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June 2019
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2004-01-04 White light hits right note for a star

from the Irish Sunday Independent

'YOU just buy your maple floor kit. It's dead simple to lay. It all just clicks together."

The apparently flawless maple floor in Niall Morris's favourite room - the sitting room in his apartment near Collins Barracks, Dublin 7 - could give the impression that Niall is a professional handyman, but the rueful words which immediately follow ("always start with the smallest room because you learn by your mistakes") and a quick pointing out of a few iffy areas demonstrate that maybe he's not quite an expert, but it's impressive nonetheless. As is the decking he put down on the balcony and the flat-pack furniture he carefully assembled. He even has a jigsaw, for God's sake. And we're not talking a kit of cut-up pictures here.

Somehow you don't expect a young international singing star - whose uniform is an Armani suit and who tours the world staying in top hotels, appearing on TV and at all the top venues - to be laying his own floors. But it soon becomes apparent that Niall is a resourceful young man, and although he's only in his mid-thirties ("I always lie about how old I am; it's become a habit so I keep forgetting my real age," he announces cheerfully), he's achieved a huge amount.

His own name alone rings bells with his many fans, but the name of his group - the Celtic Tenors, (made up of himself and his two partners, James Nelson and Matthew Gilsensan) - strikes a chord with everyone. And more than likely you will have either heard or seen them perform. You may even have one of their best-selling albums in your CD player. The group has been together for seven years, but Niall has been performing since he was a child. "I was in loads of things. I was a boy soprano so I was in all these big gala events like Mendelssohn's Elijah in the National Concert Hall." He even had a brush with fame at a very early age.

Originally from Dundrum in Dublin, he went to school in Wesley. "When I left school, I won the composer's competition with RTE and I was teamed up with a young singer-songwriter. We'd work together, lay down tracks, that kind of thing, but I didn't think it was going anywhere. I got a scholarship to the Guild Hall School of Music and went off to London. I was about 17 at the time. Some time later I turn on the TV, and who do I see has made it huge but my singer-song writer friend who happened to be Enya," he laughs, adding, "

Her story - splitting up with the family group, Clannad, making such a huge success after going solo, Oscar nominations - it's amazing." He's quick to add that going to England was good for him; he had some pretty amazing experiences himself. At 19 he auditioned for the International Opera School and was one of only 12 to be picked from all over Europe. After three years there he got taken up by the Almeida Theatre (the one famous for casting Hollywood stars like Nicole Kidman and Kevin Spacey in its dramas), and he acted in some very interesting productions, including a particularly successful HMS Pinafore. His picture was even made the poster to advertise the show; he points it out on the wall of his apartment, and says, laughing, "I did get somewhat typecast as a sailor."

He worked solidly for 10 years in show business in England, but a falling-out with his agent about the kind of parts he should do made him take stock of his career and he decided to come home to Dublin. Considering he had been doing so well, it seemed a bizarre move. "It was a crazy thing to do," Niall agrees, and adds, "but it turned out to be the best thing I ever did. Now, though I still love London, when I go there I can't believe that I actually lived there, it seems so alien to me as a home." Almost the minute he came back to Dublin he teamed up with James Nelson, an old friend from Wesley, and they found Matthew - who was a young protegé of the school of music - and they formed their group. "We used to be called The Three Irish Tenors; so when the other trio, The Irish Tenors, got a foothold in America we were devastated. But by a stroke of luck we were taken by Pat Egan [manager and impresario with 30 years' experience] to the boardroom of EMI and they immediately signed us to an international record deal. We decided to concentrate on Europe 'cause the other guys were in the US." Their first album was number one in Germany and number two in the classical charts in Britain (pipped by Russell Watson). As well as recording they've toured extensively, which involved weeks on the road sleeping on their tour bus.

At the other extreme they've guested on top-class cruises and saw really exotic places while living in luxury. During that time they stuck with the name The Three Irish Tenors. Then they, too, got a show on public television in the States. "It ran on 198 stations and EMI said it would be best to change the name to Celtic Tenors. Actually I'd like to get rid of 'tenors' altogether. Ours is not a tenor repertoire. We sing Jimmy McCarthy, Andrea Bocelli, Queen." But the name Celtic Tenors is working for them, and if it ain't broke . . . As well as consistently touring, they've recorded three albums and the third is number six in the Top Ten Crossover Charts in the US.

They also recently recorded with The Dubliners; the track was released in Germany, but the American release is being saved for St Patrick's Day. As you would. They haven't quite cracked America, but they're chipping away. If it all sounds a bit too good to be true, Niall admits he has had his failures and rejections and is not afraid or too shy to elaborate on them. He still gets embarrassed when he thinks of Masterclass, a show in the West End about Maria Callas for which he auditioned for a fantastic part opposite the star playing Callas. "I was so close, down to the last two, but they kept telling me, 'We love you, we love you, we love you,' that I told everyone I had got the part. Not." Events like a recent concert, where he sang the dramatic Caruso in front of thousands in the musikhalle in Hamburg, and The Abbey centenary Gala two weeks ago in New York at which they were among the star performers, help to put the rejections in perspective. "John McColgan of Riverdance, who is the chairman of the Abbey Centenary Board, had heard us at Clontarf Castle and he asked us to sing at his father's funeral. That was in 1999. Then Pat Egan invited him to our show in the Gaiety; we met again and I suppose we made the connection then. He said 'we have to do something sometime' and the Abbey Gala was it."

The globetrotting is great, but Niall loves his downtime too and he considers himself very lucky that he settled enough to buy an apartment two years ago in Dublin 7. He adores the location - at most a 15-minute walk from O'Connell Street - and is thrilled too with the fact that the one-bedroom apartment has a huge balcony overlooking the quiet courtyard. And he's quite proud of the way he's managed to put his own stamp on the decor. The colour scheme was very deliberate. "White white white - none of your old eggshell, I want plain white." Some of the furniture is white, like the Ron Arad chair which is great because it can go inside as well as out; "It's bloody uncomfortable, but it looks good." Niall thinks it would have been ridiculous to have gone for a white sofa, so he opted for oatmeal.

The furnishings are completed with a maple and glass coffee table and a maple and glass computer cabinet from Foko, plus dining chairs covered in white. All that white light wood and glass could have added up to a bland finish, but the many artefacts Niall has picked up here and on his travels add colour, interest and humour. There's a llama from Patagonia, a pecking hen from a local craft shop, and several rocking horses - one from Marrakesh. "I think I've got a rocking horse thing going on." These pieces are lined on shelves, little tables and on the radiator covers, also made by Niall. It transpires that he inherited his way with woodwork from his father. "He's really handy. He was actually a sound man in RTE, then he did a night degree course in UCD, won a medal and got a scholarship to an ivy league college. He's an anthropologist; he lived with Indians for a while.

"My parents separated when I was five and it was difficult to think of him as my father as he had what we thought of as strange ways: he liked carrot juice and lentils and Indian music. He's actually an incredibly gifted man." Like father, like son then.