Michael Flatley on cancer, castles and his next grand ambition

Michael Flatley on cancer, castles and his next grand ambition

Michael Flatley is on the mend. The ‘Lord of the Dance’ may not currently be in his castle — more of which later — but after a string of bad news, not least a cancer diagnosis, he is now “firing on all cylinders”.

“I’ve got a few health issues to deal with but I’m very positive about everything and I have every belief I will return to full health,” the 65-year-old says with typical bullishness. 

“I am a man of faith, and I believe I am being helped through this and I keep a positive state of mind.”

There is no questioning that positivity — it is huge, practically outsized. Almost every single answer to every question has an almost evangelical sheen to it, about the power of good thoughts, the healing power of nature, how things will come right again. 

As he says, “I don’t focus energies on what might go wrong or could go wrong but rather on how great I feel”.

Yet there have been some lows of late. In January last year, he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. He had been diagnosed with a malignant melanoma 20 years previously, from which he fully recovered. 

It seems he is now on the road to recovery a second time, but he admits that it has been a testing time and one that has potentially amplified his religious faith.

“I am a believer,” he says, “Even heading into my surgery, I absolutely believed that God would guide me through it.

“I’m not going to say I wasn’t scared or nervous going in, that’s natural, a natural human reaction. If God wants to take me, he can take me any time.

“Even at the last few minutes [before going under the general anaesthetic], I was thinking ‘have I done enough, have I done all the things I wanted to establish in my life?’”

Regarding the initial diagnosis, he says: “It was an awful shock — I remember speaking with the doctor and being flabbergasted at some of the things he had told me.

Michael Flatley in his pomp onstage.
Michael Flatley in his pomp onstage.

He is clearly optimistic that a full recovery is in view, and with it, fresh plans. 

Since bursting into the national consciousness as part of the all-conquering Riverdance back in 1994, Flatley has rarely been out of our eyeline since. The Lord of the Dance, Feet of Flames, Celtic Tiger — his shows toured the world time and again, and at one point his legs were insured for a cool €50m-plus.

Retirement in 2017 did little to slow him down as he embarked on a string of projects. 

However, as he recovers from his health concerns, there has also been a high-profile legal action in relation to his Castlehyde home on the banks of the Blackwater, Co. Cork, and the sad passing of his former partner, Lisa Murphy, in February of this year. 

Flatley was among the mourners at her funeral and has previously paid tribute to her.

The High Court proceedings he filed against a contractor, and insurers, regarding Castlehyde, is clearly foremost in his mind. 

Flatley has claimed that his family had to leave the period property after an alleged hazardous chemical residue was detected there, telling the court it would take many millions of euro and years of work to repair.

The matter is in the hands of the court now, but Flatley says, “I am fully confident that we will be back in that house.”

“It just breaks my heart,” he continues. “I find one of the most beautiful places in the world, in North Cork. Walking by that river [the Blackwater], my imagination runs wild there,” 

For his ocean swimming elsewhere, read a daily dip in the Blackwater when he is in Ireland. “When I get into that river every morning, it just lights me up.”

He says he “paid a fortune” to put the property in order on first buying it, and now he and his wife and their son “can’t go near the place”.

“It is heartbreaking not to have a home to come back to in Ireland”.

It all feels like a challenge, though Flatley is no stranger to those. 


Born in Detroit to parents from Co Sligo and Co Carlow, he grew up in South Chicago and at the age of 17 became the first American-born contestant to win a World Irish Dance title. 

His mother, Hannah Ryan, had been a champion dancer herself, while his dad, Michael James, was a plumber. 

While the dancing genes may have been on the maternal side, it is the father figure which seems to have inspired Flatley’s latest venture — whiskey.

“When I was maybe six or seven, my father was my hero,” he explains. “He was a big, strong Irishman, with huge big muscles from working on construction sites. He would come home every day and I’d be waiting for him. He had one shot of whiskey every night, never two, and it had to be Irish. In 1999, when I bought Castlehyde, the first thing I did was bring in barrels to make my own whiskey.”

Michael Flatley. For Vickie/Weekend
Michael Flatley. For Vickie/Weekend

People will have to wait for the quarter-century stuff to materialise, as Flatley Whiskey will kick off with a five-year-old blend which he says is “something I really, truly believe in”. 

He is quick to pay tribute to the team behind it and emphasises how he involved women centrally in the tasting process to help broaden its appeal. 

He delights in retelling how his mother-in-law — not one typically for a dram of whiskey — was persuaded to try his new creation and having finished her first drop, came back for a little more.

As for his own intake, he says, “I have a drink or two, but I won’t have 10.”

He continues to “live clean” and still works out a little every day, though not to the same extent as he did 10 years ago. The cancer diagnosis means he has a message for ‘the lads’ out there — “for God’s sake, just get checked out”.

No one could accuse Flatley of letting the grass grow under his feet. He is an ambassador for Breakthrough Cancer Research and has a big UK tour starting in July, while he was recently at the World Irish Dancing Championships in Killarney and Glasgow with the Michael Flatley freestyle dance award. 

He was also recently presented with the Ireland-US Council’s award for Outstanding Achievement in the Performing Arts at a ceremony in New York. In what seems a pivotal year in American politics, he says he doesn’t want to comment on any possible change in Irish-American political outlook.

“I spent the last 30 years promoting Ireland globally and promoting Irish culture,” he says, “I had 30 years of standing ovations doing that which makes me a very happy man — politics is not my game and I don’t think it’s right for me to discuss that.”

As for fans of cult cinema, he says there may be a sequel to his 2018 film Blackbird, which was released in 2022.

“I have been offered other films, we may make Blackbird 2,” Flatley says. 

Michael Flatley onstage.
Michael Flatley onstage.

The movie, which Flatley financed and directed, took a critical pasting and the gap between its production and eventual release seemed to imbue it with an air of mystery. 

Flatley admits that “one or two critics may not have liked it”, but adds, “Every person I have met on the street who has seen that movie loved it.”

A man who could have taken his lightning-quick feet into the boxing ring, Flatley seems to have rolled with the punches. 

With the launch of his whiskey, which is being bottled in Cork, he says, “I will be toasting to my father and my son. It is called Flatley, named after my father and father’s father and his father and also my son, and I am proud of that.”

After and amid everything that has happened, he is clear that “we are all heading in the same direction”, all heading for the exit, with some maybe closer to it than others. Yet he has the air of someone not walking through that particular door for a long time yet.

  • Priced at a RRP of €45, Flatley Irish Whiskey is now available in stores, Supervalu, bars and hotels throughout the island of Ireland, and online at flatleywhiskey.com. @FlatleyWhiskey on Instagram and Facebook

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