WHEN the first Covid lockdown struck in March last year, world-renowned Cork tenor, songwriter and poet Finbar Wright was able to take it somewhat in his stride.
At the time, he was enjoying a well-earned rest after relentless touring, but he says now: “We didn’t know then just how long that rest would turn out to be!”
For part of the latest lockdown he planted cabbages, onions and potatoes, indulging his love of gardening at home overlooking the River Lee in Farran.
Finbar has also upped his fitness routine and lost a stone and a half in the past year. Whilst touring it was impossible to control what he ate, grabbing food at odd hours after performances, and getting insufficient exercise.
He is also penning his life story, chronicling an eventful colourful career as a priest and later as a solo artist, and one of the three Irish tenors, performing to global audiences at concert venues and on international TV networks.
Finbar’s talent was nurtured at a young age thanks to his mother’s decision to buy her family of eight children a piano “at a time when she could least afford it”, and the encouragement of his beloved piano teacher Maura Hourihan, who cycled out from Kinsale to the Wright family’s farm outside Ballinspittle every week.
“She was wonderful,” Finbar remembers.
“it was not about passing music exams, much more imparting that love of music and the fun and magic it could give us.”
Turning professional, Finbar was a protégé of the legendary teacher and opera singer Veronica Dunne, who died recently.
They met at the RTÉ studios and “in the famous words of Mae West, she invited him to ‘come up and see me some time’.”
They became great friends and Miss Dunne visited and stayed at the home of Finbar and his wife Angela, herself a talented musician who lectures in marketing at CIT.
Finbar said of his book: “It’s a collection of essays rather than an autobiography, I hope they’ll be lively and entertaining.”
The singer says he had an idyllic youth, running wild in West Cork until he was packed off to Farranferris College as a border.
“It was akin to a military training, I found it traumatic, all those rules and regulations, living by the bell.”
But he settled in, made friends, enjoyed sport and drama and developed a love of books and poetry. After “an excellent education”, he left school at 16 with a good honours Leaving Cert. He had decided at that young age to study for the priesthood.
Formidable Bishop of Cork, the late Cornelius Lucey, was delighted to meet another Farranferris past pupil who had a vocation and would help increase the number of priests in his diocese. In those days, whilst respected for academic and sporting excellence, the college was still seen as a junior seminary, and up to 12 boys in Finbar’s final year signed on for the priesthood.
The Bishop was dispatching seminarian students to colleges in Rome and Spain at the time and Finbar says: “Dr Lucey was an interesting character, he was wearing his bee keeper’s outfit when I called up to see him, he loved his bees; He had decided to send me to a seminary in Castille, maybe because I had got good marks in Spanish in the Leaving.
“I was sent over to Heffernan’s Travel Agency in the city for the flight tickets. I had never been on a plane or travelled further than Cork in my life; this was a huge adventure but I was mighty relieved to see that it was an open- ended return ticket from Cork to Madrid, that gave me a sense of calm.”
Dictator General Franco was in charge in Spain at the time, and Bishop Lucey had warned the young student seminarian from Cork not to get involved with any organisations or political movements. “That advice made me a little apprehensive about going out there at all. I vividly remember Franco’s death in 1975 because we were hauled out of bed in the middle of the night to pray for him throughout his dying hours,” he recalls.
The memoir he’s writing and hopes to finish this summer will describe entering an exotic world of wonder in Spain, wine always served for lunch and dinner, how everyone, male and female enjoyed the physicality of embracing each other, and the daily siesta.
“At around 5pm, the world came back to life again, but during the siesta everything fell silent. I was woken up by the clacking of high heels of ‘La Carmechu’, the glamourous lady who ran the grocery shop on the corner, my cue to get up and buy biscuits from her to stave off the hunger as dinner was not until 9pm or later. I was always hungry and couldn’t take to some of the food like the spicy chorizo and a horrible black fish full of bones,” he remembers.
The seminary in Palencia was filled with fabulous musicians and the choral master Don Leoncio introduced the teenage Finbar to all the great composers, giving him his first opportunity to perform solo in public when another student fell ill.
“I often look back on those wonderful two years in Spain, discovering a whole new culture of music, paintings, new tastes, the warmth and friendship of the seminarians and their families, the Spanish passion for life, the vibrancy of colours and their glorious climate, all those experiences helped me later in my career as a singer and entertainer,” he says.
Returning to Ireland, he continued his studies at Maynooth College and was ordained at 22, a few years younger than the Canonical age, requiring a dispensation from Rome.
The young priest was chosen as deacon for Pope John Paul II’s Phoenix Park mass, delivering the gospel in front of a congregation of 1.25 million. “One of the great hurrahs of Irish Catholicism, it was surreal to be looking out at that huge sea of people,” recalls Finbar.
Whilst he enjoyed teaching Spanish and Latin at Farrenferris College for the next seven years as a priest, Finbar says he could feel his vocation disappearing. He wonders if a pastoral job or the missions might have made all the difference.
“I was sent up to Gurranabraher to assist with pastoral work after I was ordained, and it was definitely the happiest two months of my time as a priest.
"It was a special time; I loved the humour and genuineness of the northside; the people there may not have enjoyed material wealth like others in Cork, but there was so much talent and warmth there among those musicians, survivors, people with ambition who sent sons and daughters to college on scholarships and through family sacrifices.”
There was an inevitability about leaving the priesthood in 1987, he explains. Afterwards, whilst studying at the Cork School of Music, he met his future wife Angela Desmond, who would become his inspiration and partner in a life of fulfilment and companionship that had been missing before. Happiness was completed by the arrival of their two children, a son and daughter Fergus and Ileana.
“I had won the Feis Ceoil, appeared on The Late Late Show and my professional career was to be launched with a first concert at the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork, but a very irate person was threatening to picket the concert in protest at my leaving the Church.
“I wasn’t an experienced artist and even performing in concert instilled sufficient fear and dread, without the stress of a protest outside. In fact, it never happened but that didn’t diminish my nervousness.”
Ireland at the time was still a conservative, judgemental society. Priests and lay people who would have been friendly before had cut him off, he says, and refused to have anything more to do with him. “Since then we have developed so much as a country, very accepting and caring and I hope it stays like that.”
Having taken the agonising decision to leave the priesthood, Finbar went to tell his mother. He vividly remembers her reaction. “My mother was a wonderful woman, before her time, making sure that her sons could cook, be independent spirited and fair, but she took this news badly.
“Her reaction was like the late Siobhan McKenna in those terrible Irish tragedies, throwing herself around the room in anguish.
"Later, when Angela and myself had our first child, Fergus, and I was holding him, she saw happiness radiating from me and she said ‘Now I know you were right’.”
Ireland’s unprecedented lockdown has given him much food for thought, in common with the rest of us, coming through immensely difficult times, looking forward to better ones to come. Finbar is already looking forward to the first and only post-Covid live concert he has agreed to do so far. He will be on stage at the Cork Opera House on St Valentine’s weekend, February 12 and 13, 2022.
“I’ve have had no interest in doing online concerts throughout lockdowns, I firmly believe in the magic of the live audience and nowhere are the public so supportive than the people in Cork; it’s a homecoming but a bit of a double-edged sword as you must be at your very best back at home”.