Growing up in Kilkenny, Ireland, Ronan Tynan would help his father attach the family's 80 cows to milking machines—and then serenade them with "a lot of unfinished medleys," Tynan recalls. "My dad could never remember the lyrics."
Nowadays Tynan's audiences aren't captive, but they are captivated. As a solo artist (his first U.S. CD, My Life Belongs to You, was released in January) and member of the Irish Tenors (the trio has sold more than 1 million albums since 1998), Tynan stands out as "an amazing interpreter of sound," says music producer Bill Hughes, who hand-picked Tynan for the Tenors, which also includes Anthony Kearns, 30, and Finbar Wright, 44. "His passion for life has translated into vocal talent."
As Tynan, 41, chronicles in his recent autobiography, Halfway Home: My Life 'til Now, it also has translated into an ability to overcome staggering odds. Born with deformed feet and legs, Tynan had both legs amputated below the knee after a motorbike accident at age 20. Despite his handicaps, he became a world-class athlete, as well as a doctor, before pursuing a singing career in 1994. He is "very inspiring," says former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who had Tynan perform at several Sept. 11 memorials. "Unless you're told, you don't know he's dealing with a disability."
Except for when he has to stand for a long time, such as during concerts. Then, says Tynan, who wears prostheses, "the sweat just pours off me." Walking gracefully is also difficult. In a 1996 Royal Dublin Society concert hall staging of Madama Butterfly, Tynan moved toward his costar during the death scene and "landed on her like a ton of bricks," he says. "A stagehand said, 'Well, if she wasn't dead, she surely is now!'"
Tynan's ability to brush off the experience stems from an iron will forged in childhood. The youngest of three surviving siblings born to Edmond, a farmer (now deceased), and Therese, 74, a retired dietitian, Tynan lost his fraternal twin brother to pneumonia at 11 months. He was also born with bilateral phocomelia, a rare birth defect in which the bones of the lower legs are stunted. Tynan required artificial limbs to walk and as a teenager "was never selected for sports teams," he says. "That was worse than being called a name."
With the support of his father, who "worshiped the ground I walked on to the point where I believed it," says Tynan, he took up horseback riding and became a champion show jumper before entering Dublin's University College in 1980. Ten weeks after his arrival, Tynan crashed his motorbike into a stalled car. The accident severely damaged his back; to avoid being confined to a wheelchair, he had his legs amputated so that prosthetic limbs could straighten his spine. "I'll never forget pulling back the sheets and seeing the stumps," Tynan says. "It was as if a part of me was dead."
Once again, Edmond Tynan was there for his son. "He said, 'You'll come out of this and blaze your own trail,'" Tynan recalls. He did. Eighteen months later he began competing in the Paralympics and World Amputee Games in events like the shot put and the long jump, winning 18 gold medals in eight years.
In 1993 Tynan graduated from medical school at Dublin's Trinity College. Around the same time, "the singing bug got ahold of me," says Tynan, who occasionally performed at parties. After winning a BBC television talent contest, Tynan studied opera in Germany and England; four years later he landed a recording contract.
The triumph was bittersweet: Five months before the release of his first solo album, the platinum-selling Ronan Tynan, and his subsequent signing as one of the Tenors, he lost his father to complications from a stroke. Tynan sang at the funeral. "I had promised him I'd give him his own private going-away concert," he says.
Tynan, who is single and shuttles between a one-bedroom New York City apartment and a 17th-century stone farmhouse in Kilkenny, wants one day to become a father himself. "It's the biggest dream of my life," he says. "I want my children to be able to look at me and say, 'He was able to do that—and so can I.'"
Debbie Seaman in New York City
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine