Boyzone's Keith Duffy on family, faith and his role with Action Cancer
Currently on a reunion world tour with Boyzone, Keith Duffy tells Leona O'Neill why he has teamed up with Action Cancer to raise awareness of a new service and how the death of bandmate Stephen Gately resurrected his faith
He's been a familiar face in the showbiz world for more than 26 years, whether peering down from Boyzone posters on our teenage bedroom walls, walking the cobbles of Coronation Street or appearing on various shows on our television screens. And now Keith Duffy wants to use his familiar face to help youngsters going through tough times.
The 44-year-old Dubliner has partnered with Action Cancer to fundraise and raise awareness of their counselling service, which helps siblings of children navigating a cancer journey feel more at ease with what is going on around them.
"I'm kind of an ambassador," he says. "I'm working in a partnership alongside Action Cancer. I have my own charity back in Dublin called KDF - the Keith Duffy Foundation - which was recognised as a charity back in 2014. I had worked for Irish Autism Action for 16 years first and then decided to step down to concentrate on my career for a while. Then I came back and tried to pick up where I left off and I set up my own charity.
"Every year we partner with a charity that we believe we can bring some help and weight to. I visited Action Cancer about a month ago and I met a family there that avail of their services. They have a three-year-old son with cancer and they also have a seven-year-old son, who receives counselling through Action Cancer. And the charity explained to me what it was trying to achieve with kids like these who have siblings that are sick with cancer. They try to help them out, listen to them, ease their anxiety and educate them on the situation that they are in.
"I really felt that the Keith Duffy Foundation could have a great connection and a great relationship with Action Cancer."
He adds: "My charity was set up and put together to help children with special needs, disability, illness and whatever other ailments they might face. That is the bracket within which we work. It is that part of Action Cancer which lends itself very well to what we want to achieve. They were looking to team up with me and work together to try and fundraise and raise awareness.
"And that is where we felt that KDF would be beneficial because I have a familiar face and I'm not afraid to spread it around the place with the best of intentions."
Duffy reveals that his family has been impacted by cancer, with grandparents and aunts and uncles losing their battle with the disease. Although, thankfully, he has no direct experience of childhood cancer, he does relate to the turmoil and devastation parents go through when their child is diagnosed with an illness or a disorder. For Duffy and his wife Lisa have two children, Jay (22) and 19-year-old Mia, who is autistic.
"That's why I do what I do," he says. "My daughter Mia, she is a beautiful young girl, but she has autism. When she was 18 months old we got the diagnosis. At the time there were no services available for us as a family to be able to look after Mia in the way that she needed. There was nothing even to give us information to tell us what we should be looking for or what we should be doing. So I took it upon myself to use my familiar face to try and create awareness, fundraise and try and help other little boys and girls like my daughter and other families who were going through the same turmoil we were going through. So that is what started me off on the Irish Autism Action side of things."
Duffy's face lights up when he talks about his daughter.
"We have a mini-miracle with Mia," he says. "She has developed very, very well. We didn't take no for an answer anywhere that we went. She had intensive intervention for most of her life. She is now 19 years old and attends Dublin City University. She is doing a computer course there and she is there as an ordinary, typically developing student with no special needs assistance in the classroom or in the lecture hall.
"It is a real miracle story. It is a tough story. We have had tough years but we never gave up and Mia is a fighter herself and she is testament to the fact that if the appropriate intervention and help is put in place at the right time then these kids get a much better opportunity to reach their full potential as individuals. And that is all we were trying to achieve, to give every child the opportunity to reach their full potential.
"Having done that, a lot of people could see how passionate and driven I was to be able to help children who are less fortunate than our own. And people have approached me to help raise awareness for Down's syndrome, for ADHD, for whatever disability or special needs they might have.
"Unfortunately there are children with other issues. No child should pass away before their parents, it just shouldn't happen. But it happens every day and you think it only happens to someone else until it lands at your doorstep. We don't want to wait for that to happen. These families are living a struggle daily, and it's horrible. And their brothers and sisters are struggling.
"Obviously their parents are concentrating so much on trying to help the child that is sick that sometimes the brothers and sisters get left behind.
