Tommy: The night that I nearly died, meeting the love of my life and my biggest regret
Singer Tommy Fleming, who is hugely popular with Northern Ireland audiences, tells Barry Egan about the car crash that almost claimed his life and how the love of a good woman changed his life.
Tommy Fleming has shifted more than 3.5m albums worldwide, sells in excess of 100,000 tickets between the UK and Ireland in tours every 18 months, makes regular high-grossing tours of America and Australia (where he is off to for a three-week stint next month) as well as having his live shows broadcast on PBS America and SBS Australia. He possibly needs to buy extra luggage at the airport to bring all the cash home.
It wasn't, however, always like this...
Once upon a time, Tommy Fleming's career was like a car, as he puts it, "stuck in s***, with the wheels revolving, and the s*** flying. I didn't have a pot to p*** in - or a window to throw it out of".
A little after midnight on November 27, 1998, was the moment when his life (and his career) changed. Returning from promoting his second album, Restless Spirit, around the country, Tommy fell asleep at the wheel of his white VW Golf about three miles from his parents' house in Sligo. He crashed into a tree, and was almost killed.
The car landed on its left side and every time Tommy, who had dislocated his shoulder, tried to open the driver's door, it kept closing on him. Nor could he release the safety belt. Eventually having freed himself, he fell out of the door on to the ground, the pain in his leg and side he described as "horrendous".
He dragged himself along the road in the pitch dark. Through the blood running into his eyes, he looked back to see that the car had exploded and was on fire. Tommy believes there was a reason why he wasn't burned alive in that car.
"I was given a second chance and it was up to me to make that second chance count," he said. "It changed my philosophy. I'll tell you what it did do, though. I had so many friends, all in Dublin, and from the week I came out of the hospital, I never heard from most of them again. I was of no use any more. So, it was a wake-up call. And my career was on hold for the next 18 months."
His sister Cathy, who travelled with him in the ambulance from Castlebar, was told there was a possibility that he wouldn't walk again. During an operation, a Jerome Halo Brace was screwed into his skull at six points.
Tommy shows me the scars. There was a huge, sci-fi-looking fibre glass cast over it. "I had to sleep with that for four months. I looked like Lady Gaga," he says. "Laddy Gaga!"
Tommy can remember a friend of his seeing him in hospital and starting to cry. He told her that he didn't know what she was getting upset for because nobody died. Four months later, having partially recovered, but still in pain, Tommy "was delighted to be alive, delighted to be able to walk. I am a positive person."
He says the accident was, in hindsight, a blessing because Tommy - who had been living in Dublin - had to live at home again with his parents in Sligo.
"My mother killed me with kindness," he says of that difficult time.
In September 2001, former President Mary McAleese asked Tommy to sing at Dublin Castle. It was at this fateful concert that he was introduced to John O'Shea of GOAL, who asked him would he like to go to Africa to help out with the charity's projects over there. Tommy spent four months healing himself emotionally in Africa. "In many ways," he says, "I ran away."
Who was Tommy running away from? "Probably myself. I didn't handle the accident very well afterwards. I had nothing. I needed to get my head together. So I left and went to Africa. I didn't sing. I didn't play music, I read books and I did my work in Africa for GOAL. I slept in a hut in Sudan and woke up and helped distribute food to the kids.
"I had lost the joy of it. I had lost direction, and creativity, more than anything. I needed to do something more with my life."
Tommy came home in December, 2001, but he missed Africa and soon went back. "I missed the normality, in a way, of Africa."
I ask him was it more the case that he disliked Ireland.
He answers that he disliked "everything about Ireland then. The accident didn't help. I had lost my way. I was only 30", says Tommy, who is now 46.
He finally returned from Africa in 2002 and on June 2 of that year he met Tina Mitchell at a funeral of a mutual friend, Willie McNeill (aka Willie The Shoe), in Castlebar Cathedral.
Sitting next to him in the church that morning, she asked Tommy how he got on in Africa. When he told her that there was a snake one night in his hut, she laughed and joked, teasingly, flirtingly: "So, there were two snakes in the hut!"
"Easy!" laughed Tommy. When Tommy met Tina, from Ballina, Co Mayo, by chance at the funeral, was that the beginning of the end of the low in a way?
"I guess it was," he says. "In a short space of time I truly trusted someone and could totally be myself around her. I loved being in Tina's company. In many ways, Tina became my muse. She brought out the best in me.
