How lovely it was to chat to Johnstown opera legend and all round hero Ronan Tynan. Ronan is an Irish tenor singer and former Paralympic athlete. He started singing at an early age alongside his father while milking the cows. During our interview we both laughed about this because my own father (a dairy farmer) always said I was the best milker around as I used to sing to the girls while milking them in the parlour! I am ever so glad that a world famous opera singer has proved my father's theory! However, unlike Ronan, I will be saving my singing for the cows!
Though Ronan enjoyed singing as a boy, he did not seriously consider formal voice study until he was 33 when he was well into his residency as a physician. Not alone is Tynan an international singing star, he is also a full-fledged medical doctor, specialising in orthopaedic sports injuries, with a degree from prestigious Trinity College Dublin. He became the first disabled person ever admitted to the National College of Physical Education. He has won gold medals in the Paralympics, is a keen horseman and a worldwide recognised motivational speaker.
Ronan was introduced to international audiences as a member of the Irish Tenors in his thirties. He quickly became known for his unique voice and irresistible appeal. Following his mother's advice to always follow your dreams, Tynan decided to launch a solo career.
His voice brightened the 80th birthday celebration of former President George H.W. Bush. Ronan’s singing also offered the gentlest consolation at the funeral of President Ronald Reagan in the summer of 2004.
Born in the Coombe Hospital on 14th May in 1960. He was born a twin, but sadly his twin brother Edmond passed 11 months later. Ronan was also born with a rare birth defect bilateral phocomelia, which affected both his lower limbs. Growing up, he lived in Johnstown on a farm with his siblings Fiona and Tom. For the past 23 years, Tynan has been living in America, just outside Boston, in a place that reminds him of Ireland.
He is a keen horseman and a motorbike enthusiast. In 1980 he had an unfortunate auto accident which exasperated the developing curvature of the spine and he had to have his two legs amputated below the knee in London. Determined and head strong, just weeks after the operation, Tynan was climbing up the steps of his college residence and within a year, he was winning gold medals in the Paralympics as a multi-talented athlete.
Ronan is looking forward to returning back home to Kilkenny over Christmas for his sold out performance at St. Canice's Cathedral. Here is a glimpse into Ronan's world...
Ronan, can you tell me about a day in your life of a major concert performance.
Morning: Rise at 8am, breakfast and go through the wardrobe. It's very important to look the part. Pack my case etc. for the trip and then head to the airport depending on where the performance is.
Midday: I like to take a walk just to stretch the legs and get fresh air in whatever city I am performing in. I take a light lunch and drink lots of water throughout the day.
Evening: Always have a good meal two hours before a show. I then do vocal warm up in preparation for the show. Then it’s on to sound check and tweaking anything that needs to be done. Bill, my pianist has been working with me for almost 20 years which is unheard of in the music industry. I am lucky to call him my friend and we have shared amazing journeys together. We have great fun on stage.
After that time moves very briskly and I get showered and dressed for the performance. I do like to have quiet time at this stage. I am mentally going through the performance and getting in the Zone. I eat apples and bananas…that is my staple diet during a performance and drink lots and lots of water.
After the show there is nothing I like better than to meet and greet everyone that has come to the performance. I never rush this as I feel it is important to give everyone the time they need with me. I am so thankful that they come to hear me perform and also thankful that they wait back to chat to me.
This is a time that I really enjoy. People are amazing and the trials and tribulations they endure and I am heartened that my voice lifts their spirits even if only for a few hours. Then it’s time to get back to the hotel, chat with Bill or Fiona if she is there about the show and evaluate what went well and what could have gone better and come down from the high of the show and give the legs a chance to recover. I am always starving and really enjoy a good meal. This helps to relax me and then it’s bedtime. It usually is about two hours after the show closes up that you eventually get to bed.
How did you get into opera singing in the first place?
My father was a beautiful untrained singer. When I was young, all three of us had our chores (Fiona, Tom & I) in the house and on the farm. One of my jobs was to milk the cows with Dad and we use to sing together. We were very close and loved doing this job together, with the cows been the benefactors of some beautiful tunes! As my father used to say to me "if the girls are happy, the world is happy".
My father was called Edmond and passed in 1998. He was a beautiful singer but never knew the words of songs! When I used to ask him why wouldn't learn the words, he would say sometimes his words were better!. He was asked to go and get his voice trained by a German Tenor in Germany when he was 16 years old but that did not materialise. He loved singing with me.
You were also very close to your mother, what was she like?
My mother Therese was very focused, direct and an educator but a wonderful woman. There are very few adjectives that describe how great she was. I credit her for who I am today, she was the person who basically set the fire inside of me and had total belief in me and what I would and could achieve.
It wasn't easy to have a son who was disabled in the 1950s and she fought tooth and nail for everything for me. She brought me up the same as Fiona and Tom. Dad was 100% behind her. He referred to her as “she who must be obeyed” and “top management”! They invested in us hugely and sacrificed so much for us, no different than any Irish parents.
Tell me about singing at President Regan's funeral.
This was extremely humbling to be personally asked by Nancy Regan. Ronald and Nancy had discussed it before he passed away as it was one of his wishes. I sang in front of an international TV audience of more than 35 million. I sang ‘Amazing Grace’ and Schubert's ‘Ave Maria’, at the personal invitation of Nancy Reagan.
