Is there anyone more Irish-American than Michael Flatley?
The man who almost single-handedly transformed Irish dancing into a global phenomenon came from a humble background – a run-down neighborhood in Chicago’s southside.
The "Lord of the Dance" star has always acknowledged the huge impact his parents have had in shaping his career and life. His father, Michael, came from Culfadda, Co. Sligo, and his mother Eilish from Co. Carlow. They left Ireland in 1947 for Chicago “with nothing, like most Irish people,” according to their son.
They worked hard at their construction business, through punishing summers and freezing winters.
“We worked seven days a week, including holidays, we didn't go on unemployment benefit but we made it,” Flatley told a conference in 2007. “We didn't bitch about the guy next door who was richer because he sold his house for more money and we didn't bitch about the guy down the street who might be poorer. That is the sign of the Irish spirit.”
Flatley was surrounded by Irish culture from an early age. Both his mother and his grandmother, Hannah Ryan, were good Irish dancers, he has said.
He took his first Irish dancing steps at the age of four in his grandmother’s home in Co. Carlow. When he became a successful dancer, a front row seat at his shows would always be left empty, in silent tribute to the woman who encouraged him when things were tough.
“She once visited me in Chicago in an ice cold winter,” he said. “At that time I was completely broke, working occasional jobs for a couple of bucks an hour, dreaming of becoming the greatest dancer in the world. It was she who encouraged me to make my life special and to dance. Two weeks later she died. The empty seat is a sign of my respect to her, for I believe she is still watching me.”
The young Flatley started Irish dancing lessons at the age of 11, and as a youngster, he would return to Ireland frequently. He competed in local feisanna (Irish dancing competitions) in Sligo, winning trophies three years in a row, 1975, 1976 and 1977. In 1975, he won the All-Ireland World Championship in Irish dancing – the first non-European resident to do so.
“I still have great memories of Sligo feiseanna,” Flatley said, when he was made a Freeman of Sligo last year. “When we were first beginners, the people here were so kind, they realized how embarrassing it was for us and made us feel good going home.” And he learned Irish music in his father's construction truck. He would later tour with Irish traditional music groups whenever he got the chance.
Today, he lives a quieter life, spending much of his time in Co. Cork with his wife Niamh, also an Irish dancer, and their son Michael St. James. The couple married in 2006 in Fermoy, Co. Cork. The Chieftains, with whom Flatley toured with in the early part of his career, provided the music at the wedding.
The couple lives in an historic old house called Castle Hyde Estate, which they have restored to its former 18th century glory. In 2007, he awarded the Freedom of the City of Cork.