Photo by Patrick Ryan, DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, University of Notre Dame
DOCTORS TOLD his Irish parents
he would likely
never walk. Schoolmates
taunted him about his
lower-leg deformity. By
age 20, his legs were amputated
below the knee.
And yet he went on to win 18
gold medals in the Paralympics and
set 14 world records. He became a physician
and an accomplished equestrian. And now he
inspires and entertains millions with his world-class
Meet classical tenor Ronan Tynan, a man of
remarkable accomplishments who has the humility
to recognize the crucial role his faith and his folks
played in facing tremendous obstacles. “God is fundamentally
the most important part, well, in my
life...and certainly was the most important part in
both my mom and dad’s lives,” he says during a
phone interview from Manhattan.
These days, Dublin-born Tynan calls New York
City home when he is not performing in concert
around the country or the world. But his road to success
as one of the famed Irish Tenors, and now as
a solo artist with the CDs My Life Belongs to You and Ronan, has been fraught with difficulties and
Ronan was born in 1960 with focamelia; his frail
lower legs were one-quarter shorter than normal and
his splayed feet had but three toes each. When he
first attempted to stand at age four, his mother
started telling him, “Dreams are for dreamers and
the goals are for you and me, Ronan.”
On the advice of doctors, Ronan was kept in a
hospital his first three years, until his mother
decided to take him home and instill in him the
determination to walk and be no different from any
other child. Once Ronan was fitted with painful,
clunky braces, his mother dressed him in short
pants and walked him into town with his head
held high as onlookers gawked.
Ronan’s parents, Therese and Edmond, had
already suffered heartbreaking loss. Their firstborn
and only daughter, Fiona, was healthy. But when
twin boys were born the following year, only one,
Tom, survived. Likewise, Ronan was born with a
twin brother who died before age one.
When Ronan’s parents brought him back to live
on the farm, they had contrasting parenting
approaches. “My father was a darling man...who
loved me with considerable unconditional love.
He always told me I was great from the very word
go,” Ronan recalls of his late father, whose continual
praise built self-confidence.
His mother, however, insisted that Ronan make
his mark in the world. “My mom knew exactly
what she wanted for all her children, especially me.
She carved my footsteps in the sand, you could say.
“When someone is as strong as that for you, it’s
a kind of tough-love episode in your life...and so
your warmth towards her at the beginning is a little
less because, on the other side, you have a father
who absolutely dotes on you. You have a mother
who is determined to do everything that makes it
possible for so many great things to happen; she has
to take the hard road.”
As an adult, Ronan came to appreciate the styles
of both of his parents. In fact, the CD titled Ronan features two selections particularly meant to honor
his folks. “The Old Man” is a sweet paean to a
much-missed father. And “Passing Through” was
written by Ronan as a very personal tribute to his
mother, who is in the end stages of Alzheimer’s disease and no longer recognizes him.
When asked whether piling up gold medals,
earning degrees or winning singing competitions
gave him the greatest satisfaction, he immediately
responds, “The greatest satisfaction—the greatest
blessing of all? Being born to those two people.”
Dreams Come True
In his 2002 memoir, Halfway Home: My Life ’til Now (Scribner), Ronan especially remembers how he
loved singing with his father: “Dad and I would
head across the fields to gather and milk the cows,
and left our respective worlds behind us as we sang.
Singing lifted our spirits, and the cows seemed to
like it, too. They never scuttered in the barn, and
their milk was plentiful and sweet.
“I sat on the stone cemetery wall near the house
and sang back to the swallows, while they scooped
and dipped like kamikaze pilots,” he continues. “I
made up my own words and tunes, enraptured
with singing to all the animals around, to nature and
The love of horses and riding has always been a
joy in Ronan’s life. He keenly remembers the sense
of freedom he felt at age 10 when Sunbeam, the family’s
little white pony, first galloped beneath him.
He talks about riding in his memoir: “Through
horses I gained the range of motion and confidence,
and was finally able to realize my competitive
dreams. On horseback I learned to overcome the
obstacles my legs presented.”
By 15, he had won a jumping contest on Black Jet,
a pony. Then he moved on to horses, but not without
several spills and hair-raising mishaps. Ronan
loved competing alongside and against people who
had full use of their legs. “Riding taught
me I could compete on a level playing
field. On a horse I have four perfect legs
instead of two imperfect ones.”
Eventually, he became the first disabled
person to become a nationally
rated racer. He competed on both
national and international levels.
Growing up, Ronan shared chores on
the farm with his siblings and was not
treated differently. Pain was a daily way
of life for him. New leg braces, usually
bulky, were frequently needed as he grew.
After Ronan was involved in a motorcycle
accident, doctors informed him
that a dual amputation could no longer
be avoided. Setting an ambitious goal
while adjusting to his new prostheses, Ronan trained
hard to compete in the Paralympics: Olympic Games
for disabled people. Representing Ireland provided
extra motivation. Time and again he triumphed in
shot put, discus and the long jump.