Fiona travelled out to be with me as it was a very big occasion and I was delighted to have family with me. We did a sound check the evening before and the Cathedral was amazing, filled with open white lilies. Unfortunately the scent from open lilies interferes with the voice and I had to get Fiona to request that all the open lilies would be removed and only closed ones used on the day. They were most obliging and moved hundreds of open lilies. The next morning we were taken from the hotel at 5.30am to the cathedral venue...checked through security and then whisked to a room with a wonderful view of all the dignitaries coming to the Cathedral. There was huge security and ceremony attached to the event. Fiona enjoyed watching this but I was busy warming up and keeping in the zone as I knew I would have to be in top voice for this performance. Once I had warmed up we were taken down to our seats in Cathedral. When it came to my time Fiona squeezed my hands and she said they were like blocks of ice, she was terrified for me but once I started to sing the voice kicked in and it went well.
It was a surreal experience and immediately after the service having been introduced to the different Presidents there and having a quick hello with our own president Mary McAleese, we were whisked by President George W. Bush and his family in a limo to a small airport and put on Airforce2 together with other important dignitaries to be flown down to Texas as I was amongst many performers who were celebrating his father’s 80th birthday that evening. Funny, I went to bed on the plane as I was exhausted and Fiona got all the autographs but she got me a copy of them too. Airforce2 was amazing, like sitting in a sitting room!
You were also good friends with the President George H.W. Bush.
President George H.W Bush and Mrs. Bush and I had a very special relationship. They both came to so many of my shows and I always had dinner with them after the shows. It was our catch up time. They were amazing down to earth people and I was fortunate to have them in my life. I performed at a lot of charity functions for them. Mrs. Barbara Bush had a huge interest in literacy for children and did a huge number of charity fundraising events yearly to further this cause. I sang at their 60th wedding anniversary, President H.W Bush‘s 80th and 90th birthday.
I was very thankful that I could sing to him at his bedside and it was my privilege to sing at his request at his funeral…one of the hardest moments of my life. He was a great friend.
You are also a passionate horseman.
I was brought up with them and fell in love with them. The three of us hunted every Sunday and the St. Stephen’s Day Hunt always held in Johnstown (celebrating 250 years in 2020) was the highlight of Christmas. I used to spend Christmas Day afternoon getting all the riding gear ready for the following day. I have a lot of horses now and my dad even then used to say to me “you'll pollute the place with them”. It's my passion and I have had some good show jumping and even a few race horses now. I am an eternal optimist and a dreamer.
So what's left on your bucket list?
In the racing circles, I want to go to Cheltenham and win a grade one hurdle with one of the horses that I breed. It's all about home produce.
I've sung in many of the amazing the most places in the world – Carnegie Hall New York, The Sydney Opera House etc. I've done all that, I have been blessed with good health and it’s a privileged to be able to sing and bring joy to people. That is all... I would love for that to continue.
Do you miss home?
Oh every day I miss home. I come home as often as I can. I would think nothing of hopping on a plane on a Friday evening and returning on Monday evening. I have always made it home for Christmas - I think I only missed getting back one year and arrived on St. Stephen’s Day as the weather was really bad and we were snowed in. I spend it with Fiona and her family. Of course I get plenty of time over Christmas to hit the race meetings which I really enjoy and catch up with all the friends. I am very close to Fiona and Tom and have been blessed that we always have each other’s back. Family is everything and all the more special now that Man and Dad have passed on. I miss them every day but I know their spirit is around me all the time.
What do you love about Kilkenny?
I love the down to earthiness of the people. Kilkenny is a beautiful City, it’s full of culture. It has so many cultural opportunities for visitors – the Castle, Rothe House, St. Canice’s Cathedral. Kilkenny Design Centre etc. Kilkenny is a vibrant city with all its festivals and people. Yulefest Kilkenny Christmas festival is getting bigger every year and ensures that there is something for everyone. This year I think they have surpassed themselves. We will certainly become the Christmas City destination to go to in the next few years. We have so much to offer.
I have performed all over the world in amazing venues but I would really love to perform an open air concert in the Gardens of Kilkenny Castle. It would lend itself with the beautiful grounds and the Castle… what a fabulous setting. The OPW have done an amazing job in ensuring we have such a fabulous historical castle on our doorstep. No wonder everyone wants to visit Kilkenny City.
Is there anything that people might not know about you?
They might not know that I have a really strong faith. I believe my success comes from my faith and the knowledge that the Man above is guiding me through every door I open.
You also have a big announcement for us?
Yes, the Irish Tenors are coming back to Ireland to put on three huge shows in 2021. We are really excited about this and we have a new member of the group, Declan Kelly from Wexford. He has a fantastic voice and blends beautifully. All three of us, Anthony, Declan and I all have similar backgrounds and experience in music and singing opera. We don’t have dates confirmed yet but hope to be releasing them soon.
Ronan Tynan is coming home to perform in a sold out performance in St. Canice's Cathedral where his first solo lunchtime concert was performed during Arts Week all those years ago. His concert on 4th January 2020 in St. Canice's Cathedral is a part of the Yulefest Kilkenny Christmas festival. www.yulefestkilkenny.ie