By Eileen Murphy
You might say that Ronan Tynan doesn’t know the meaning of the word quit. Or the word surrender. Or the word can’t.
That’s not to imply that the affable Kilkenny native is ill-read. The 39-year-old Tynan is a qualified physical education teacher, a licensed medical doctor, an accomplished horseman, a world class operatic tenor and the holder of 14 world records in the Special Olympics.
He is also a double amputee who uses a pair of prosthetic legs to get around.
"I’ve always believed that I could do anything if I wanted it badly enough," Tynan said during a telephone interview from his home in Ireland last week. "I don’t set limits for myself. I always find a way to do what I want to do. I might have to go about it a different way, but I get there eventually," he said.
Tynan paused, then let out a short bark of laughter.
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"I guess I don’t believe in ‘can’t,’" he said.
Tynan’s life was the subject of a 1998 RTE documentary, "Dr. Courageous," which will be broadcast in the New York area on WLIW Channel 21 on Sunday, Aug. 22 at 10:40 p.m., directly following an encore broadcast of "The Irish Tenors" at 8 p.m.
In the documentary, Tynan discusses his disability, his accomplishments and his relationship with his family. The most fascinating aspect of the film is the glimpse into Tynan’s bond with his late father, Edmond.
"We were the best of buddies," Tynan said. "We had a bond that was like no other. I could feel the love in him. He just seemed to take great delight in me.
"It wasn’t until later in life that I saw his inner strength," Tynan said, slowly. "No child growing up sees his father’s real talents or his real strength. But in later life, when I was about 18 or 19, I realized that this small man had something special inside him — he had a real affection for me."
Tynan was born with a bilateral abduction of both ankles and a failure of the fibula bone to completely form. This meant that his ankles and lower legs were weak and deformed. He could walk only with the aid of prosthetic devices.
"I had artificial appliances, prosthesis, which restored me to natural height for my age," Tynan recalled. "I used to attend a hospital in London to get them. As you can imagine, as a young child I grew quite quickly, so it was a natural progression. It was like getting new shoes every three or four months."
Tynan grew up in a normal and loving family environment. The senior Tynan encouraged his son, from an early age, to develop his innate talents. Tynan’s mother, Therese, was determined to make sure that her son excelled academically.
"They were wonderful," Tynan said. "Together, they provided a great balance. My father would be the more human side, and my mother would be the more educational side."
"My parents made no differences between me and my sister Fiona or my brother Tom," he said. "I went to a normal school. I wore short pants with my appliances. My father bought me a white pony and taught me to ride."
Children were sometimes cruel, and Tynan endured his share of taunts. When other kids tried to bully him, he would not be cowed.
"What other kids said never bothered me, because I was well able to fend for myself," he said with a laugh. "I was always encouraged to do that at home. My mother would say, ‘Deal with it, Ronan, because you’re well capable. And she was right.
"There was a great word we used in our family — independence," Tynan said. The family stressed self-reliance, and the key to success was focusing on the task at hand.
But Tynan preferred riding horses to studying his lessons.
"I didn’t like school," he admitted. "Very often, my mother would drop me off at school and as soon as she was gone out the door, I’d be off to the local stables and on a horse."
Tynan laughed at the memory. "My father found out about that. One day, I was riding in a race and he said to me afterwards, ‘How’s school?’ It was unusual, asking a question like that on a Sunday afternoon."
Edmond knew that his son had been ducking classes, but he chose to deal with it diplomatically.
"I’ll tell you what we’ll do," he told his teenage son. "Next year, you’ll go back to boarding school and we’ll deal with everything then."
"I think deep inside, he also had that same streak of truancy," Tynan mused. "My father never went past his primary education, because in Ireland, the sons of farmers were often pushed into the farms whether they liked it or not. But he wanted something different for me."
Tynan suffered back problems as he grew older, which made participation in equestrian sports increasingly difficult. But it was a motorcycle accident when he was 20 years old that changed his life irrevocably.
"I collided with a car," Tynan recalled. "I ended up sitting on the roof of the car, having smashed my leg and my arm. It moved things a lot faster. The decision for the amputation was made very quickly after that."
Tynan traveled to London to meet with specialists and decide what to do about his legs and back. True to his independent upbringing, he made the trip alone
"No one else can make the decision for your limbs to be amputated," he said. "I told my parents that I wanted to go on my own, because I wanted to make all these decisions myself. I didn’t want to blame anybody else later on, if things turned out badly. What would give me the right to throw that off on anybody else?" he asked.
"You have to accept the fact that it’s the best thing that can happen to you, if it’s going to be for your betterment. And I knew it would ultimately benefit me. I knew I’d walk again. I knew I’d be fine."