"I was in a low," he says, "but I didn't realise it until I was out the other side. It's like that quote that goes: 'Life is too ironic to understand sometimes, it takes sadness to know what happiness is, noise to appreciate silence and absence to value presence'. It's self-explanatory. Basically to everything there's an opposite - ie, when you're sad you appreciate happiness more."
In any event, Tommy and Tina, who got engaged in October, 2004, in Cape Town, were married in Clifden in October, 2006. "Tina is the strongest," says Tommy who is a dedicated stepfather to Tina's grown-up children, Orrie and Rebecca, "the most decent and loving person I know. She says it as she sees it and won't flower anything up.
"Tin," Tommy says, explaining that his nickname for his wife is pronounced Teen, "always stands up for what's right, even if it means putting herself in the firing line and I love her for that principle."
Three days later I met the woman herself and her famous husband for a drink in Dublin. What place emotionally was Tommy in his life when she met him in 2002? "Fragile," she says, "but determined to be the best at what he does and he set about doing just that." Her first impression of him, she adds, was that he came across as "cocky, but very funny and I managed to see past the cockiness and see the real person. We clicked, I suppose you could say."
How did they click? "We just got on so well and were very happy and content in each other's company and it grew from there. We laugh a lot even in tough times and that's the best medicine for all ailments."
How did your relationship develop? "Slowly. Neither of us really believed it was going to be a relationship after going on a few dates and having a laugh. I got it wrong. It's still developing in a great way."
How did she fall in love with Tommy? "I wish I could answer that. Then I would sell the formula. All I know is that it was instant and still as good as ever.
"There are very few people lucky enough to know the real Tommy Fleming but if you do," she adds, with a smile, "it's a special, fulfilling relationship that very few people can bring to your life.
"Tommy has had great success for the past 15 years," she adds, "but he realises how lucky he is and he enjoys every minute of it. He never takes anything for granted and appreciates the good in life.
"He is determined as ever but now he knows how to eliminate the nonsense out of his goals. There is nothing that would stop Tommy doing something if he believes in it."
Asked how he eliminates the nonsense, Tommy says: "I've no idea!" he laughs. "I just don't tolerate anything like that. I honestly feel it's such a waste of time to have to listen to that stuff from people who work around you. You can achieve your goal in half the time by removing the nonsense."
Tommy says he can read liars instantly and spot them at 20 paces. "Tina is very pragmatic. She doesn't beat about the bush. But I am probably worse. It comes out of my mouth before it has processed in my head."
Tommy adds that his father was far more diplomatic than him. His mother, however, didn't suffer fools gladly or otherwise.
"Apparently, I have my mam's personality and I look like my dad. My mam said what she thought. She did not suck up to people. She had a way of avoiding the nonsense and the drama."
Does Tommy think in hindsight that the car accident that almost killed taught him a valuable lesson about life? Especially when his showbiz friends seemed to desert him?
"They weren't showbiz ... just people who were acquaintances rather than friends," he says. "When you're young and somewhat naive the lines between friends and acquaintances are quite blurred."
I ask Tommy where he thinks he'd be now if he hadn't meet Tina. "It's hard to say. We work brilliantly as a team and still have a major disagreement on how or what should be done sometimes," he answers, before adding, crucially, "my career would certainly not be where it is success-wise and I would not have the artistic freedom to do the things I do without her guidance and support."
"Tommy is, in a word, loyal," says Tina. "He is resilient, determined, driven, hard-working, loving and one of the biggest messers you are ever likely to meet."
Enlightened after his months in Africa, Tommy says he "made a lot of life choices. I got rid of what I didn't need in my life".
What was he searching inside himself for during his time in Africa? "I honestly wasn't searching for anything, but I genuinely was presented with an opportunity and I took it. It was so different. It was a way of experiencing and seeing real life's struggles and realising I was in a pretty damn good place." In a pretty damn good place is an accurate assessment of Tommy and Tina's life together.
He takes four months every year just to be with Tina, who manages him. He laughs that they fight over him not lifting the toilet seat up. "We fight over f*** all. Or if I have forgotten to pick milk up."
Does he have any regrets?
"I do. I didn't spend enough time with my parents," he says of Paddy (87) and Annie (83) who died, hours apart, in late March, 2012.
