Tommy Fleming told David Hennessy about marking 30 years in the business, why the accident that almost paralysed him and ended his singing career was the best thing that ever happened to him and how traumatising it was to lose both parents in one day while touring the UK years ago.
Described as ‘the voice of Ireland’, Tommy Fleming has graced many of the world’s most famous stages including Sydney Opera House and Carnegie Hall. In addition to being a solo performer, the Sligo native also toured the world as lead singer of De Dannan, fronting the band from 1994 to 1997.
Celebrating thirty years in music, Tommy recently saw his current album All These Years go to number three in the Irish charts.
Tommy said: “The success of All These Years is like an early Christmas present for me. I am beyond thrilled that it is being received so well. I recorded the album in lockdown last summer, collaborating with some big names like Elaine Paige, Mirusia Louwerse and Diarmuid McGee. The feedback has been unbelievable- people seem to love the mix of classics and new songs.”
While he had hoped to be on tour on the very day The Irish World spoke to him, his touring plans have been scuppered by the new variant of the virus.
“I wish I was,” he answers with disappointment when we enquire if he was still on his planned tour.
It has been a hard period for those in the live industry and Omicron was the last thing any performers wanted to hear about.
“There’s nothing (you can do). Getting mad is not going to sort it out.
“You’re desperately trying to keep the good side out, and then this happens.
“You don’t know which end of you is up at some points.
“You just think, ‘You know what? I’m going to just keep going, I’m gonna keep ploughing along until I’m told not to plough anymore’.
“And that’s the best I can do.”
With live shows off the agenda for almost the last two years, Tommy has stayed busy by embracing technology and reaching his fans by streaming from his garage.
Entitled Tavern Tunes, Tommy invited his fans into his home every Saturday night for a popular live stream show reaching 3.5 million viewers.
Tommy then went on to record several live stream shows from the renowned Bord Gáis Theatre and Glor Ennis.
How has the last year been? “The beginning of it actually was alright.
“And I know that sounds terrible.
“But in the beginning, it was kind of a novelty if that makes sense.
“You know, everyone was out making banana bread or the sourdough bread, things they had never done before.
“I really embraced technology and started learning how to do movie-editing, recording at home, and I wouldn’t be technical.
“I had to learn how to do all of that and we kept in touch with the fans that way.
“We were constantly doing something that was going out online.
“And we did the live streams from different theatres in the country.
“That was it really. There was nothing else one could do.
“And now just when you’re handed a chance to do something with it, it’s just pulled from under you.
“It’s so disheartening, and so disappointing.
“There’s nothing you can say or do that will change it.
“I’m 30 years doing this. I’m lucky. I’ve had a great 30 years of doing this. The ones who have ended up not being able to do what they do, they’re the ones I feel sorry for.
“The ones that have worked a little bit, have got a taste for it and then all of a sudden, it was pulled from under them.
“I think frustration is the best way to describe it, the only way I can describe it actually: Complete and utter frustration, and you just have to just keep on going.
“That’s all. That’s the only thing you can do.”
Tommy has reached the milestone of 30 years in the business. How does he feel about it? “Do you know what? It’s funny.
“Someone sent a picture to me today ironically, or coincidentally, of me doing a gig in a pub in Castlerea in 1990. I look like I’m 10 and all of a sudden, the memories flood back from that time.
“Looking back on stuff, it’s frightening. Where did those 30 yours go? It doesn’t add up. In one way, I feel like it was yesterday.
“And then in another way, it seems like it’s 40 years, not 30.
“Now don’t get me wrong- It’s been 30 great years.
“It has had its ups and downs. Like everybody has. It’s been brilliant.
“It’s been a learning thirty years. It’s been thirty years of complete work and complete musical evolution for me.”
Do any particular highlights come to mind? “I suppose Carnegie Hall. I did three shows there by the time I was 28.
“Having 2,000 people in Sydney Opera House standing up when you walk on stage is a phenomenal feeling and beyond exciting. All of those things are phenomenal.
“You know, even going from that picture to having two and a half thousand people in an audience is something beyond exciting and beyond belief.
“Because you think, ‘How could that happen? What work did I do to bring that around?’
“And then you see that you have worked your arse off and it has paid off somewhat.”
Tommy has overcome great adversity to still be alive, let alone still singing. A car accident threatened both his career and his life in 1998 when, overcommitting to press interviews to publicise a tour, he fell asleep at the wheel and broke his neck. Tommy had to wear a brace for seventeen weeks but made a full recovery.
“It could have been a lot worse. I broke my neck in three places and had that been a millimetre either way, I would have been dead. The option wasn’t paralysis, the option was live or die. There was a time when I was told I was never going to walk again and that was the biggest fight of my life to be honest with you. I fought back from that with as much strength as I could muster but that was a long battle, that was a long road.
“I spent three months initially in hospital. Then when I was discharged, the only condition I could be discharged on was that I had to be discharged to my parents’ care. My parents were my carers for months. I was told by the specialist that I would never stand on the stage again. That if I was to walk, it would only be with an aid. I fought so hard. In September of the next year, 1999, I stood on the stage and did my first concert at the Olympia in Dublin and that was a special moment. In a nice way, I was kinda giving the finger to the specialist, saying: ‘Told you you were wrong’.”
