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The singing surgeon

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Surgeon Austin Leahy with his album CD. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Surgeon Austin Leahy with his album CD. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Surgeon Austin Leahy with his album CD. Photo: Caroline Quinn

TOP medic Austin Leahy put aside his love for music as he pursued his career. But finally, at 58, writes Chris Wasser, he has released an album.

When Austin Leahy was eight, his mother enrolled him in the Palestrina Choir. Showtime at St Mary's Pro-Cathedral wasn't always to the Ranelagh native's liking, but it proved a valuable experience.

Young Austin was also taking violin lessons, occasionally playing in an orchestra. Then, as a teenager, he discovered Simon & Garfunkel (below). "And the rest is history," nods Austin, seated in his office at Beaumont Private Clinic.

"Music was just a complete obsession. I went through college spending most of my time playing in bands. It was only when I actually passed my exams and became a doctor after six years, I said: 'Gee, I better get serious about this'."

And so the aspiring vocalist and guitarist stepped away from the spotlight. Now, with the release of a debut solo album, he wants it back.

As consultant vascular surgeon at Beaumont, professor of health science and management at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the author of four medical books, the 58-year-old has carved out a phenomenal career for himself in medicine.

But sidelining his first love wasn't easy. "It isn't that I didn't consider doing music full-time," he explains. "In my day, there wasn't a lot of career guidance. My father was a pharmacist. I kind of ended up in medicine because I used to work as a porter in hospitals. It just happened organically that I went in that direction."

 

Stress

He might also have gone down the promotion route. After all, when Austin wasn't playing in bands throughout college, the former cultural affairs officer at UCD was, instead, booking them.

"One time, I was offered two bands," he recalls, "Tara Telephone or another band. Tara Telephone wanted £30 – the other band wanted £35. So I booked Tara Telephone and not Thin Lizzy!"

Austin's decision to get back into music originally came about in the 1990s when the married father-of-two started to play in bands again. Music became a hobby – an outlet, even, to relieve some of the stress that came with being a surgeon.

A few years back, fitness guru and bassist Pat Henry asked him to join the Transformation Blues Band as lead singer. "That was great because we all had the same dream," he remembers. "We loved the blues, and also, we didn't need to do it for a living, so we could actually pick the choice gigs."

 

Desire

One of which included a spot on the Electric Picnic bill in 2010. They returned the following year. Yet, Austin – who lives with his wife, Fiona, in Donnybrook – still had a burgeoning desire to put something to tape.

Eventually, he met musician and producer Wayne P Sheehy (Ronnie Wood, Hothouse Flowers). Together, at Sheehy's studio in Cork, they started to explore the music that Austin had written in his spare time. "The next thing I knew, we began a three-year process to produce the album."

Dedicated to Ballydavid in Kerry (Austin's "spiritual home"), In The Town Of The Foreigner is the electric folk album he had always wanted to make. Not that he's in any way prepared to give up the day job.

"It always comes first," he insists. "When the kids were young, my wife used to give other surgeons' wives advice. She used to say 'just live your life normally, assume you're a single parent and if he turns up, it's a bonus'.

"Now, I think that's a pretty bad reflection of my parenting abilities, but what she meant by that was, if she was invited out to dinner, and if I wasn't there on time, she just went. Which is fine. It's the only way you can do my life. I'm on call every third day for surgery.

"I've a very privileged position. I am at the cutting edge of two things. One is varicose vein surgery, because that's revolutionised. It's wonderful to be able to take a problem that can be quite miserable for people and deal with it without having to put them through the wringer.

"And then, the other thing I do is arterial surgery, which is life and death stuff."

Some of Austin's colleagues haven't always been supportive of his musical aspirations. "One or two of them feel very threatened by it, because there's still that residual, I would call it stupidity in Ireland that like, the local teacher has to be just a teacher, the parish priest has to be a parish priest."

"People think that it's perfectly acceptable to spend every Saturday with your mates on a golf course, go and have four pints and come home. But playing a guitar for a few minutes here and there? A complete waste of time," he says, laughing. "Some people will be negative about it, but that doesn't bother me."

Austin is happy to discuss music with his patients, but he also remembers to keep a healthy distance between his career as a doctor and his life as a musician. "I'm pretty serious when I'm here," he says. Some have taken to calling him 'The Singing Surgeon', too. It wasn't his idea.

Still, no matter what happens with the album, the doctor is keen to keep on playing. "That's the beautiful thing," he finishes, "I never stopped playing music. You can't stop it – it's impossible."

In The Town Of The Foreigner is available now on CD and download. Austin Leahy plays the Mercantile on Saturday, May 25


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