Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

'I was having a massive heart attack but I knew I was coming back'

Ahead of his gig in Cookstown, the ever-popular singer Finbar Furey tells Barry Egan about the day he 'died' three times and the time he called Liza Minnelli an ice-cream

By Barry Egan

Apart from the man himself, no one knows - or could hope to know - Finbar Furey better than the woman he has been married to for almost 50 years, Sheila. He once described her as "the most perfect woman I've ever met".

Sitting in a bar in Tallaght, Sheila still retains her Edinburgh brogue. Finbar was outside getting his photograph taken, so I thought I'd ask her a few questions and see how we got on. And like her husband, once Sheila opened her mouth, there was no stopping her.

"Finbar is very emotional, very emotional - he would cry - and very romantic, very, very romantic," she says of the gentle soul she met in a pub in Edinburgh when she was 16 and he 17. They were married on October 30, 1968, in Juniper Green, Edinburgh.

"He is very focused, very deep. He's actually thinking about things all the time. He's always thinking about music, music, music. It is in his head the whole time."

What is it like to be married to a man like that?

"I've been with him all my life," she smiles. "He has never pretended. I don't think he could pretend. He is very honest. He has a restless spirit in his mind. He wouldn't be happy to sit back in a house in Lanzarote. We'd be there a couple of hours and he'd be looking for somewhere to play. He has been writing his autobiography for the last few years. He's nearly there. He's written it by hand and I've been doing it on the computer. He's got three other books in his head as well. We're going over to Spain to finish the book."

Even allowing for exaggeration, Finbar Furey won't have a problem filling a book about his life. Like a gritty seanachai, he fills the room with golden stories from long ago...

His father Ted taking him around Ireland as a boy and watching and joining in with him on musical sessions in pubs around the country; playing in O'Donoghue's pub with Ronnie Drew once upon a time; appearing on Top of the Pops playing When You Were Sweet Sixteen and The Green Fields of France; meeting Liza Minnelli with Edward Kennedy in the green room in Carnegie Hall in New York in 1968 and Minnelli saying to him: "Finbar Furey! Oh, my God! That's the strangest name I ever heard in my life!" When Finbar asked Liza what her name was, he promptly told her: "You sound like an ice cream."

He is pure entertainment. He is Irish folklore in motion. Emotive tales of days gone by blend into tales from more recent times...

From him having to give an impromptu performance with his uillean pipes at an American airport for the customs officers in the 1970s because they didn't believe that the contraption he had in his case was a musical instrument, to, a few years ago, being chased around Paris by homeless people looking for money from the Irish legend because he had given a lot of money outside one of his gigs to some homeless people the night before. "I was the Prince of the Paupers!" he says.

Finbar talks the hind legs off a donkey for four hours. It's like he's got two brains, and two mouths, on the go at the same time.

As he does with his songs, Finbar draws you closer and brings your imagination alive with his poetic ruminations. He recalls the late John Peel on the BBC naming his and his brother Eddie Furey's single Her Father Didn't Like Me Anyway as his Record of the Year for 1972. "We beat The Beatles. I got slated by the traddies at home. I play too fast!"

You can't please the purists, I say.

"The purists couldn't fecking play marbles. And by the way, if someone wants to criticise me on my pipes, I'll give them the pipes and say, 'Let me hear you play them'. I play pipes different to anybody. I play in the Traveller style. It is very beautiful. It flows. It is like an Amazonian waterfall. It just rolls."

How does he think the world sees Finbar Furey? "Hopefully as a good person, a good musician and songwriter," he says, and smiles again.

Ask him a simple question about his childhood and the answer is epic in the telling. And his green eyes will light up as he tells you.

"We had four horses. We had real butter. We were one of the few houses with real butter. We were never poor.

"We didn't have much," he adds, his green eyes smiling now. "Nobody had much back then. And the music was great. Our house was just full of singing, I think I came out of my mother singing," says Finbar, who was born in the Coombe area of Dublin on September 28, 1946.

