Michael Flatley isn’t bothered if people say he has a big ego.
Nobody ever says that to me,” says the star of ‘Riverdance’, ‘Lord of the Dance’, ‘Feet of Flames’ and ‘Celtic Tiger’. “I noticed that my ego was a topic there in the 1990s. You have to believe in yourself. And if I have been accused of having a bit of ego in the past then maybe I deserve it.”
He cites the example of his idol, boxer Muhammad Ali. “He would say things and you might think, ‘You can’t go around saying you’re the greatest.’ Well, he could because he was.
“I don’t know how many people would come and see my show if I was saying: ‘I’m only all right, baby, but I’d like you to spend your hard-earned money to come to see me.’ I believed in what I was doing, and if I got to take a little bit of heat for it, that is OK by me. I followed my dream. People can say whatever they want.”
Does he find Mario Rosenstock’s impersonations of him funny?
“I haven’t seen them. A friend of mine says that Mario is hilarious as me. I remember years ago Brendan Grace at a gala ripped the piss out of me for half an hour. I never laughed so much in my whole life. It was extraordinary to watch the master at work.”
Michael Flatley is talking to People & Culture from his home in Monte Carlo in advance of the 25th anniversary of his extravaganza, ‘Lord of the Dance’, which comes to Belfast for six nights in May. He is in remarkably candid form. He’s happy to chat about most things, even his own funeral arrangements. But more on that later.
First we go back to the late 1940s, when Michael Flatley Sr, from Sligo, and Eilish Ryan from Carlow, emigrated to America. The pair met in Detroit and married in 1956, making their home in a one-room apartment on the south side of blue-collar Chicago.
In 1958, Michael, the second of their five children, was born. He had an older brother Patrick, and three younger sisters, Anne-Marie, Eliza and Thomasina, would soon follow. “We had no babysitters or nannies. My mother just got on with it.”
The soundtracks to his early childhood were scratchy, long-playing records of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem that his father played when he came home “exhausted” from his plumbing job.
When he was four, his grandmother Hannah, a Leinster dance champion in her day, taught him his first Irish dance steps. He can remember her whispering in his ear: “You can do it.”
From his parents and his grandparents, he learned about the Famine, and how, in its aftermath, people travelled on coffin ships to America.
“My dad used to get so mad, saying: ‘The Irish were the first slaves in America, and no one ever talks about it. How could no one ever mention the poor Irish and how they were working as slaves and taken advantage of?’” The connection to Ireland meant everything to the family. “In fact, I don’t think I heard an accent in our circle other than an Irish accent until I was six. All my family’s friends and all my friends were Irish. We’d see them at mass on Sunday, and at Irish get-togethers where everyone would sing and dance.”
Did he ever experience anti-Irish feeling when he was growing up?
“There’s no question I did,” he says. “Boy oh boy, did I.” He took up boxing to deal with the bullies.
At 11, he was sent to classes at the Dennehy School of Irish Dance in Chicago against his will. “I was dragged by my ears because I wanted to play baseball with the lads. So, I went in, but I didn’t want to be there. The kids had normally started at five or six years old.”
The teacher told his parents that he was probably too old. “Because I had so many steps to catch up on, I had to learn much quicker. And when I caught up with the class, I was used to moving at a much quicker pace. I would go home and create new steps. That’s how everything started for me.”
Six years later he was World Irish Dance title at Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne, the annual Irish stepdance competition.
“I will never forget flying home on Aer Lingus to Chicago with the trophy on my lap. I should have been over the moon. But I was a little bit melancholy. Because all I could think of was, ‘Is that it? That’s the end of it now…’”
It was, it transpired, the start of something that would eventually revolutionise Irish dance.
In the garage at home, Flatley worked on the “flashy” dance routines that he liked, not the dance routines he was told to work on to have a chance of winning the World Dance title in Ireland.
“That’s when everything began changing. I started doing those heel-clicks over my head, spinning back-heel clicks, using my arms, using my facial expression.”
He was at this stage working on building sites around Chicago with his brother and their father. He was, he says, completely broke until he was in his 30s.
One day in the early 1980s, he got a call from the manager of the Chieftains asking if he would do a few shows with the band. It was while he was on tour in London with the Chieftains in 1985 that he met Polish woman Beata Dziaba. They married in Copenhagen in January 1986.
Life on the road with The Chieftains was a hoot. “They were great to be around. It was the best fun you could ever have legally,” he says. “There was very little that we didn’t do.”
One night during a Chieftains show in Detroit the audience gave Flatley’s performance a standing ovation. “I looked at Paddy Moloney, who saw the audience reaction, when I came off stage and said: ‘F**k it. I’m not going back to digging ditches in Chicago. This is what I want to do with the rest of my life. This is my destiny.’”
Fate or not, his journey to stardom didn’t really take off until 1993 when husband and wife producers John McColgan and Moya Doherty asked himself and dancer Jean Butler to perform at the Mayo 5000 concert at the National Concert Hall in Dublin.