"I was always busy. And even when I did, I would be reading the paper or looking at my phone. I beat myself up about that for a while. I feel guilty sometimes when I go to the grave," he says referring to the cemetery in Kilmactigue where the family all grew up. Aclare is the village and Kilmactigue is the parish.
"Mam and dad were baptised there," he says, adding that they had their first holy communions and confirmations there, as well as having their wedding and funeral in the church at Kilmactigue. Tommy was also baptised and sang as a young boy in the choir there in that same church.
"What does give me peace at the grave is that I know they're there. And everything I ask them for, even the smallest little thing, they help me. I know they help. Every time I get on a flight to Sydney I have a chat with them before I get on the plane. 'Keep me safe. Keep an eye on everything in Ireland for me'."
Tommy's relationship with his parents was as protective when he was young. His mother was "deeply religious. And when you would be getting into the car, she'd be sprinkling the car with holy water. She'd say the rosary every night.
"She had a great faith and I think that brought me through my accident 18 years ago," Tommy says, adding that he cannot recall whether his mother sprinkled the car that crashed with holy water. Tommy does not share his mother's faith in God, however. He puts this down, in part, to the vicious beatings meted out to him by Father Cawley at Banada Abbey.
'I didn't spend enough time with my parents ... I beat myself up over it'
"There were also some amazing teachers there," Tommy stresses. "Some of them, I am still good friends with. I guess (the beatings) were par for the course then. Father Cawley beat everyone. I wasn't singled out, by any means.
"But when you got battered by a Catholic priest in school it didn't help. I was battered, absolutely. We all were. He is dead. He would batter me for the least little thing, like getting the wrong grid reference on the board in geography. I would get hammered. I was 13, 14. But that's how it was. So I had an issue there for a long time, and then stood up to it. I thought, 'B*******. I'm not doing this'."
He can remember one day in religion class putting his hand up to ask a question: if Adam and Eve had Cain and Abel, and Cain and Abel went on to form the 12 tribes of Israel, who did they form them with?
"I got battered for asking the wrong question. It was the same priest. So, I have an issue with religion and the damage that is done in its name. There is too much money in Rome."
I ask him how much money is in his bank account. "Ask Tina. I honestly don't know what's in my bank account." How many millions? "Now that would be telling. I'm worth everything to the people I love and care about."
Tommy recalls that he first sang professionally when he was 16 in local pubs in Sligo and Mayo. He made his first recording, Isle of Inisfree, when he was a mere 20 years of age.
"I was a busy fool in the early years," Tommy says of his fledging career.
Was he ever robbed in the music business? "I won't say robbed. I was left without. It was one of the best lessons I ever learned. Without becoming cynical, I became more cautious."
What was the funniest story he's heard about himself? "That Tina and I were reported missing in Australia - presumed abducted," he laughs. "Another one was that Tina and I bought a hotel and I was retiring full-time. Apparently we paid five million in cash!" he howls with laughter.
Tommy doesn't suffer from uncertainty but he is philosophically self-questioning about himself about his huge success.
"I often feel I'm getting away with it. I often feel a bit of a fraud. It doesn't go deep. Say, for instance, I walk onstage at the Bord Gais Theatre and there are 2,500 people there, I sometimes think: 'Did I really get these people here?' That goes through my head. I'll think, 'How did this happen?' if I'm in Sydney Opera House."
He played there in 2008 and 2009, and Hamer Hall in Melbourne to 3,000 people in 2014 as well as selling-out New York's Carnegie Hall in 1996. "It was far from Carnegie Hall I was reared," he laughs.
The youngest of five siblings - alongside Marie, JJ, Cathy, Belinda and Patrick - Tommy was "spoilt but in a loving way, not in a materialistic way because we didn't have the money to do that, but nobody did in those times". (Tommy's father worked for the county council and was a farmer of 100-plus acres.)
"It was horrible at the time because you were looking at stuff on TV and you couldn't have it. But we had an unheated swimming pool - which was the river."
Tommy lives with Tina in a pinch-me perfect setting a mile from the beach in Enniscrone. He could live in a big house up in Killiney if he so chose but he prefers to stay where he was born and bred, where he feels connected to the soil of his childhood, of his beloved Sligo.
I quote Yeats to Tommy: "I longed for a sod of earth from some field I knew, something of Sligo to hold in my hand." "That sums it up for me," says Tommy. "It's Sligo's beauty, its land, beaches, history but most of all, it's home."
- Tommy Fleming plays the Bord Gais Theatre in Dublin on March 12