"For picnics," he continues, "we'd take one of the horses. My mother would make sandwiches with homemade brown bread and we'd head out to Lucan on the horse and we'd leave him in the field and go down to the banks of the river and do a bit of fishing and by the time we'd go back, my ma would have a fire going in the corner of the field and we'd have sandwiches.

"We'd come home absolutely drained from the fresh air. My father was a wonderful man. My mother was beautiful. She could read me like a book. She was a great banjo player and singer. "My mother was very proud of us all," he says of his beloved Nora, who died on September 5, 1986.

His equally beloved father, Ted, had passed away on May 12, 1979, at the age of just 65. Finbar played The Cuilin on the pipes at the graveside of his funeral.

I ask him what emotions were going through his head - his heart - that day at the grave as he played.

"Great sadness and probably anger at the too-early end of a wonderful life well lived," Finbar says, "and the gap he would leave in all our lives."

Finbar can recall the impassioned support and guidance his dear da gave him literally from the beginning of his career.

"I was about five years of age," he begins. "My mother sent me to Puck Fair in Killorglin to get salty butter, county butter we called it. I was looking at the butter and I was looking at this old tin whistle. And it was the same price. So I said I want the whistle. I told my dad I was going busking with Eddie. He was seven. I was five.

"And from that day in Puck Fair, I learned to play the tin whistle. And then when my hands got big enough, when I was seven or eight, my father got me a set of pipes."

It wasn't long before he had won the All-Ireland junior championships for pipes, in 1961, and soon after three All-Ireland senior medals, and before he knew it it was Carnegie Hall in New York and beyond. All because of the guiding light of father Ted...

What would he like to teach the world with his words, with his music? "As Woody Guthrie said, 'I won't teach but they can steal it from me if they like'."

His new album Paddy Dear, an impassioned piece de resistance, is thus far the album of 2017.

What makes him angry about Ireland?

"That emigration is still having to go on and on."

Finbar emigrated, so to speak, from The Furey Brothers in late 1996. When his younger brother Paul died suddenly in June 2002 of cancer, Finbar felt guilty that he wasn't there for him. "I kept blaming myself, thinking that if I'd been there he mightn't have died. I felt terrible. He was my younger brother. I remember thinking, 'Stupid music. It robs your life'. I couldn't practise for a year."

Then in 2013, Finbar almost joined Paul - and his parents Ted and Nora - in the great gig in the sky.

"I had no fear whatsoever. The only thing I was thinking of was Sheila. I was looking at the sorrow that was in Sheila's face. I was telling her and the kids [Martin, Aine, Caitriona, Robert and Finbar] 'It's OK'. I remember when they put me into the ambulance and the doctor said to me, 'You are going to have a massive heart attack in about five minutes'."

"For some reason, I knew I was coming back. When I woke up, I could see the monitor. The doctor kept saying, 'Focus'. I said, 'Go away and leave me alone. I'm quite happy'. I was told that I checked out [died] on them three times. The last time they thought I wasn't coming back.

"It wasn't my time. I was very peaceful, trust me. I remember taking my watch off and giving my wallet to Sheila. I remember hearing one of the doctors say, 'He's not going to make it'. But in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I thought, 'I'll be back!'"

And he was back. "I remember giving Sheila a kiss on the cheek. And then I threw up badly. The doctors say that probably saved my life.

"I can't remember being in pain. I had some peaceful dreams. To experience death, you know, I didn't want to come back, it was that peaceful. It was beautiful. All I can tell people is don't be afraid of death.

"I've been there. I've crossed over. I saw a lot but I couldn't describe it to you. It was completely different to anything I've ever seen before."

At this point, he looks over at the Scottish woman who changed his life as much as his music, and says: “She is my pillar. She susses everything out. I’m very impatient. She’s not. We never go to bed on a row. We always talk it though. She is the smartest, loveliest, women I’ve ever met.”

  • Finbar Furey's new album Paddy Dear is out now. He will be appearing at the Burnavon Theatre, Cookstown on February 23

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