If Tommy had gone to bed after the accident, as he was going to thinking there was no serious damage, he could have woken up paralysed. He was given the choice between surgery or wearing the brace. Neither came with any guarantees of recovery but he avoided the surgery that could have done damage to his vocal chords.
Unbelievably, Tommy says the accident was the best thing that ever happened to him as it allowed him to spend precious time with his parents who have now passed away.
“Do you know what? The accident was the best thing that ever happened to me.
“I moved out of home when I was 18. I couldn’t wait to be independent, do my own thing and live in shared accommodation. I couldn’t wait to do that.
“No eighteen year old really knows or respects their parents.
“When I had the accident, the only condition for me to get out of hospital was to move back in with my parents so my mother and father could take care of me.
“And in those eighteen months of recuperation and recovery, I got to know them and I only realised after they died about how important that was to me.
“That was one of the reasons.
“The other reason was I had a lot of friends when I was 26, 27 and basically they all disappeared when I had the accident.
“Things happen for a reason.
“And I know that sounds really strange, but it’s true.
“It’s the best thing that happened.
“So when I look back on the accident- I know this sounds so strange- I look back on it with fondness.
“When I look back on it, and the time I had with my parents sitting up- I could only sit on one reclining chair because I was wearing a halo brace at the time that was screwed into my skull in six points- I could only sit in a certain chair. I couldn’t go out, I couldn’t do anything.
“And yet, I sat up at night drinking hot whiskies and hot poteen with my dad and I would never have done that prior to the accident.
“So they’re the things that will forever stand out in my memory.”
It was in 2012, while on tour in the UK, that Tommy’s life was changed forever as he was hit by a double tragedy and lost both his parents in one day. After rushing home to be with his hospitalised mother, she passed away days later and his father passed that same night.
“I lost them both on the same day. My mam died at 10am on the morning of 30 of March 2012. Then my dad died that night.
“So they both died on the same day which was the most traumatic thing that could possibly ever happen to me.
“Yet when I look back on it, I look at it like they did us a huge favour because one wouldn’t go without the other in so many ways. There wasn’t one left to be ‘cared’ for if that’s the right phrase.
“In death, they even thought about us. That’s how I look at it.
“I was in the middle of a UK tour.
“One night I was in Birmingham. I’d finish the show and I’d fly home.
“And then I would fly back the next day.
“I was constantly going back. And eventually I cancelled the tour.
“And the funny thing is I never really returned to UK ever since because of it. That traumatized me in one way.
“I never returned to do a tour in the UK properly after that.
“I just kind of dipped in and out.
“I never really wanted to do anything.
“I had so many bad memories that I couldn’t face doing a tour.
“We were halfway through the tour and eventually my MD and best mate Conal Early said to me, ‘You need to stop and you need to go home’.
“And I said, ‘What about the band?’
“’What about them? You think of you and you think of your family. I suggest you go home. I’ll take care of everything else’.
“And he did in fairness.
“I was home about three days and my mam died. And my dad died that night.
“I never returned. I never ever returned to do a tour properly. It had really damaged me at that point.”
When asked if he agrees that losing parents is something you never recover from, Tommy says: “You get used to it. You don’t ever recover from it. That’s one thing for sure.
“’Recovery’ is not a word that has anything to do with the loss of parents.
“’Accustomed’ is the best word that’s there.”
Tommy’s seventh studio album, All These Years was recorded in lockdown.
“We worked it (lockdown) and worked it well, I think.
“We worked on a great album. We worked on one of the best albums I’ve ever done. And I don’t mean that in a boastful way. I just mean that in a very proud way. The charts speak for themselves.”
Tommy has described his music as ‘neither opera or rock ‘n’ roll’ and the album contains popular favourites like Isle of Innisfree, Come what May, I Dreamed a Dream, Raglan Road, Sweet 16 and Scorn not his Simplicity.
Tommy has had some profound some exchanges when touring the world and bringing the music of home to those who have not seen home in many years.
“One of the last tours I did in Australia, I was in Melbourne and this elderly lady came up to me.
“She said, ‘How is everything in the motherland?’
“And I said, ‘Probably not very much changed country from the one you probably left’.
“And she said, ‘I don’t know. I haven’t been home in almost 50 years’.
“So I got talking to her and she explained to me that most of her family had passed away and every time she said she would come home, it just wasn’t possible.
“And one year turned into five, five turned into ten and ten turned into 50.
“And she never came home.
“That was one situation that really got to me. I sat down for a long time talking to her and telling her about all the changes in Ireland and she just said, ‘All the family are gone’. Her family now are in Australia so she has no reason to go home. I suppose it had gone too far.
“So she said to me that if she hears a song like Fiddler’s Green that I might sing, she said it just brings her right back home.
“What you do with those songs is bring a touch of home.
“You bring Ireland to them as much as you can.”
All These Years is out now.
For more information, click here.