"These services that Action Cancer are trying to put in place - counselling and being there, being an ear and a hug for these kids who are suffering from anxiety - I just thought that it was a perfect fit. Within the parameters that our charitable status was given, we are allowed to help kids who are sick, kids who need help. Whatever the problem that the kids might have, our charity has been sanctioned to help those kids. And with the help of Action Cancer we can reach out to children with a range of different needs and wants. And that's what we are going to do.
"No children, thankfully, in my family have suffered from cancer. I have lost quite a lot of relatives, grandparents, uncles and aunties to cancer. But because of the job that I do, I meet families all the time who have been impacted by the disease. There is a friend of mine who has an eight-year-old daughter who has a brain tumour. They have been given the worst news ever, they have been given a timescale, so it's only a matter of time. And that is devastating and horrible. They are going through a very traumatic time. The little girl's father is an amazing human being and he deals with it one day at a time. I just know that there are so many families out there who are suffering like that, and the children who are left behind can be scarred for life. And that is a sad scenario.
"I'm not a doctor, I don't understand how medicines work. I am not a cure for cancer. What I am is someone who might be able to help the kids who are brothers or sisters of the child with the illness, deal with the situation that they are in and hopefully allow them not to carry too much insecurity through a traumatic time."
Duffy says that he can relate to the fact that many parents turn to their faith in times of turmoil, when they can't comprehend or cope with what is happening within their family. He says he did exactly that when he lost band-mate and friend Stephen Gately in 2009 to a congenital heart defect. He says his faith pulled him through those dark days.
"Faith is absolutely important to me," he says. "I have great, great faith. I remember as a kid being forced to go to mass every Sunday by my parents. And I rebelled against that. I used to call at the church and get the leaflet for that Sunday and pretend to go to church service. In the times that I did actually go in to the church, I don't think I realised just how much I was listening and how much I was learning.
"When my pal Stephen Gately passed away I was suffering a great deal and trying to understand what was good and what was bad and why it had happened. It was only then when I was struggling with sleepless nights and nightmares and stuff like that, that I leaned back on my faith. I realised that I had a great knowledge of God and Jesus and Holy Mary. And Holy Mary is one of the areas that really, really helped me.
"As a child we lost a lot of the elder members of the family and we were always brought to the funerals. And I remember standing around many a casket saying decades of the rosary, which is 10 Hail Marys, an Our Father and a Glory Be. And whatever way that affected me I have great faith, and I pray myself, to Holy Mary, the Virgin Mary. I get great peace and sanctuary from praying to Mother Mary. And it helps me meditate and calm down and it helps me sleep. So that is where my faith lies and that comes from my folks forcing me out the door every Sunday.
"I completely found my faith again after Stephen died. We do turn to our faith in times when we don't understand what is going on around us. When you are dealing with loss of that kind, and emotions, and you don't really have the emotional tools to deal with the way that we heal, I think faith gives us the hope to carry on. And time is a great healer."
Stephen died in October 2009. In the wake of his death, Duffy says he and his band mates were overwhelmed. They finished their album out of respect for him and named their 2009 tour 'Brothers' in his memory. Stephen was also featured posthumously on last year's Thank You And Goodnight album, with the band remastering unreleased songs that Stephen had written and sampling his vocals on the tracks. Duffy says his spirit is still very much present in the band and on tour, where they pay a special tribute to him at every concert.
"Stephen is part of the show," he says. "We still take time out to reflect on Stephen's memory, his career, his life. We still make him a part of the show. I still feel him there. When the four of us are together we certainly feel Stephen's spirit there all the time. It's magical.
"During our show there is a B stage which we come down to from the main stage. We have a really powerful beam of light which comes from the middle of the stage and that is representative of Stephen's spirit in the room with us. And you can feel it. The fans who have come to see that show have been moved. Nowadays it's great to be able to get the fans' point of view on social media, we can read exactly what they are thinking, and what their experience was. And the reports back have been so positive and respectful of Stephen.
"It keeps his memory alive. It's wonderful."
Duffy may be on the world stage, and a global name, but he's the proudest of his children.
The singer paid tribute to his daughter Mia last week on social media, taking to Instagram to tell his 100,000 followers how he could "explode with pride to be her Poppa".