The Singing Doctor
Ronan’s family encouraged him to apply to the
National College of Physical Education in County
Cork: He became the first person with disabilities
to gain admission to the strenuous program. Upon
completion, a position with a prosthetics firm in
But a lecture by a doctor who suggested Ronan
take up medicine started his journey toward a medical
degree from Dublin’s renowned Trinity College.
As a student, he would go to the pubs with his
pals, earning free beers as an impromptu ballad
singer. He loved the “release” that singing gave
him even more than the gratis Guinness.
When his dad suggested that he attempt singing
professionally, Ronan decided to take formal lessons,
at the comparatively late age of 33. Though still in
his last year of med school, he won a national
singing competition. Then he went on to emerge
victorious on Go For It, a program that aired on BBC
and was similar to American Idol.
The following year, the medical staff chipped in
for Ronan to go to France, where he won an international
operatic contest. His first album, The Impossible
Dream, was a hit and soon went platinum
(sales of one million).
Nonetheless, Ronan put practicing medicine first,
opening a clinic in County Kilkenny and specializing
in orthopedic sports injuries for several years. His
passion for singing refused to diminish, however.
'God Bless America'
Convinced that singing was God’s will for him,
Ronan accepted an offer to become one of the
founding three Irish Tenors in 1998. Their concerts
and recordings drew a massive following. Soon
“Amazing” is how he describes living here. Americans
“are a wonderful people. They will you to
success; they rejoice in your success. All you have
to do is get up off your backside and make something
of yourself in this country because it gives you
By 2004, he decided to leave the Irish Tenors
and strike out on his own. But he remains very
friendly with his former colleagues.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Ronan consoled countless
families by singing hymns at the funeral Masses
of firefighters and police officers. Out of that came
the invitation from the New York Yankees to give
his moving rendition of “God Bless America” at their
As he loves sports, and the Yankees are his favorite
team, Ronan was thrilled to accept the offer to sing
at the seventh-inning stretch whenever he is in town.
He also sang at the prayer service marking the second
inauguration of President George W. Bush. At
the invitation of Nancy Reagan, Ronan delivered a
soulful version of “Amazing Grace” at the funeral
of former President Ronald Reagan.
Healing With Music
Asked if he worries that spiritually oriented selections
on his CDs might limit sales, Ronan bellows
happily, “I don’t care! I am the way I am; my belief
is my belief. I’m proud of it and I would never
Indeed, when pressed to choose if it was his parents,
God’s help or his own determination that got him where he is now, he first credits God and then
describes his parents as being God’s instrument to
help him develop the will to live life to the fullest.
But he also finds it requires real grit to persevere and
stay focused through the difficulties and unexpected
setbacks that everyone meets on life’s journey.
Since music can be therapeutic, Ronan feels he can
touch more people nowadays with his voice than as
a medical healer: “It’s a bigger audience and the
side effects aren’t as bad.” He suggests that after
someone listens to him in concert, “You might have
a couple of earaches but, other than that, you’re not
going to vomit; you’re not going to get sick. It’s the
cheapest drug on the market: happiness, a smile.”
A natural tenor, Ronan shows considerable range.
He moves fluidly from hitting high notes to drawing
in listeners with the intimacy of a near whisper.
The selections on his CDs are often as inspirational
as they are spiritual. “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “From a Distance,” “Ave Maria,” “How
Great Thou Art,” “The Light Inside of You”
and “Mansions of the Lord” all seem to
reflect a life animated by hope and sustained
“Dad and I always had a special saint: St.
Thérèse, the Little Flower,” he says. “We
confided our greatest needs and I suppose
our darkest thoughts. My mom was a devotee
of the Blessed Virgin—unbelievable.
And the Rosary was a major part in our
lives growing up.”
Other areas have also opened up for
Ronan since he opted for a solo career. In
addition to singing, he does a great deal of
motivational speaking which appeals to
him, as he is very much a people person. For
this reason he also prefers singing in concert
over the confines of a recording studio.
He is currently working on an untitled
faith album. And he is excited about an
animated educational TV series for children
ages five to 11 called Punktuation, in
which he will voice the role of the exclamation
point. He may also play the title role
of an iconic animated-movie character in
a planned Broadway musical.
Ronan keeps a home in Ireland, visiting
his mother as often as possible. He also
remains close to his siblings, Tom and
Fiona, who are able to see their mom several
times a week.
Coming to terms with his mother’s
Alzheimer’s disease, Ronan teases that, “I
reckon that the Man Above decided that he
couldn’t bring Therese up [to heaven] in the
state she was or she’d run the place and do Peter out
of a job. But he decided to turn her back into her
childlike state, and, as they say, ‘Suffer the little children
to come unto me.’”
Unfailingly upbeat in his outlook, Ronan is fond
of a particular quote when asked what lesson people
should take away from his life thus far: “Faith
is the bird that feels the light and sings when the
dawn is still dark.” As a songbird himself, it seems
clear that Ronan Tynan’s Irish-Catholic faith allowed
him to take flight and that there are heights as yet
To learn more about Ronan Tynan and his concert
schedule, go to www.ronantynan.net.