Brian Kennedy: NI music star on cancer diagnosis, brother Bap and growing up gay

editorial image

To be honest, I wasn’t totally sure it was even him when I caught sight of the tall, backpack-carrying man stroll through the Tea Room at Glenarm Castle, his grey coat tails and jet black curls ever so slightly fanning out behind him.

Once we were sitting chit chatting over lunch, and almost as if to dispel any further doubt, he suddenly broke into song, and that distinctive, pitch perfect vocal echoed around the entrance hall, banishing any questions over whether or not this really was Brian Kennedy I was sitting beside.

Brian Kennedy, 51, the handsome singer-songwriter, has performed with Van Morrison, represented Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest, and sang at the funeral of George Best, to name but a mere few of his musical achievements.

The Belfast born musician, who now lives in Dublin, is into his fifth decade, and the preciousness and privilege of a healthy and happy life holds more significance than ever before.

Almost two years ago, he was diagnosed with rectal cancer; he went on to receive treatment, even performing on stage with the bottle of treatment drugs attached to him, laughing as he says that his only issue with this unusual style of performing was that his guitar kept banging into it.

“I’m doing good,” he affirms with a smile.

“It (the cancer) was such an unfamiliar curveball, as these things are. But I count my blessings really, I’m still touring, my voice has never let me down.

“I had chemotherapy and a bit of radiation, and that was tough, and I’m now also looking at alternative methods of treatment, particularly in relation to diet. I feel very hopeful.”

I ask him if he can tell us how he came to be diagnosed.

He replies that just before his older brother Bap Kennedy - also a singer - was diagnosed with pancreatic and bowel cancer (he passed away from the illness in November 2916), he had been suffering from worrying symptoms.

“I had been to the doctor a couple of times, and for a while there was nothing, and then there was some more blood.

“As always, my instinct kicked in, and I thought, ‘there’s something not right here.’

“I went back to the doctor and told him my brother had been diagnosed.

“I asked him how I could make 200 per cent sure that there was nothing going on there, and he said I would need a colonoscopy.”

Right up until he was getting surgery, Brian reveals that the medics were reassuring him he had nothing to worry about; what they found in theatre, however, painted a very different picture.

“I was told that they had found a tumour in my rectum, and I was just like - could it be anymore embarrassing?

“My doctor said, well yes, it could be a lot worse, so calm down. And that was the start of the journey.

“I had five weeks of radiation and chemo in tandem.

“The after care was very tough; then I got past that and started to get educated about it.

‘‘Here I am nearly two years later, feeling ever hopeful. Cancer is not a death sentence anymore, if you catch it in time.”

His calmness and positivity shines through, and I ask him how he dealt with that blow on an emotional level - how did he even begin to process what the doctors were telling him?

“Well, what I seem to tend to do with anything challenging like that is to retreat into myself and figure it out for myself - and then I’m ready to tell other people,” he says.

“I took about two weeks to absorb it, and then I sent a group email to my very very close circle of friends.

“Everyone responded separately, and then we ended up having a dinner.

“Then we chatted about it, and went forward from there.

“No looking back. And that seems to have always been the right attitude in my life - to realise things could be a lot worse.

“I always knew it before, but I know it even more profoundly now - that there is going to be someone in the audience at my gigs who is going through something horrific, who has buried a child or a loved one, or has a terminal diagnosis themselves.”

In Brian’s own case, it seems his body is fighting back, and certainly, he looks the picture of health.

“I had a scan five weeks ago, and that was very encouraging.

“I’m by no means out of the woods but as far as I’m concerned, I’m heading in the right direction,” he says.

Brian was also reconciled with his brother Bap before he passed away, something which he says brought him a lot of peace.

The pair had been estranged for 20 years, “for all kinds of reasons”, but Brian decided to contact him when he heard of his illness.

“My mantra became, it doesn’t matter what’s right or wrong, what’s the kind thing to do?”

Their eventual meeting was significant and memorable, because they both knew it was, for them, farewell. “We sat together for an hour, and he was very unwell. We just had a general chat about music and stuff, we didn’t go near anywhere personal really.

“Then I left after an hour I knew we were saying goodbye.

“One of the last things we said to each other was, ‘look, let’s just think of each other very peacefully from now on’.

“And that’s what we did.”

‘You have a voice’ - teacher’s words that changed everything

As the deep chime of the clock in the stunning main hall of Glenarm Castle echoes through the air, interrupting the sound of the crackling fire, and our conversation, the two of us look at each other in disbelief.

A half second before, he had been describing how, as a 12-year-old boy, he would sing the notes of the piano back to his “long suffering” music teacher Seamus Ewings, who was desperately trying to cobble together a choir out of the class of unruly adolescents he had under his charge at St Paul’s Secondary School (now Corpus Christi College). “He kept me behind after class, and I thought I was in trouble,” recalls Brian, who, as a youngster growing up on the Falls Road, used to actually harmonise with the wailing sirens of the emergency services that were a constant feature of everyday life here. “He said, ‘try a bit of a song,’ so I did, and he said to me, ‘you have a voice.’” Until that point, music and singing had just been, for Brian, an escape from the gloom and the fear all around him; he lived in an area where you had to literally queue up at a turnstile to access the city centre. Shows on TV like Top Of The Pops and Eurovision were the windows to the world outside of Belfast, and until he was able to access those worlds, he employed what he now, in retrospect, recognises as classic survival techniques.

“It’s like that wonderful film where Julie Andrews says, ‘whenever I feel afraid, I whistle a happy tune.’ There must have been a part of me doing that, because ambulances and fire engines are the soundtrack of disaster.” And after having someone confirm to him that he had talent, Brian threw himself into pursuing it head first. He got involved with every school musical production he could, and at 18, left home for the bright lights of London, where he “entered the squatting world”, performing and busking, before finally, at the age of 19, being called up by music mogul Simon Fuller, whom he reveals he actually hung up on initially in disbelief. Since then, Kennedy’s career has gone from strength to strength, yet amazingly, he insists: “I don’t feel like I’ve done enough. I want to do more records, more producing, more collaborations. Just keep pushing the envelope. I think I’m hungry all the time for things. And I still want to feel afraid of things.”

‘You weren’t allowed to be heterosexual, never mind homosexual’

Brian has always been very open about his sexuality during his time in the public eye, but he says that not surprisingly, it was far from easy growing up gay in Northern Ireland against its political and religious backdrop.

He was once quoted as describing the Province as being akin to “the difficult cousin that just refuses to change and move on” - and in our interview, he describes the Catholic Church as “still one of the homophobic organisations there is.” He says with candour: “In my experience, anybody that obsessed with morality usually has the most to hide in terms of their own immorality. When I was growing up, the only context in which we heard about same sex situations was in an abusive context. As I always said, you weren’t allowed to be heterosexual, never mind homosexual. You weren’t allowed to be sexual full stop.” He adds: “You can’t stop your nature. I have passionate relationships and friendships with women - but my nature is to fall in love with men.”

Don’t miss Brian Kennedy live at Glenarm Castle

Brian will be performing at Glenarm Castle’s May In The Marquee Bank Holiday Music Festival on Sunday, May 27. His performance, which will kick off at 7pm, will represent a truly fantastic and somewhat emotional finale to this exciting event. Tickets can be purchased via 028 2884 1203 or www.glenarmcastle.com/events