Ellie O’Byrne.


Brian Kennedy on the things he's learned on his cancer journey

Brian Kennedy has battled cancer and seen close friends go to the grave. He now appreciates life more than ever, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

Brian Kennedy on the things he's learned on his cancer journey

Brian Kennedy has battled cancer and seen close friends go to the grave. He now appreciates life more than ever, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

Brian Kennedy is contemplating the things he’s learned on his well-documented cancer treatment journey in the two years since he was first diagnosed with rectal cancer. Top of the list, he says, is that “you find out who your real friends are.”

The 51-year-old singer isn’t being harsh, though: “I’m forgiving of my friends who are not good with illness and who just don’t know what to do, because some people are just like that,” he says.

“But I’m now just firmly in the position of living each day the best as I can, and that’s part of what cancer has taught me.”

Speaking after the week that saw the tragic death of Cranberries singer Dolores O’Riordan, as well as the 60th birthday celebrations for Shane MacGowan in the National Concert Hall, bring the international legacy of Irish singers to the fore, Kennedy waxes philosophical on the impermanence and uncertainty of life.

“It’s sobering when your contemporaries die off, start to leave,” he says. “I remember being out with Kirsty McColl, who was a good friend of mine, and Shane MacGowan in a bar in London and Shane went to the loo and she turned to me and started crying and she said, ‘I’m so worried about Shane; he’s making himself sick.’ Now, Shane’s 60, and Kirsty’s been dead for nearly 18 years. So you never know.”

O’Riordan’s tragically early death, though, struck a chord with Kennedy as it did with so many others.

“I knew she’d been unwell, because a friend plays guitar in her band sometimes and last year they had to cancel tour dates because she was having terrible back problems. But it was just unbelievably sad, an awful loss. I’m sure she had so much more music to make.”

Kennedy’s own cancer battle, interwoven with the tragic loss of his brother, fellow musician Bap Kennedy, at just 53, to pancreatic cancer, was a “very frightening” brush with death: “The word cancer can be so terrifying, but like many things, like HIV or Aids, it used to be a death sentence but now it doesn’t have to be. I just thought to myself, ‘now how am I going to get through this?’ and very quickly I started planning how to get through it.”

“But at the same time, my brother was dying.”

Brian and Bap had been estranged for over 15 years, but Bap’s failing health paved the way for a reconciliation of sorts in 2016. “I met him in August, and he died in November,” Kennedy says.

“It was a really great window of opportunity and I’d recommend it to anyone because now I can remember him very peacefully, and smile when people ask about him. It’s nice when I hear his music from time to time as well.”

Kennedy himself feels that he has much more music to make. This year, he’ll be dedicating time to writing new material. The singer’s work ethic has always been phenomenal: he’s released 16 albums, including several anthologies and best-ofs, since he first came to prominence singing with Van Morrison in the 1990s.

He continued to gig throughout his cancer treatment, even performing while chemotherapy was underway, taking to the stage with his bottle of chemo drugs strapped to him. He then went on to release two albums in 2017, October’s Brian Kennedy Live at Vicar Street and a collection of Christmas songs, Christmassy, just one month later.

Wouldn’t it have been advisable to take the foot off the pedal just a little during his treatment? He laughs. “The gigs got me through and made me feel better, even when I was going through the chemo,” he says.

“I just kind of did it and pushed my way through. I wouldn’t have if I’d been lying on the floor exhausted, but I think it’s a lot about mental attitude; for me, the more gigs the better, because no matter what happens, I’m better when I’m singing.”

A year on, his health is now excellent, but he still requires regular check-ups: “Cancer takes a long time to know you’re clear of. I’m in really good shape now, but I have tests again in a couple of months’ time. It’s about living healthily, healing well and being checked regularly. But I’m feeling great.”

Although Kennedy will speak candidly about his health battles, he has to draw the line somewhere. Asked whether he’s currently in a relationship, he chuckles. “I like to keep certain things to myself, so I’m going to dodge that question,” he says.

Dublin has been home to the Belfast-born singer for the past 14 years. He only officially came out as gay in 2009 despite, he says, “everyone that mattered” having known for a long time.

Playing his part in the campaign for same-sex marriage, he recorded a song urging voters to “Please Vote Yes” in advance of the Irish referendum.

It’s a sign of the Republic of Ireland’s progress, in Kennedy’s eyes, and something that’s not mirrored in his native Northern Ireland, where the DUP have repeatedly blocked a majority vote in the Northern Assembly in favour of legalising same-sex marriage.

“That’s Belfast,” he sighs. “It really progresses in some ways, and in others it doesn’t seem to be able to change at all. There are all sorts of things to be really excited about and then there are things where you go, ‘oh for God’s sake, come on, grow up.’ Northern Ireland is like the difficult cousin that just refuses to change and move on. It’s embarrassing, but it will change soon hopefully.”

Among Kennedy’s upcoming gigs is the Imbolc festival at Hook Lighthouse in Co Wexford; Imbolc is a Celtic tradition, one of the four main festivals of the Celtic calendar, and marks the beginning of spring. It’s a festival of hope, of life, and of new beginnings, a sentiment Kennedy can really get behind.

“I have a magnolia tree in my back garden, and it’s one of my great joys to see it come into bud twice a year,” he says. “As I get older, the simpler little things like that come to mean a huge amount. There’s something so hopeful about spring: I love the feeling of a new beginning, and that sense that something that’s been dormant for ages is able to burst into flower again.”

Brian Kennedy appears on February 2 at Hook Lighthouse, Co Wexford, as part of a weekend of Imbolc festivities. See www.hookheritage.ie

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