Before a year was out, everything would change for him. On the night of April 30, 1994, he and Butler performed ‘Riverdance’ as the interval act for the Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin.
“There was something in the air that night,” he says. “I couldn’t wait to get onstage. I felt like a loaded gun.”
When he came off stage, his mother was standing, crying her eyes out. He will remember the hug she gave him for the rest of his life, he says.
“She didn’t need to say a word. She wasn’t a person who talked a lot. It was a very emotional moment for both of us.” The reaction to ‘Riverdance’ was immediate and universal. ‘Seven minutes that shook the world’ trumpeted the headline of the Sunday Press the next day.
“My life changed on that night,” Flatley says. “I’d worked for 35 years to get to that night – dreaming up that style of dance. That was my chance to show the world what I had been doing. Even when I was working on building sites in Chicago, in my head I was onstage in Radio City Hall.”
The thundering orchestral dance piece, composed by Bill Whelan and set to traditional music, became a financial and cultural phenomenon.
By February of the following year, ‘Riverdance’ had been developed into a stand-alone show and had sold a record 120,000 tickets for a run of five weeks at the Point Theatre in Dublin. That July it was performed for Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mother in London, before returning to Dublin another six-week run at the Point.
But by October, Flatley had parted company with the show on the eve of its London opening over an alleged contract dispute.
“I have no comment on that,” he says, of the contract dispute which was later settled. “It’s water under the bridge We’re all human. My father used to say, ‘Forgive everybody everything. Just keep working.’”
I read him the controversial statement he made at the time: “I just wanted control over the work that I had created myself. That’s all. I don’t think that that’s too much to ask. I felt like I built it and they took it, and that’s the end of it… and it hurt.”
Does he stand over those words now?
“I do stand over them,” he says. “I spent my life creating this and they fired me the night before the show. God was guiding me, and I went on to create ‘Lord of the Dance’. God has a way of balancing the books.”
His new show also took off, selling more than 60 million tickets around the world and it is still touring. Jean Butler wasn’t involved; instead the lead female role was played by a dancer from Co Meath, Niamh O’Brien, whom he would later marry.
In 1997, Flatley and Beata divorced. Two years later, he moved to Monte Carlo. He also had homes in London, Paris and Barbados. He collected grand homes; he could afford it. American business magazine Forbes in 1997 estimated his earnings at $54m a year. At that time, he also had his legs insured for $40m. How did he go about getting the policy – did he have to go into an insurance office himself?
“That’s all done by the promoters and the business people on the tour,” he laughs, “because if I go down, the tour goes down and you can’t have that.”
In 2001, he paid €3m for Castlehyde in Co Cork, the run-down ancestral home of Ireland’s first president, Douglas Hyde. He spent an estimated €27m to restore it and a further €20m furnishing it with art, rare books and furniture. It now has eight themed bedrooms, a 20-seat cinema, wine cellars, and a music room.
He became engaged to Lisa Murphy in 2002 in Monte Carlo. It was a relationship that continued on and off until early 2006. In August of that year, he and Niamh O’Brien became engaged, and they married in October with a lavish wedding reception for 250 guests at Castlehyde. The bride wore a wedding ring rumoured to have cost £300,000 and an engagement ring that apparently set back the groom twice that.
In an interview on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories on ITV, he later said: “I admire beauty in everything, and women are the most beautiful things in the world. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. But my wife knows me well and she loves me, and I love her. I am the luckiest guy in the world to get Niamh O’Brien.”
What is she like? “Jesus! You are taking me into deep waters with all these questions. She is highly intelligent. She is my best friend. She is extraordinarily beautiful, inside and out. I am proud to be her husband. I am blessed to have her. She is a loyal true blue.”
What does that mean? “She is someone that stands with you even when you come home from a night out with the boys, probably not looking or feeling my best. She doesn’t judge me.”
In April 2007, their son Michael St James was born at Cork University Maternity Hospital. “He’s 14 now – and he’s taller than I am,” he laughs. “People say, every year your children change. But it’s every week they change. I just want to be part of all of it and soak it up.”
The last time he cried, he says, was recently when he dropped his son off to school. “I hate when he breaks the hug, and he has to go in. That is too much for me.
“I’m crazy about him. I realise he and Niamh are the most important and precious things in my life. Work and career are not the most important thing. You are on the clock. And this young person is going to grow quickly and time with them is priceless.”
Does Michael Jr dance? “No, he is not a dancer. He’s a very academic young man. He’s also a flautist. He plays electric guitar. He’s an actor and a director. He’s very creative. Dance wasn’t something he took to.”
A shadow fell across the multimillionaire’s life in 2015 when his father died. “That was very hard. I realised, ‘I am never going to see you again. Ever’. Ever is a long time. I’m not sure I’m over it.”
He describes his father as soft as butter inside but hard as nails on the outside. Is he the same? “There are times in life when you have to be tough. It is a hard old road. But I don’t see myself as a hard man. I’m definitely a big softie on the inside.”
He was broken-hearted too at the loss of his mother the following year. “I miss her every day. My mother was a scarily smart woman. She expected a lot from me. There were times I felt that I didn’t live up to her expectations. Having said that, there was a deep love between us.”
