From quitting the priesthood in protest to pursuing a music career, tenor Finbar Wright rewilds his own path

CORK (IRELAND)
Independent [Dublin, Ireland]

January 15, 2023

By Ciara Dwyer

The singer has always followed his instinct – becoming a priest, leaving the priesthood, speaking out about abuse, leaving the Irish Tenors… and, now, revolutionise his garden

When Finbar Wright was a little boy growing up in Kinsale, he spent long hours in his mother’s garden.

“I used to lie down among the rows of peas and pick the pods of peas. It was like eating sweets,” he says with a smile. “I grew up in the garden. It was huge.She had all sorts of flowers like dahlias in the front, and at the side she had a big kitchen garden. If you needed an onion or a carrot, you’d go out and pick it. She grew blackberries and gooseberries and made jams out of them. Our dairy farm was at the back of the house.

“We were self-sufficient – and we only went to the shops for incidentals.”

He has happy memories of his mother coming in on summer evenings, having spent hours in the garden with her hair wild and her mucky face, radiant. He saw the joy it gave her.

Like his mother, Wright has lived his life doing what gives him joy – singing.

Best known as one of the Irish tenors, he also inherited his mother’s green fingers – and has of late been busy in the garden, rewilding the extensive grounds around his home in the village of Farran, Co Cork.Learn morePauseUnmute

When I met him there last week, ahead of a nationwide tour which kicks off next month, he was eager to tell me about this project, which occupied him during the long months of lockdown.

When he had his wife Angela moved in in 1998,the land around the house was a bare field. He shows me a photo of a lone digger. Not a tree or shrub in sight. Now it is a rural idyll.

“There was a line of ancient alders, they are still there. They are over 100 years old now. We planted everything else you see here: the grey alders, Italian alders – and the eucalyptus trees, which are certainly over 60 foot now.

“I didn’t know much about trees but we got help and I learned a lot. I just love trees. We have been progressively planting. I plant the entire time.”

When storms knock down the trees, they plant more and just keep going. As he says, the gardening just happens.

“I’m not super-organised. Many’s the crop gets eaten by the birds because of the career and being away at the wrong time. I picked the last of the tomatoes from the polytunnel the other day and parsnips are sweeter in the frost, so you can let them sit there all winter.

“We make jam from our gooseberries – and during Covid I cleared an area and extended it a lot more.”

He planted more trees, and having to stay home during the pandemic he found he got even more joy from the garden and its inhabitants.

“The maturing trees – such as the larch, beech, walnut, oak and the maples – they have all benefitted, and are attracting all species of wildlife to the garden. Even this morning I saw two native red squirrels scrambling around the tops of the larch trees, and they are frequent visitors to the nut feeders.

“We leave heaps of pruned branches in quiet corners where we know the hedgehogs have been hibernating – and in spring we see them shuffling around as darkness comes down. They are great at mopping up slugs and insects.

“Our other major residents are the pheasants. At twilight they make a hell of a racket as they arrive back from foraging to roost in the tall branches. And usually our first sight in the morning is the colourful cock pheasant pecking away at herbs in the lawn. He has three females at the moment, so he is happy.

“The important lesson for me is that we can control and help nature along – but, ultimately, we are only one among many creatures to share it together.”

The garden is clearly good for him. And so is singing. That all started because of an ulcer. As a young priest (Wright was ordained at the age of 22), he was teaching Spanish in Farranferris boarding school in Cork city – where years before he himself had been a boarder.

Teaching was full-on, especially with Leaving Cert students – and even though he was good at it and his students got good results, he was very stressed.

“I developed an ulcer, and when I went to the doctor about it, he told me that I had to get out of the school and do something else – a hobby. He suggested golf, but I had no interest. He asked me what I liked and I said singing. So he told me to go off and do that.”

He got cracking on finding Robert Beare in the Cork School of Music. The aim was to get some vocal training.