"Mia has had a very difficult battle," he says. "She has had a very tough time. Mia is aware that she is different, that she has a disability called autism and she knows that that separates her from the rest of her peers and that she has to work much harder to be socially accepted. And she takes on every challenge and she never gives up. She never gets depressed, she always fights it through. She is a very, very strong, driven young woman, but she is full of love and affection. She has a huge heart and she only sees the good in people. And it's actually a privilege to know her. And being her daddy is a whole other thing. If you knew her you'd know what I'm talking about. She is an amazing human being. And to come from where she has come from, to be where she is, is remarkable. Words can't actually describe how proud of her I am."
Duffy's son recently starred in Derry Girls, playing "the only good looking one", Harry, who, as a floppy haired heart-throb Protestant student on a cross-community retreat with the girls' school, catches Michelle's attention until she discovers his chastity bracelet.
The 22-year-old is clearly following in his father's footsteps. Duffy starred as Ciaran McCarthy in Coronation Street for two stints back in 2002 and again in 2010. He says his son doesn't come to him for acting advice, as "he's more experienced than me".
"He's been acting since he was a young age," Duffy says. "He was in Hollyoaks when he was only 13 years old. He was in Vikings and Handsome Devil and The Playground. He has done a lot. Jay is more into arts and the performance of the arts. He doesn't like the fame and the glory and all that. He likes his little bit of anonymity. He is quite happy that he has been on Derry Girls and everyone is talking about it and no one realises that he is my son. He wants to make it on his own, and under his own agreements and in his own terms. He's doing great.
"We have a great relationship. We are great mates and he'd always come to me and ask what my point of view or opinion might be. He doesn't necessarily ask for my advice, because he feels he is clever enough to find his own way."
For the last four years Duffy has joined forces with Westlife's Brian McFadden to perform a collection of their bands' hits under the moniker Boyzlife. He says that is where his future lies. But for the moment he's in the middle of a worldwide tour, enjoying being back on the road with Boyzone.
"We are off to south east Asia, Indonesia, Thailand and Hong Kong, then down to Australia where we'll do Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and the Gold Coast and on to Christ Church and Auckland in New Zealand and up through Dubai," he says. "The Boyzone tour should take us up to the end of April and then I'm back in the studio recording a new album with Brian McFadden for Boyzlife.
"We are back out on the road in September, myself and Brian. And I think the future for Keith Duffy is going to be very much with Brian McFadden for the next couple of years. We have a lot of projects coming up and have booked a lot of gigs until Summer 2020 so if you want to see me, you have to come and see me and Brian."
Duffy says he enjoys being back on the road, but that it slightly different this time around, when they are older and wiser.
"It's brilliant to be back on the road," he says. "I love performing with the boys. I love touring with the lads. It brings me back and makes me feel young. We have a great time together. We are very blessed selling out all these big arenas again and the catalogue of music that we have goes back to 1993 so we a load of hits we get to perform. We are very lucky and blessed to have been given this opportunity again. It's remarkable.
"We aren't as young as we used to be. We get a lot more sleep now. We don't party half as much as we used to, so we actually remember what we are doing now. We are creating memories now that are not lost."
The Keith Duffy Foundation is firming up a number of events and campaigns over the next 12 months with Action Cancer, including a Black Tie Ball and a golf event to fund the counselling service for young people impacted by a cancer diagnosis. The charity is looking for sponsors and anyone interested in being involved can contact Douglas King via email at email@example.com
Making a big difference to families
Keith Duffy was in Belfast last week to announce his support of Action Cancer. The Keith Duffy Foundation will in particular focus on children and young people's counselling services at Action cancer which are available for over five-year-olds.
During his visit to Belfast Keith was touched by one local family's story. Catherine and Ciaran Maguire have two sons Senan (7) and Conor (3). In August 2016 Conor was diagnosed with leukaemia and is currently receiving treatment.
Catherine said: "Conor's diagnosis had a devastating impact on our family. As parents, we have had access to the support and therapeutic services provided by Action Cancer and our son Senan has also benefited from the children's support services and facilities at Action Cancer House. This has been invaluable in helping Senan during his brother's cancer journey. We are so grateful to Cordula and all the staff at Action Cancer who have supported our family at this difficult time. The services provided by the charity have really made a difference and have had a positive impact on all our lives."