Tommy Fleming on coping with the loss of his parents
Singer Tommy Fleming was devastated when his parents Paddy and Annie died on the same day in 2012. Here, for the first time, he tells Andrea Smith about the heartbreak of losing both parents together
On March 3, 2012, singer Tommy Fleming's parents, Paddy and Annie, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary by renewing their wedding vows at a Mass in their Sligo farmhouse. It was very moving and poignant for their six children, hearing them repeating those vows first made in 1962, and during the meal and celebrations that followed, the family enjoyed reminiscing and sharing stories of their family life growing up in the house in Kilmactigue, near the village of Aclare.
Less than four weeks later, on March 30, the family gathered in the same house on a far less happy occasion. Paddy and Annie's six children were there to 'wake' them, after they both passed away in hospital, mere hours apart.
"People are always curious because they died the same day, and I think they presume it was due to an accident," says Tommy (45).
"What happened was that I was just about to begin a 10-date tour in the UK, when my wife Tina phoned to say that mam had suffered a stroke and her right side was affected.
"She was admitted to Mayo General Hospital and, a week later, dad was brought in with heart complications. I was running back and forth between Ireland and the UK every two days, which was stupid, as professionalism can only go so far."
While he had been excited embarking on the UK tour, his wife Tina, who is also Tommy's manager, advised him to pull out of the rest of the gigs and he spent every day in hospital after that with his parents.
Paddy was 87, and in the previous year his health had begun to deteriorate. He had heart problems and a touch of dementia and sometimes didn't recognise Tommy. He always knew his singing voice, though, and would spend hours happily listening to his youngest son's albums.
"My dad never raised his voice in his life, and he was a really patient, quiet and generous person," says the popular singer, who had huge hits with albums like The Voice of Hope, The Contender and Restless Spirit.
"He never had a bad word to say about anyone, and would leave people's company if they were gossiping. I look like him, but am more like my mother in personality. Dad was the most unassuming, gentle and kind man, and although he had several fiery children, including me, he never reacted.
"Mam was just like me, I get my energy levels from her and my directness. She would tell anyone off, and I say it as I see it too, but as you get older, you realise you don't have to put up with things or waste your time anyway."
Paddy and Annie had six children, Marie, JJ, Cathy, Belinda, Patrick and Tommy, who were born within seven years.
"If two people could teach you about a relationship or marriage, they could, because they never gave up," says Tommy.
"They didn't have it easy as there was little or no money there, so as well as the farm, my dad worked in the county council. Mam was never one to complain, and she adored her kids. My parents weren't strict and they never raised a hand to us, even though we were always up to some mischief. They were an amazing couple in so many different ways, although they fought like cats and dogs at times, of course. They did almost everything together, but also did their own thing too."
Tommy's mother loved playing cards every Friday night, while his dad preferred watching The Late Late Show, reading his newspaper and listening to music.
On the Friday morning that Annie died, it was Tommy, Marie and JJ who happened to be with her when she slipped away. Shortly after they had to tell their dad that she had died, and he wept when told the news, which broke all of their hearts further.
They accompanied their mum back to the family home, and Tommy recalls how upsetting it was watching the 10 grandchildren welcoming their grandmother home in a coffin. Neighbours and relatives called in, and their dad was still very much in their thoughts as they phoned the hospital to check on him. They were assured that he was comfortable.
Then the phone rang at 11.30pm, and the bewildering news that their dad had also passed away was imparted to them, mere hours after their mum. The six heartbroken siblings left the house to return to the hospital, wracked with guilt and grief because their dad had been on his own when he died.
"It was typical of him to slip off with no fuss," says Tommy. "Our worlds were turned upside down, but I honestly believe they wouldn't have managed without each other.
"I found some comfort in the knowledge that they were together, as they had been for the previous 50 years. My mother would open the fridge and say to my father, 'taste that milk to see if it's gone off', and he would actually do it. There was no way she was going into the next world without him."
The joint funeral in the Church of the Holy Rosary, Kilmactigue, where they had been married 50 years earlier, was huge.
"They deserved it because they were brilliant, although it was heartbreaking looking at two coffins in the church," says Tommy, who is a former member of De Danann.
His Voice of Hope CD was the number one selling album in Ireland in 2005/06,while the DVD was number two. He was in no danger of getting a swelled head at home, however.
"My parents taught me humility. When I was touring in my 20s and thought I was the best thing ever, my mother brought me back down to earth very quickly, although she was really proud of me. My dad reminded me that I'm just doing a job like everyone else. In their world, nobody was better than anyone else."
After he lost his parents, the singer was plunged into grief and found it very difficult to talk about it. On one occasion he was forced to bolt from a garage without paying for his diesel when he saw an elderly woman buying Emerald sweets, which reminded him of his mother doing the same thing. He returned later to fix up the bill.
"When my parents died, I was pissed off with both of them for a while, because there wasn't one of them left to talk it through with. I was even getting mad at myself for getting pissed off. I was running from one thing to another, like writing my book or making the documentary, Behind The Voice, because, really, I was running away from the grief. Even Tina was walking on eggshells with me, as she didn't know what to say or do. I was supposed to do an Australian tour, but I cancelled as I couldn't face it. It was the first time in my life that I wanted time to move very quickly so that I could heal faster."
After almost four years of grieving, Tommy now feels able to talk for the first time about the loss of his parents, and says that little reminders of them tend to make him happy now, rather than sad. He busied himself writing his illustrated coffee-table autobiography, Let Me Begin, and releasing the Voice of Hope 10th anniversary edition, which includes a two-disc album and a special bonus DVD on the making of the show.
While, of course, it wasn't funny, a great example of his mum's humour occurred when Tommy broke his neck in a car accident 18 years ago. He fell asleep at the wheel late at night during a gruelling tour, and drove into a tree. He was conscious after the impact, and realised to his horror that the car was on fire. He managed to crawl out the window just as the car exploded.
Tommy was shocked to discover that he actually had a broken neck. He was transferred by ambulance from Sligo to the spinal injuries unit at the Mater hospital in Dublin, where a large brace was attached to his head and screwed to his skull in six places. He discharged himself after a week.
"I knew my mother would either be a blubbering mess or a tower of strength," he says. "She was never in the middle. She looked at me and I knew that if she cried, I would fall apart, but she said: 'You certainly outdid yourself this time. I never thought a brass neck could be broken.'"
Tommy lives in Enniscrone with his wife Tina Mitchell, who he first met in 2002 when she was working in the advertising department of Midwest Radio. While Tommy was single, Tina was separated with two children, Orrie (10) and Rebecca (5). They are now 25 and 21, respectively, and Becky is studying journalism in Dublin.
Tommy adores his step-children, and says Tina has been a tower of strength. They married in October 2006.
Having just celebrated 50 years of marriage before they died, what did his parents teach Tommy about relationships?
"I learned tolerance and compromise above anything," he replies. "As the youngest of six, I was selfish, and it was my way or no way. It took a while, but I learned that relationships are about give and take. I'm not religious, but I believe they are guiding me as I get older."
Tommy Fleming plays the Ulster Hall, Belfast, on the February 27 and Ardhowen Theatre, Enniskillen, April 29.
For more information go to tommyfleming.com