Up until then, music had played a more minor role in his life. He played piano as a child but it wasn’t until he went to a seminary in Spain to start his studies that music came alive. He sang in the choir, they introduced him to Spanish classics – and one night, when another seminarian was sick, Finbar was put on the spot to do a solo. He had to sing the Basque song ‘Agur Jaunuk’.

He wasn’t given any prior warning – but unperturbed, he simply sang.

“The voice never appeared until I went to Spain and sang that Basque song,” he says.

Then when he returned to study for his final year in Maynooth, he became involved in the choir there and was made the senior cantor – the person who sings the first line of the hymns. As a result of this role, he ended up singing for Pope John Paul II in 1979.

Singing in front of vast crowds didn’t bother him, he wasn’t nervous at all – and yet, he says he hates to hear his own voice. His wife Angela calls him the reluctant singer.

His story about becoming a priest is well known.

“I just drifted into it. There was no ‘road-to-Damascus’ moment. In hindsight, I should have been a social worker instead. I wanted to help people. And I think it was the music carrying me along.”

He loved being in Spain in the seminary. It was, he says, the age of the ‘new priest’ where the idea was that you would work in a job and be a priest as well. Being in the community was all part of this liberated theology. But back in Ireland, he was sent to train to be a teacher.

“I left the priesthood, not because I disliked it but because the fire went out of me. And things happened.”

He pauses.

An incident while working in Farranferris changed everything. One night on duty, he was checking that all the boys were safe and quiet in their rooms – but they had barricaded the whole place and locked the doors. As a former boarder, he wasn’t going to fall for what he thought was a prank.

“The next day, some seniors told me that they didn’t know that I would be on duty. They said that the priest who was normally on that night, Fr Pat Crowley, would wander at night and interfere with fellas. That’s why they had the barricades. It was a huge shock.”

Finbar doesn’t like dwelling on this.

“There’s no mystery about it now. He was defrocked, and was finally tried and convicted [for sex abuse crimes committed elsewhere in Cork]. But at the time, it was a huge shock.

“I created a stir and went to the principal and said you can’t have this, a priest sexually abusing students. I was told to mind my own business. I spoke to colleagues too and nothing was done.

“After a certain amount of time, he was removed. He was sent to the missions in Peru and abused there. He came back to Ballincollig and abused a Spanish student. And they finally had him convicted.

“I knew what the church was capable of and how they could protect themselves at all costs. All of this eroded any respect I had for the institution. I saw the underbelly of what went on – and I hated it and how it had tarnished the entire church.”

That was the beginning of the end of Finbar’s vocation. Shortly after he left the priesthood he went on The Late Late Show and told Gay Byrne that child abuse was the biggest crisis the church would ever face – because it went against the heart of everything they ever stood for, in terms of trust and care.

“The day after, I was crucified by the priests for making that statement – and my parents were horrified.

“I had burst the bubble – but I’d be stubborn like that. I didn’t care. It was stuck in my craw and I felt it had to be dealt with. In those days nobody wanted to confront it.”

For all that, Finbar still has faith, is pals with a bishop, and sees the importance of the rituals like weddings and funerals. But he dislikes how some ceremonies have become so normalised. He thinks that the drama has gone out of it. No longer are there all the candles and incense appealing to all the senses.

As a teacher and priest, he won singing competitions, and some people thought that the success went to his head and that’s why he wanted to leave. But it was the loneliness and the cover-up of the abuse which he couldn’t stomach.

His mother was devastated that her son, the priest, was leaving. He set off to Dublin with plans to train as a solicitor, and then he was asked to sing and it took off. He started to take it seriously.

Now 65, throughout his long career, Finbar has listened to his instinct and gone his own way.

At times this may not have been popular or profitable – whether it was becoming a priest; leaving the priesthood seven years later, speaking out about the abuse in the church in the late 1980s; or simply leaving the highly successful Irish Tenors group because he got tired of the travelling and singing the same old songs.