He still lights candles for his parents every day in the church near his home in Monte Carlo. “They were the greatest parents in the world. They worked so hard to give me my start in life. Without my mother and father, I would have nothing, and I would be nothing.”
He is comforted by the belief he will see his parents again in some sort of afterlife. “There is some rhyme or reason to all of this.”
Flatley danced his last show on St Patrick’s Day, 2016, in Las Vegas. The years of performing record-breaking numbers of shows have taken a toll on his body. “When I moved to the south of France,” Flatley, now 63, says, “I used to run every morning from where I lived down to the port. But now, with the injuries and my back, I can’t do that. I’m afraid it is now a power walk rather than running. It’s harder to get out of bed in the mornings.
“I’m not in constant pain. But neither could I say that I don’t have pain. I have a lot of the pain. My two shoulders need replacing. There is a terrible tear in my right calf muscle.
“I make friends with pain. When I think about the pain it reminds me that I followed my dream. It reminds me that I took my shot. The doctors told me that it would be ugly in my older years.”
After he performed the ‘Feet of Flames’ concert in Budapest in 2000, doctors advised him to stop dancing.
“I’d have been 41 or 42. I didn’t listen to them. I’m still very driven. I will slow down soon.”
But not too soon: he is putting together a flute album – he is an accomplished flautist – a movie Blackbird, and a three-year tour of ‘Lord of the Dance’.
He won’t be dancing himself but he will occasionally be in the wings of one of the biggest dance shows ever created. He has no regrets. “I don’t have time to think about regrets. I’ve got to keep on going and keep on trying. I’m sure I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Too many to list. Life is very short. I don’t dwell on the negatives. I am in the joy business. People leave my shows humming music, going out happy.”
For example, he doesn’t regret introducing his male dance troupe from ‘Lord of the Dance’ to perform at the inauguration of Donald Trump as US president in 2017. Was that not at odds with his pride in being a first generation Irish-American, given Trump’s stand on immigration?
“I am Irish through and through,” he responds. “I’m also born in the States. I have performed for Reagan and for Bush and for the Clintons many times. I did the G8 Summit with Blair, Bush, Putin, and Berlusconi. I’m not into politics. All that stuff is not in my job description. So, for a guy from Chicago, who grew up digging ditches, to get to dance for the president of the United States, it takes a better man than me to say no.”
A lot of people did say no, I say.
“That’s up to them. I didn’t look at it as a left versus right thing. I didn’t look at any of that. I am not a political kind of guy.”
That is not strictly true. “I’m anti-war,” he says, and he has just donated £10,000 to help Irish people in Ukraine.
Flatley’s life in Monte Carlo is a privileged one. The week before we speak, he had flown by private jet to the Arctic with some of his male friends. “I watched the aurora borealis, went swimming in freezing water, fished and felt the power of nature, out in the middle of nowhere at -8C degrees. It’s a great place to go and think.”
He moves in high society, hobnobbing with European royalty – he counts Prince Albert of Monaco as a friend – and their British counterparts. He recalls a dinner at Buckingham Palace with Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, whom he describes as “a lovely couple. Charles has an incredible memory.”
Flatley’s continental home is “unique with a view of the Mediterranean ocean”. His Irish home at Castlehyde has views to match. Back in 2015, he put it on the market with a price tag of €20m, and again in 2019 at a reduced price of €12.5m.
“We were going to sell it because we were only home a few weeks a year because of all the commitments.
“Then we took it off the market completely and then, within a year, a company offered me my original asking price. But there were too many tears around the dinner table.”
“The three of us,” he says, meaning himself, Niamh and their son. “So I turned the offer down. We are going to keep it.”
Indeed, he says, “I want to be buried on the grounds of Castlehyde.”
“My experience with Irish people is that they are so full of emotion. They’re happy. They’re sad. They’re poets. They’re crying. They’re fighting. They’re dancing. They’re winning rugby tournaments. They’re full of emotion and life,” he says, “and I could never understand why they danced with arms rigidly by their sides with no facial expression. And, hopefully, if I have done nothing else, I have changed that.”
He isn’t too concerned about his legacy. “That’s not up to me. The world will judge me as they see fit, and hopefully, it won’t be too harsh.
As the interview nears an end, he recalls what Mary Robinson said in her inaugural address as president in 1990: “I’m of Ireland, come dance with me.”
“And you know what? I took her up on her offer. I did come and dance in Ireland. It was one of proudest moments being accepted by the Irish people.”
‘Lord of the Dance’ runs from May 3-8 at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast. Tickets £32 – £46; waterfront.co.uk
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/if-i-have-been-accused-of-having-a-bit-of-ego-then-maybe-i-deserve-it-michael-flatley-talks-marriage-fatherhood-and-why-he-wont-be-selling-his-23m-mansion-41463263.html ‘If I have been accused of having a bit of ego then maybe I deserve it’ – Michael Flatley talks marriage, fatherhood, and why he won’t be selling his €23m mansion