Belfast Telegraph

Joy son with Down's syndrome has brought impossible to quantify: Singer inspired to make first solo single

Singer Cormac Neeson and wife Louise’s son was born three months prematurely and weighing just 1lb 12oz. The frontman of Northern Ireland rock band The Answer tells Lee Henry about their little boy’s fight for survival, the moving song he’s penned to raise awareness about childhood disability and why he’s proud to have been appointed an ambassador for Mencap

Cormac Neeson with four-year-old son Dabhog
Cormac Neeson with four-year-old son Dabhog
Cormac Neeson with four-year-old son Dabhog
Cormac Neeson with four-year-old son Dabhog
Cormac with his bandmates in The Answer Paul Mahon, James Heatley and Micky Waters

April 26, 2019 is a big date in singer-songwriter Cormac Neeson’s upcoming calendar: it’s the day that his debut solo album White Feather finally hits the shelves. Neeson describes it as “a record born out of a very real, very challenging time in my life”, a time when his son Dabhog was born three months premature and subsequently diagnosed with Down’s syndrome.

Hailing from the seaside town of Newcastle, Co Down, Neeson reached the heady heights of rock ‘n’ roll stardom as frontman of The Answer, alongside lifelong friends Paul Mahon, Micky Waters and James Heatley.

A riff-heavy Seventies-inspired behemoth, The Answer have released six studio albums, including their well received 2006 debut Rise, and toured the world as support for rock legends AC/DC.

It was a memorable time for the 38-year-old, who has a knowing answer to the ubiquitous question about rock and roll excess — a deadpan “no comment” — and describes Angus Young and Co as a “noisy bunch”.

“We got to see the world and play some gigs that we never could have dreamed of when we first started out,” says Neeson, whose long hair, cool threads and jet-propelled vocals, reminiscent of Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, were tailor-made for the biggest of stages.

The band are still active. “We’re not split up, just taking a break; and we’re starting to gather some riffs and ideas already,” he reveals. But everything took a backseat in 2015 when Cormac and his wife Louise entered into the most challenging period of their lives.

“Dabhog was born three months premature, weighing just 1lb 12oz, and was in hospital for the first four months of his life,” Cormac explains.

“It was pretty traumatic for Louise and myself. We would get up every morning and make our way, like zombies a lot of the time, to the neonatal ward at the Royal Maternity Hospital, where we couldn’t really do very much for our very sick baby boy apart from read to him or sing a nursery rhyme through the window of the incubator.”

Parents of premature babies will no doubt sympathise with Cormac and relate to his emotive description of a neonatal ward as “a surreal environment, where everywhere you look there are sick little babies fighting for their lives — it’s right up there with your worst nightmare”.

And yet, even during the worst of those early in days in Dabhog’s young life, Cormac knew that he was in the very best of hands.

“I have no idea how the staff at the Royal weigh in to work every day in such an intense environment and always remain calm, professional and compassionate,” he adds.

But we are eternally grateful for the care our son received. We’re still in touch with some of the nurses and consultants today. They saved Dabhog’s life.”

Two weeks after his birth Cormac and Louise learned that he had Down’s syndrome. Until then his features were not developed enough for doctors to diagnose the condition.

Cormac describes the experience of hearing and digesting the news as a kind of “mourning or grieving process, which in itself felt very wrong because our son was still the same wee child we had fallen instantly in love with”.

It was, however, a “seismic shift” from the journey they expected to make during Louise’s pregnancy.

“It really caused our heads to go into such a spin,” Cormac recalls. “We just felt totally unprepared for the challenges ahead. But, in a weird way, Dabhog still being so sick provided us with a focus that helped to order our minds a bit. It was a case of: ‘Let’s get this child well and out of here and then we’ll see where we’re at’.”

Over the next number of weeks and months friends and family rallied to offer both emotional and practical support.

Their parents, who were also permitted access to the neonatal ward, brought food, books and anything else they needed, while friends eased the burden of travelling from Newcastle to Belfast with the loan of an apartment on the Glen Road.

“And when we found a house to live in, about 20 of our mates filled their cars up with stuff and helped us move. We’ll never forget the love in those very dark days,” Cormac adds.

Another source of help, guidance and advice for the Neeson family was Mencap, a UK-wide charity that provides “a voice for people with a learning disability”. Cormac and Louise brought young Dabhog to the Mencap Children’s Centre in Knockbreda, where he began to make “so much progress”.

“The attention that each child receives there is so thorough. You just know they’re all benefiting to a massive degree,” says Cormac.

“Whether it was the attentiveness of the key workers, the regular physio and speech therapy or just the companionship of his peers, Dabhog really thrived under Mencap’s care. For us as parents, to see our son achieve so much on a daily basis, it was a big moment in our journey and helped to remind us that everything was actually going be okay.”

Last week Cormac was announced as an ambassador for the charity and describes it as an honour to be associated with this “amazing” organisation.

“Mencap have been a massive source of support for Dabhog and ourselves over the last couple of years. They give children and adults with a learning disability all over Northern Ireland a bit of extra help to negotiate the twists and turns life presents us with,” he explains.

Today Dabhog is “an amazing little boy who is not defined by Down’s syndrome”, Cormac adds.

“He has a mischievous streak, like most four-year-olds, and loves his little brother — just not when Conall takes his toys. He loves playing with his cousins and sings 20 nursery rhymes a day at the top of his voice.” Like father, like son.

“Of course, he’s overcome more hurdles and challenges in his young life than a lot of kids his age,” Cormac continues.

“He had heart surgery on his first birthday to fix a hole in his heart that’s associated with Down’s syndrome. He needs a bit more support and time to reach his developmental goals but he’s getting there. He’s started to take his first unaided steps and his speech is progressing steadily. He also knows more Makaton than me.

“But I’ll tell you this, every bump in the road that Dabhog negotiates is a celebration. The pride we have for what he’s already achieved and the joy he’s brought to so many lives, not just our own, is hard to quantify and impossible to fully explain. He’s just great. He’s had a healthy winter — touch wood — and is really enjoying school, which he started in September.”

White Feather, Cormac’s debut album, features a track entitled Broken Wing, which streams on Spotify from this weekend and which he hopes will go some way to raising awareness of disability in children, and Down’s syndrome in particular.

It reflects the country soul, Americana, folk vibe of the album, and was written and recorded in Nashville. The single, along with a documentary by filmmaker Brian Milligan, will be officially released on World Down’s syndrome Day, March 21.

“I wrote the song after observing a family of buzzards, one of whom had a broken wing, which seemed apt,” says Cormac. “The aim of the mini documentary is to raise a bit of awareness around Down’s, and to basically normalise it all a bit for any parents who find themselves in a similar situation as ourselves.”

Cormac jokes that the prospect of going solo, after so many years touring the world as part of a band, is “scarier than the prospect of raising two kids”. All eyes will be on him, all expectations resting on his still young shoulders. Most pressure, however, will come from himself. “At least if The Answer ever had an off night, I could blame one of those other three,” he quips.

He admits, however, that the time is right to branch out on his own. “White Feather is an album full of very personal songs, so I really couldn’t imagine anyone else singing them other than myself. It feels like the right thing to do right now.”

With the release date on the horizon, naturally a few nerves are beginning to creep in.

 “But I think there’s an honest power in this record and I just want as many people to hear it as possible on the off chance that they can maybe relate to what I’m singing about,” he adds.

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