When I arranged to meet traditional music legend Frankie Gavin in a quiet corner of the Galmont this week, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d heard he had been seriously ill, had lost a significant portion of his body weight and that wonderful hair, but when he came around the corner, wrapped in a grey tweet coat and scarf, he was the same Frankie I’d ever known. Buzzing with energy and life, a head full of hair and keen to sit down for coffee and croissants to share the story of the last year during which he feared for his mortality.
He’d been in the wars seen we last spoke.
“Yes, well, I mean, everyone was in the wars with the COVID scenario. Yeah, not just me. But I wasn’t expecting to get diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. So that really threw me on a bit of a loop altogether, because, well, as I say, I was not expecting it. I knew it was something because I was having difficulty swallowing. You know, that kind of thing. Kind of kind of choking experiences.
“I’d always had good health. I hardly ever got a cold, thank God. But this was acting up around last October, November, and then come March, April, it was getting worse and worse. And originally, the doctor thought it was hiatus hernia, but it didn’t turn out to be that.
“And it was broken to me rather suddenly. I said, good news or bad? I was kind of being cheerful about it, but I was told it was bad news. ‘I’m afraid you’ve got oesophageal cancer,’ like in the same breath. I suppose there’s no easy way to break it. They said they’re were actually going to do a lot of biopsies, but they suspect that there’s something there. The crew and staff and everything in UCHG were amazing. Mr. Leonard, Mr. Collins, and Catherine and Sinead in radiotherapy. I mean, they’re just all fantastic people, you know, and we are blessed to have them.”
How did he react to such a sudden diagnosis?
“Well, I didn’t get upset immediately. I didn’t know how to how to register it, really. But I did get kind of bothered about it then after a while. Asking myself what’s this gonna mean. Then I was told I’d be having six weeks of treatment. Five days a week. Radiotherapy one day a week chemo. And coming towards the end of that space of time, I was falling apart.
“It really did take a horrible toll on me. And I was really, really sick. Couldn’t eat. I was fading away. I was down from 12 stone to just under eight stone, that type of thing. But when I was able to be fed with a tube, that gave me a bit of strength and rallied me up a bit.
“All the hair fell out, of course, and it’s quite a shock to the system, because you either deal with it in as positive a way as possible or you can let it get to you. When you start kind of giving up, saying if this the way I’m going to be feeling here, I’d rather be out of here.
“But I did keep fairly strong for the whole thing. My brother and sisters were great and my fellow musician Catherine McHugh was great. It was just like, great support, all the way, and the staff and everything in the hospital were just amazing.
“Once the treatments stopped, and I was eating a bit more and stuff like that, I really got my strength back very, very quickly. And the next thing was I found I was going home.”
Frankie met people in hospital who were not to have as successful an outcome as he had, and he said he thinks of them every day.
“I had all my scans done there a few months back. Mr Leonard had all the scans done. Couldn’t find anything. So I am absolutely smiling. Overjoyed with the results. This is terrific news. And then I had a I had a a dilation of the oesophagus? Mr. Collins did that. Then he said they did a few biopsies while they were there and they couldn’t find anything, so that’s good. You can’t beat that. So, this is gonna be the best Christmas ever,” he said, smiling.
While he was facing the worst of his medical battles, a GoFundMe page was set up to ensure Frankie got the best care and treatment, with generous and heartfelt donations and comments from fans, including the great and the good of all genres of music.
“That was set up by my son Julian and it took off like wildfire. And it was amazing. Because like, I was pretty much penniless, because I hadn’t been working. Traditional Irish music is not rock and roll. I mean, it is to us, but we don’t make rock and roll money here.
“The GoFundMe was really touching and I was very moved by the donations from people I didn’t know, as much as the people I did know.”
And the reaction has not stopped there.
“I’ve been out doing gigs around the country since last July. And the response has just been phenomenal. And with the new album and everything doing really well, it’s just such a joy to be back.”
A brush with mortality and serious illness fine tunes the mind, and Frankie said this has happened to him.
“Everything has a new perspective. Fresh air smells different. Everything you look at seems different. You know, you have a different take on life to appreciate. Every sense has been magnified.
Did he think about dying during it all?
“I’m fairly spiritual, anyway, but I’ve taken great comfort in prayers and stuff like that. I thought about dying, at one point, very briefly I wanted that to happen, because if this was what life was gonna be like, I felt I couldn’t deal with it.
“But that was very brief. I mean, I snapped out of that pretty quickly. Once they started feeding me and I felt just that slight bit better when the food was taking effect. Life had a complete shift change around and I thought, God this is great, you know, but I never thought that I would hear the results being so good.
“You can too easily be defeatist about it, which was not a good idea.
But now that Frankie is out the other end of his medical challenge, will we see the rich experience mirrored in new compositions and new projects?
“That’s a fascinating question and I hadn’t thought about it. It is a golden opportunity. I’d imagine it’s going to be some some fairly serious emotional stuff. But it won’t be sad. Do you know what I mean? It’d be kind of a slow but joyous material, I’d say. I haven’t really thought about this. Yeah. It’s a great question, because it now has put me thinking, yeah, and I think that it’s the very least I should do.
“Because I think that it would be the courteous thing to do. In the line of giving thanks for being given a second chance. I should put it to a very good use, you know, I mean, to be quite honest, you have to value every minute of your life.
“You’re more tuned in to nature now as well, too, because everything is amplified. There was a hen and a fox in the garden this morning, chasing each other around the tree. There was an energy to them that can inspire.”
Having been give a second lease of life, Frankie is determined to get back to writing music, to creating more orchestral arrangements and to tap into the massive potential that exists for the development of young Irish traditional music players. He feels too that not enough is being done to promote the genre.
“The Late Late Show has several country music specials yet there aren’t any children playing country music. On the converse, there are tens of thousands of young people playing traditional music every day of the week in school and parishes. Where is the full Late Late Show for traditional music? I would love to get involved in doing something like that to help maximise the potential of traditional music,” he said.
He is also full of praise for the cancer care team that tended to him here in Galway.
“We have great expertise here in this region. A friend of mine who went to America for treatment was asked ‘why are you coming from Galway? Isn’t that where you have the best people?” So we are blessed to have such expertise and knowledge here, right through from the treatment to the psychological aspects.”
In the light of his experience, Frankie is advising people to be more health conscious.
“I would recommend that everyone goes and has a blood test every six months, not every year, but every six months. I was lucky in that it did not hit me during Covid. If that had happened, I might not have even made it into the hospital.”
With this new energy, Frankie says the New Year can’t come fast enough.
“We have a new band and they are wonderful musicians and singers and we have some nice festivals lined up for the year.
“I would love to go back to America again and play some of the larger venues as well. The performance of the Grace Kelly symphonic suite in Monaco in September was very successful.
“Some of the most important people in the principality were there for that in all their designer and cashmere finery and it was fascinating to see their bodies move along to the traditional music, as it got into their souls, illustrating of course, the magic of Irish traditional compositions,” he said.
Irish traditional music has lost some wonderful exponents in the last few years. What a fillip it is that Galway’s master craftsman, who has been entertaining for over half a century, yet is still a young man, has decades more to create, to perform and to inspire.