Finbar Furey is back on the road again with his exciting new album Don’t Stop This Now. He tells Kay Doyle about his incredible life journey and how his family background, which is steeped in authentic Irish tradition, ensured that there was no way of escaping his musical destiny …
A few years ago Finbar Furey was standing in a hotel lobby in a New York hotel when a familiar piece of music began to waft its way through the air. The strains of When You Were Sweet Sixteen, now played to a different musical arrangement, instantly transported the second-eldest of the Furey brothers back three decades to the upstairs room in his mother’s house. It was here that he had first picked out those famous notes on his banjo, echoing with poignancy in the aftermath of his beloved father’s passing.
“I had found some lines of a song on a piece of paper that my father had kept,” he recalls. “The song was Sweet Sixteen. It had been written by a vaudeville performer, James Thornton, who thought up the song when his wife Bonnie asked him one day if he still loved her. He answered, ‘I love you like I did when you were sweet sixteen’.
“I brought the piece of paper upstairs and took out my banjo, which I hadn’t played for some time. I restrung it, cleaned it up and started to pick out some notes to create an introduction to go with the song. I knew immediately, and so did my mother who was listening downstairs, that this was something special. It went on to be a big number one for us here in Ireland and got to number 12 in the UK Top 40, and we got to perform on Top of the Pops. It went on to mean so much to not just us but to so many people around the world.”
Finbar Furey was born in The Coombe Hospital on September 28th, 1946, and spent his very early childhood in Dublin’s Liberties, before his family moved on to Ballyfermot. His parents were blessed with musical talent, his father, Ted, having first spotted his future wife, Nora, while she was busking on her banjo at the Kilorglin Fair.
Ted was the ‘fix-it’ man for many traditional fiddle players around Ireland, and as a result other musicians dropped their instruments off at the Furey house when in need of repairs.
“The house was always full of instruments,” he says. “When I was around five or six, my mother sent me off to buy some groceries and when I was at the shop I spotted a tin whistle. I bought it for a few pence and brought it home with me. The first tune I learned on it was Home Sweet Home, an old folk tune that I would have heard my mother singing as she went around the house.
“Then one day my father arrived in with a half set of uileann pipes and I was drawn to the sound straight away. When I turned six, he brought me to the famous piper, Tommy Moore, for lessons. Tommy taught me what I needed to know but he also encouraged me to free flow, and develop my own groove.
“He was a great influence on me and when we’d finish the lesson he’d sit with my father and they would have a glass of poitin or whiskey, just the one glass mind as none of them were big drinkers, and I would sit there falling asleep listening to them talking about music. But in the kitchen Tommy’s wife, Bridie, would cook the best potato cakes you ever tasted. I can still smell the melted butter on them and it makes my mouth water even now.”