He wanted to sing his own song – in every sense. He has followed his gut and been honest with himself. He could have had an operatic career. He had the talent for it, with his light lyric tenor voice – but he had no patience for all the hanging around and the endless rehearsals.

He does admit that the happy-go-lucky attitude had to pick up a faster pace, after he had his children – Fergus and Ileana. Earning a living had to be taken more seriously with bills to be paid.

As he gears up for a nationwide tour, he is taking stock of his life and career, which has been marked by a strong sense of doing it his own way.

So that means he might bounce onto the stage singing ‘Pretty Woman’, as he often has in the past. On another tour, he ended every show with ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’.

The irony of an ex-priest singing the song from the crucifixion scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian is not lost on him. But he is not out to offend.

He is conscious that people want a good night out, and his mission is to entertain the audience.

“I’m not afraid to do light music,” he says. “It never bothered me. You hear a song and it transports you back to a time and a place. Very few things can do that. When I stand in front of an audience I’m very conscious that it’s their night out.”

Early on in his career, having won top prizes at the Feis Maitiú and Feis Ceoil, he did a concert full of classical music. For an encore, he sang an ordinary Irish song and the crowd went wild.

“I took note of that,” he says. “It was a lesson to me and about what people enjoyed.”

He laughs at the sniffy review he got for doing such an encore. As he says, wasn’t he pleasing the crowds with his songs? 

He still is. And he has a sense of humour about it all. He laughs when he tells me how, early in his career, he used hate doing after-dinner singing – like he did when US president Bill Clinton came to Dublin.

It was nothing personal against Clinton, but the endless hanging around in a draughty room beforehand, pacing up and down, got to him. Worse was if you had to sit and talk with people beforehand, using your vocal energy in a loud room when you should be saving it for the songs.

“They haven’t come to see you,” he says. “You’re something added on at the end – and then you hear someone say: ‘Oh no, not this s**te.’ ”

He laughs at this and says he understands it. At this stage, even he hates singing ‘Danny Boy’, having sung it a million times. But still he credits the version he did years ago for standing the test of time, thanks to Noel Kelehan’s striking jazz arrangement of it.

The minute you meet him, the first thing you notice is his speaking voice. It is very musical, with its Cork lilt. And it’s utterly lovely when he talks about a song, breaking into the talk to sing a few lines as illustration. What a privilege to hear such nuggets of gold in a conversation.

Music has brought a great deal to his life – it even brought him to his wife, he says. Angela had a singing class after him and the odd time they had to do duets. After he left the priesthood, their shared singing teacher gave him a nudge, and told him to ask her out.

“We went out for a meal, and then we met every day for two months, and that was it. There was a lot of laughter – and there had to be, because it wasn’t easy for Angela. I was 12 years older than her – and also there she was, going out with a former priest… but she rose above it.”

They married in 1990 and Finbar tells me that his mother said to him the day she saw him with his baby son Fergus in his arms, she understood why he had left.

Their children are now adults pursuing their own careers, and his daughter Ileana had a baby boy Arlo last June. Finbar and Angela enjoy being grandparents. They go cycling together most days and also spend time in their glorious garden. And he found a connection there.

Angela’s father used to regularly stop the car to look at a garden with beautiful flowers, and all the family admired it. Then when Finbar was dating Angela, they went for a walk past his mother’s garden – the one with the giant dahlias – and it turned out it was the very same garden her father had admired all those years before.

“I like those connections,” he says.

Then the three of us have tea and scones with gooseberry jam, which they made from the fruits in their garden. The tradition lives on.

The Finbar Wright and Friends tour starts on February 4 at the Watergate Theatre Kilkenny and ends at Dublin’s National Concert Hall on March 2. More info at finbarwright.com

https://www.independent.ie/life/from-quitting-the-priesthood-in-protest-to-pursuing-a-music-career-tenor-finbar-wright-rewilds-his-own-path-42283460.html