Monday 14 October 2019

Only a woman's heart can know

An iconic figure in the music scene, Dolores Keane has had it tough, writes Andrea Smith

On the train to interview Dolores Keane in Galway this week, I couldn't help being curious about the woman I was going to meet for the first time. The flame-haired singer, one of the icons of Irish music scene for several decades, has been missing from the public view for several years now, and I was dying to know what had become of the woman from Caherlistrane with the voice that has melted hearts worldwide.

Aside from the warmth and kindness of her manner, the first thing that struck me was how well Dolores is looking. She's slimmed down to a size 12, which she attributes to not being on the road with the attendant habit of late night eating after gigs, and she positively glows with health. The biggest change of all is that her trademark waist-length hair has been cut. She hasn't done a Katie Cruise, and it's still long by anybody's standards, but it comes as a shock all the same.

Dolores is in shock herself, not at the hair loss, but at the news that The Essential Dolores Keane album, a new 27-track compilation of her biggest hits, is flying off the shelves. Especially as she didn't exactly go out of her way to promote it. This was not unrelated to the recent release of albums by two other notable female Irish performers.

Even with all of the publicity and hype that surrounded the high-profile Andrea Corr and Sinead O'Connor's recent solo albums, Andrea's debuted at 24, dropping to 46 the following week, while Sinead's went from 18 to 36. Dolores has been out of the public eye for a long time now, and there seemed little likelihood that she would fare any better than her singing sisters. So, there were no radio station tours, TV appearances or advance media interviews -- and it went straight in to the charts at number 10 last week, and was up to number four on Friday.

"Well, it's the biggest shock ever," says Dolores over lunch in Galway city. "I only found out a month ago that the record company was planning to bring it out, and never in my wildest dreams did I think it would go to number four."

Dolores started her musical career aged five when she made her first recording for Radio Eireann, and she also appeared on many TV programmes, usually with her famous aunts, Rita and Sarah Keane, the sean-nos singers who helped to raise her as a child. Dolores became a founding member of the internationally renowned De Danann, with whom she had a major hit single in 1975, with The Rambling Irishman, and moved to London for several years, where she formed the bands, The Reel Union and Kinvara, with John Faulkner, who also became her husband.

Dolores had a very difficult pregnancy with her son, Joseph, 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 failing vision, which Joseph suffers from, though he has been spared mental retardation.

"It was a very traumatic thing for John and I to go through, and I had to push myself to get out and perform because I was afraid to leave Joseph at first," says Dolores, adding that her baby wasn't expected to live beyond 24 hours. "He's now 20, and his sight is almost gone, but he's getting very good at the braille. He's very bright, and brilliant with numbers."

The marriage sadly ended between Dolores and John, and for a while Dolores carried on with her singing career, having hit albums that included Lion In A Cage and Solid Ground, while her contributions to the smash-hit A Woman's Heart albums, included Paul Brady's The Island, and Dougie McLean's Caledonia.

But then she disappeared off the radar. She started a relationship with her current partner of 15 years, Barry "Bazza" Farmer, with whom she has the delightful 13-year-old Tara. Tara started secondary school in Headford last week. But the touring came to an end and so did recording. "It all got to me," she says. "I loved singing so much, but going up on stage was a job, and I couldn't feel the songs any more. My whole will for singing was gone, my heart and soul wasn't in it, and I was depressed. Now, we all love going out for a few drinks, and all the rest of it, but I found myself having more drinks in order to take that depression away."

It was about three or four years ago, that Dolores admitted to herself that she couldn't go on the way she was any more. She phoned her brother Matt for help, and he advised her to go to the addiction treatment unit at Ballinasloe hospital.

"I went in and did the addiction unit for four weeks," she says, "and I thought it was brilliant. The people there were fabulous. I was delighted I did it, and I wasn't one bit ashamed about it. I came out cleansed. It was a great thing to do, going there definitely saved me." It was after this that Dolores realised that the root of her problem was depression, emanating from the difficulties in her past.

"All the earlier stuff caught up with me," she says. "I had been through the change, and the finances weren't great either because I wasn't working. It's very hard to describe it because it just comes on you, and you could be crying at the drop of a hat. I'm not a bad actress, and I manage to hide what I'm feeling and put a good face forward all the time in public, but I'd be a different person once I got home. I went to the doctor, and went on anti-depressants when I needed them, which helped me so much too."

These days Dolores, Bazza and the kids live outside Galway city with their two dogs, five cats, five birds and four fish, and she says that life is good and she feels happy and contented. Her current success is a huge bonus, and she is grateful for the blessings she has in life.

"I can have a few drinks now, and take it easy, and I sing at sessions locally, in places like Taaffe's and Tig Coili in Galway. And I've a great rapport with Bazza and the kids. Joseph is doing really well, and Tara is brilliant. She's a real little pal to me."

The unexpected chart success has given Dolores the confidence to go back out on the road again. "It's the beginning of a new era for me, where I've gone through all I did and the yesterdays are all behind me now."

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