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Ronan Tynan, M.D.: Inspirational Irish Tenor
By Gerri Paré
The amputation of both legs didn't stop this Irish tenor from winning gold medals in the Paralympics, earning a medical degree and singing for the Yankees.

Q U I C K S C A N

Setting Goals
Dreams Come True
The Singing Doctor
'God Bless America'
Healing With Music
Family Ties

 

Ronan Tynan

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 voice.

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 detours.

Setting Goals

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.”

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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 to God.”

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 London followed.

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 America beckoned.

“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 everything.”

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 baseball games.

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 change it.”

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 by faith.

“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.

Family Ties

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 unscaled.

To learn more about Ronan Tynan and his concert schedule, go to www.ronantynan.net.


Gerri Paré is a graduate of Fordham University and former director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting. Semi-retired, she writes film reviews for Liguorian.


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