The amputation was the most horrific time of Tynan’s young life. "The pain was unreal," he said simply. "But you get over pain — physical pain, that is. I grew up with a positive nature, and it still stands to me. And I owe that to both my parents."
In 1981, Tynan was the first disabled person accepted into the physical education program at Thomond College in Limerick.
"That year was declared The Year for the Disabled," Tynan recalled. "I had to meet the same academic criteria as everyone else going into the college and they assessed my physical mobility. I met the minimum physical standard for entry and, I tell you, it was bloody hard work. But I was determined not just to walk, but to run."
Olympic gold medalist
While at university, Tynan developed an interest in track and field, including running, javelin and discus throwing. He was also still riding competitively, and entered the Special Olympics. He won a number of gold medals and holds 14 world records.
"I was heavily involved in competitive sports for about 10 years," he said. "During that time, I went from European champion to world champion. I enjoyed it, but you get to a point where you say, that’s it, good man, close the book; it’s time to move on."
Tynan graduated with degrees in science and physical education. But he had no desire to be a teacher.
"I knew there was a wide world out there, and I wanted to see it," he laughed. "I took a job in London, working for a medical company, because I had been involved in the design of artificial feet.
"After a year, I decided that I wanted to go to be a doctor. That meant I had to go back to school. My dad nearly died of shock, he thought I was daft.
"He was happy to see me settled in a career with a pension. A good life with a car, a house, stability. And now here I was, chucking it all to spend another six years in school. Throwing it all in the air to do more study. But in the end, he was very supportive."
Tynan was accepted to Trinity College Medical School in Dublin in 1985. He studied sports medicine, and after graduation, planned to launch his own practice. But the pull of music was strong.
Always a singer
"I always sang when I was growing up," said Tynan. "I sang to the cows when I was milking them. I sang at parties, at the pub, anywhere. My dad and I sang together, and we had a wonderful time.
"The most beautiful thing about him was that he was so proud of me when I’d compete in the sports field or when I qualified as a doctor or later when I started to sing. Sometimes. He’d literally be dumbstruck, but he’d give me a big hug and he’d whisper to me that I was great. And I’d return the compliment. We’d often sing together with arms enfolded or embraced. It was an unusual relationship, and a lovely one."
With his trademark determination, Tynan entered a competition on the BBC talent search show, "Go For It!" in 1994. His voice blew the judges away, and he was declared the winner. For the first time, Tynan thought seriously about a musical career. Though eager to study opera, Tynan knew he couldn’t afford the tuition for the yearlong course at Royal National Opera School in Manchester. His fellow doctors, impressed by his talent and determination, scraped the money together. Tynan’s medical career was put on hold, for the time being.
Tynan appeared in many opera productions in England, while maintaining a lively concert schedule in Ireland. He entered a number of competitions, and won the John McCormack Cup, among others. He was most encouraged by kind words from his idol, Luciano Pavarotti, who heard him sing at a competition, and remarked that Tynan had "a pure voice."
Tynan returned to Ireland to resume his medical practice, opening the Brittas Clinic in Johnstown, next door to a veterinary clinic. "The four-legged ones go in there," he joked. "The two-legged ones come to me."
Tynan’s rapport with his patients stems from an intimate understanding of their pain, and a desire to help them recover. He feels that empathy is a more valuable tool than sympathy in the doctor-patient relationship.
"The nature of the healer is in itself sympathetic." he said. "That aspect doesn’t have to be fed — it’s already there. What I bring to my patients is empathy.
"It’s more important that your patients feel that you have an understanding of what pain is," he said. "That you’ve been there. That you know what their trials are. That you’ll be able to tell them what’s going to happen, and what has to be done to get them on their feet again.
"At the end of the day," he said, "they’re not coming to you for your sympathy. They want your cure!"
Tynan’s musical career has taken off in the past three years, to the point where he’s considered taking it up full time. He’s recorded a solo album, and recently played the demanding role of Pinkerton in a production of "Madame Butterfly."
"I love performing," he said with a laugh. "When I walked out onto the stage of Madison Square Garden, [for the Irish Tenors concert last month] it was the biggest venue I’d ever played to. It was amazing. I was nearly dumbfounded."
Tynan and the other two tenors, John McDermott and Anthony Kearns, got along famously behind the scenes.
"It was phenomenal," he said. "We’re all so different, but we had a blast together. In fact, I just treated Anthony today, for a back problem. I straightened him up a little bit, and gave him some advice about alignment and posture."
This idea struck Tynan as hilarious, and he was off into gales of laughter.
"Can you imagine me," he chuckled, "giving someone else advice about posture?"