When Ronan Tynan was a kid growing up in Ireland, he dreamed of becoming a doctor, a singer, and an athlete.
That isn’t all that unusual. Kids tend to have grand ideas, but Tynan turned his dreams into goals and achieved all of them. And he did it despite being born with a disability that led to him having his legs amputated as a young man, but even with the obstacles he faced, he always believed in himself.
“Those were the three dreams I had, and I knew I would make them happen,” he says. “I knew it, I just knew it.”
He is best known as a singer and a member of the Irish Tenors, who will perform a holiday concert Wednesday, December 21, at the State Theater in New Brunswick. He has reached a level of fame that few classical singers do. He didn’t start singing professionally until he was in his 30s, after he received a degree in medicine and became a doctor.
Tynan was born in Dublin, Ireland, with focamelia, which he describes in his book, “Halfway Home: My Life ‘til Now,” as a bilateral congenital deformity that left his legs about a quarter short of what they should be. He spent the first three years of his life in the hospital before going home to the town of Johnstown in Kilkenny County where his father Edmund was a farmer and his mother, Marie, was a teacher and dietician.
He got into a car accident when he was 20, which caused back pain that, combined with his disability, led to his legs being amputated below the knee. But he writes in his book that he was climbing stairs within a week and competing in the Paralympic games within a year.
Tynan graduated from the National College of Physical Education in England with a degree in chemistry, then received a medical degree from Trinity College in Dublin, specializing in orthopedics. He also competed in the Paralympic Games in 1984 and 1988, winning eight gold medals and breaking 14 records.
Then he decided to start singing. When I remark that the transition from physician to professional singer seems incredible, he replies, “I know. It’s mad.”
He attended the Royal Opera School in England, then started performing with various orchestras. He made his opera debut in a Dublin production of “Madame Butterfly” and recorded a solo album, 1998’s “My Life Belongs to You” before joining the Irish Tenors that same year.
Tynan’s disabilities have of course influenced him, particularly his medical career. “I suppose it cemented my desire because I felt there were a lot of things that needed to be addressed,” he says. “Counseling is one of the most important things for someone who is going to have an amputation, and I was not the benefactor of counseling, so I can see very much how the veterans and our serviceman should be counseled.”
What they need, he says, is to have their condition explained to them, including what they can achieve, rather than what they can’t. And they need to be told that they can still do great things in life. Despite his disabilities, Ronan says giving up on his dreams was never an option for him.
“I’m a man of faith and I used the good Lord’s co-work to help me through everything,” he says.
The Irish Tenors consists of Finbar Wright, Anthony Kearns, and Tynan. The trio reached a level of popularity that is rare for opera singers. Their performances and recordings are marked by sweeping, inspiring arrangements and the singers’ soaring, emotional voices. Their repertoire includes many Irish favorites, of course, but also patriotic American songs, such as “God Bless America,” “Amazing Grace” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
The trio stopped singing together about five years ago, but reunited earlier this year and is performing a series of holiday concerts. The group is getting together again, Tynan says, “Because people love it, they’re mad about the Three Tenors, and they want it.”
The Tenors will be backed by a 30-piece orchestra and will be singing, according to Tynan, “All the Christmas pot boilers, all the big Christmas songs. And of course, being Irish, we’re going to have to do the Irish songs.”
When asked for specific songs, he says, “You’ll have to come to the concert to get that.” Among the Christmas songs the tenors have recorded are “Ave Maria,” “Adeste Fideles,” and “O Holy Night,” along with pop tunes like “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”
One of the joys Tynan takes from performing is sharing his favorite Irish songs, such as “There Were Roses” and “The Fields of Athenry,” for American audiences. “They are beautiful songs with beautiful melodies,” he says.
Of course, any concert of Irish music in the States must include “Danny Boy,” and while that’s part of the Irish Tenors’ repertoire, Tynan says the song isn’t as big among Irish people as it is among Irish Americans. “I know it’s huge over here, and I don’t think it’s as big a deal (in Ireland),” he says.” I think if you asked the Irish, which song (is bigger) in Ireland, they’d say ‘The Fields of Athenry.’”
Tynan was also a sort of unofficial voice of New York City for years. In 2000 he sang “God Bless America” at a Yankee-Red Sox game. The Yankees won and George Steinbrenner gave him an open invitation to sing at the House that Ruth Built. His rendition of Irving Berlin’s patriotic classic (completely with the rarely sung first verse) became a tradition. At games, legendary Yankee announcer Bob Sheppard would introduce him as “Dr. Tynan.”
Tynan was the last person to sing at the old Yankee Stadium and the first one to sing at the new one. But his relationship with the Yankees ended after reports in 2009 that a woman heard him make an anti-Semitic remark while looking at an apartment. He claimed his words were misinterpreted. In a New York Times article last year, he claimed he received death threats and a letter from a doctor who said if Tynan were his patient, he’d let him die on the operating table.
He later met with officials from the Anti-Defamation League and sang at the organization’s annual dinner that year. Abraham H. Foxman, the league’s national director, accepted the apology, but Tynan ended up moving to Boston and sang at Red Sox games last year, while still claiming to love New York City.
Tynan declined to talk about the controversy, but during the interview, when talking about his own faith, he expressed respect for all religions. “I think everybody has the right and the entitlement to be private about their religion,” he says. “And is any one religion better than the other? I would certainly never say yes or no to that. I know what works for me and whatever works for everybody else and what they feel comfortable with, that’s the right one for them. I would never judge anybody on the basis of religion. I think it’s very important that (people) have something, everyone needs some element of higher, spiritual guidance. I think in the most difficult times of life you need to be able to turn to your faith and the person who guides you.”
Tynan sang often in New York after 9/11 at various ceremonies and funerals. He also sang for U.S. Troops in Iraq and at President Reagan’s funeral. He says he doesn’t know why he, a singer from Ireland, had had such an impact on Americans during these milestone moments. “All I do know is that America has been wonderful to me in so many different ways,” he says. “It’s a magnificent country with amazing people, and it has opened its arms up (to me), and I believe it does that with everybody.”
Another aspect of his life is his work as a motivational speaker. He has given speeches for large companies, including Prudential, Fidelity, and Merck. He has also spoken for veterans being treated at Walter Reed in Washington, D.C. During these engagements, he talks about his life, and how people can achieve their dreams just as he has.
“My life story is in the sense of who I am, not just that I have gone through life in an unusual way but I also succeeded in putting a medical career behind me and (going into) entertaining,” he says. “I don’t look at myself as superhuman or anything but I do think the Good Lord gave me something.”
He also talks about the value of faith, the inspiration and strength he drew from his parents, and how those inspired him through life. “I always finish by saying faith is the bird that sees the light and sings by the dawn of the dark,” he says. “The dawn is breaking, and even though it is pitch black, the bird knows it. That’s a great philosophy for somebody to believe.”
The Irish Tenors Christmas, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Wednesday, December 21, 8 p.m. Irish music and holiday songs with Finbar Wright, Anthony Kearns, and Ronan Tynan with a 30-piece orchestra. $32 to $97. 732-246-7469 or www.StateTheatreNJ.org.