie's eight children. His mum passed away in 2012, aged 93, and sister Marian died, aged eight, from TB. He is very close to his remaining siblings, Teresa, Pat, Christina, Matt and Noel, and of course Dolores, his famous singing sister. While everyone in the family sings, Dolores and Sean are the only ones doing it professionally, taking after their famous aunts, Rita and Sarah Keane. "We were the only two crazies to do it as a career," he jokes.
Dolores taught him his first song, and he won his first Fleadh Ceoil aged six. He had 13 All-Irelands for traditional singing under his belt by age 13. He also played flute, whistle, harmonica and pipes, but has never been able to cultivate an interest in the guitar, even though he bought one in Nashville. "My daughter Jenny is now playing it, so it wasn't a waste of money," he says.
Sean worked at welding and steel fabrication engineering for a time after school, and then spent two years on a building site in London, where Dolores was living at the time. He stayed with her for a while and there were always sessions and gigs for him, both solo and with his own band Sigui. He ultimately made the decision to leave the day job behind and focus on music. That decision was helped by spending a Christmas in London and hanging out with some of the older men - "the forgotten Irish" who had left Ireland decades before to work at building roads and motorways, and never returned. It was a lesson to him not to go down that route, and he came back home from London in 1981, aged 20.
Sean then went off to America for five months with Dolores and the band Reel Union, which was a great experience. When he arrived back, he stopped singing and playing music for two years. "It was so intense, I had an overload of the music business," he says. "I realised the difference between playing music for money or for love. I made a pact that when I did go back to play, I wouldn't let business or anything come between music and myself."
He joined Arcady and met Virginia Burke from Galway when they performed at the school she was teaching at when he was 26 - she was a couple of years older. There was instant chemistry between them, and he invited her along to their gig at the Avalon Hotel in Kilkenny that night. Valentine's Day was two days later, so they went out again, and within a month they were both saying, "This is it."
"I proposed when we were en route to Westport," Sean says. "I pulled over to the side of the Castlebar Road, which is not as romantic as it gets, but it was spontaneous. We had only known each other a very short time, less than a couple of months, but we got very close very quickly. Virginia's reply was, 'What took you so long?' She was a wonderful person, as solid as a rock, and so joyful, happy and positive. She was my best friend, and I didn't like to be without her for any amount of time."
Sean and Virginia were married in Virginia's hometown of Peterswell in January, 1989. He was working away in a fabrication company, and she was teaching in Nenagh. They built their dream cottage there with a thatched roof. They kept it as old and traditional as possible, using modern day technology.
When their daughter Maraleeze, now 27, came along in November 1989, Sean felt his world shifting on its axis. Nothing else mattered, he says, and he felt the same when her sister Jenny, 24, was born. Sean became a stay-at-home dad while Virginia taught, and he played music at weekends. He had built a workshop and planned to work at fabrication, but Virginia suggested he should record an album. "I thought she was mad but I agreed to do it if she would manage me," he says. "I wouldn't have been good at the business side of things, because like most musicians, it was too hard to treat my music like a product or to negotiate with people. I needed someone to put a value or a worth on it, because it was too personal to me. Virginia said no originally because she argued that she was just a teacher and didn't know enough about the business, but I told her we would learn together and we did."
Back then, the only way to get your music out there was to have a record deal. Sean was delighted to get a deal, and his first album won great reviews. He and Virginia were unhappy at the way things unfolded after that, and took the company to court for breach of agreement. The judge said there were grounds there for proceedings as there were 24 breaches of agreement, but things took a drastic turn.
Their barrister advised them the case would take years to resolve, during which Sean wouldn't be able to record or perform. Even if they were successful, the company could just shut down and open as a new entity again the next day. "Virginia and I were dumbfounded - completely knocked over," he says. "We had a mortgage of 80pc and a new baby, but they wanted £50,000 at that time to release me from the contract. We couldn't come up with that, but we came up with a figure very close to it, and we had to remortgage down to our socks for that."
The situation caused them great stress and financial hardship, and they had to sell their house. To keep their heads above water financially, they bought 10 "fixer-upper houses" over the next 22 years. They moved in, renovated them and then sold them on and started all over again.
"The positive thing was that we realised that we were now truly in the music business," Sean says. "It had to work because our backs were to the wall. We recorded another album, Turn of Phrase, and Arty McGlynn and other great friends helped us out and dug us out of a hole there. We brought the third album out with Peter Kenny's company, Ritz Grapevine, and that was a great experience. It kind of gave me confidence in that side of it again. After that, we decided to form a company called Circin Rua Teo, because "I will do it myself" is the little red hen's motto."
While Sean didn't have the heart to perform again for a few years after Virginia's death, it finally dawned on him that he had a life to live, even though it was altered irrevocably. The girls moved on and went to college, and Sean moved back to Caherlistrane, where he is surrounded by family. He is very close to his girls - Jenny has just finished a health and disability course in Sligo and is going travelling, while Maraleeze is nursing in Castlebar.
After three years of grieving, he realised with a jolt that Virginia wouldn't have been happy with him for letting the music go, after all the hard work and effort they had put it in to it. He released a compilation album to get him up and running again, and then met John Broderick who became his new manager. A former healthcare professional, John is also a songwriter and has written some fabulous songs that Sean recorded on his new album, New Day Dawning. The title reflects the new hopeful stage of his life, and also pays tribute to Virginia's love and influence. It's a beautiful, evocative album, with songs written by John and Brendan Graham and TD Ciaran Cannon, among others, and features fabulous musicians, including Mairtin O'Connor and James Blennerhassett. And, of course, Sean's rich, melodic voice delivers each note with stunning conviction.
Sean is back touring and is in and out of Germany at present. He has an Irish tour in December and January and a big Vicar Street gig on March 2. Like the album title, he feels that there is a new day dawning in his own life, as he moves forward without his beloved Virginia but with a renewed sense of hope.
"I wouldn't have been able to sing some of those songs a couple of months ago, but now I can," he says. "Virginia would never have wanted me to be miserable, and she would have been the very woman to tell me to cop on to myself. I still feel lonely at times though. You could be driving along and have a thought that puts you in that head space again."
When it comes to the delicate question of finding love again, Sean says that he hasn't met anyone but is open to the possibility. Indeed, before she passed, Virginia was adamant that he should meet someone else. She used to say, 'If you don't find her, I will from the other side'," he laughs. "I told her to mind her own business, and that I found her so I could do well enough on my own!"
The album New Day Dawning is out now. For Sean Keane's tour dates, visit www.seankeane.com
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