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Michael Flatley Sr., father to ‘Lord of the Dance,’ founded suburban plumbing business

Michael Flatley Sr., an immigrant whose son Michael Flatley Jr. dug ditches alongside him and went on to become the most famous Irish step-dancer in the world, has died.

Mr. Flatley, 87, a native of Culfadda near Ballymote in County Sligo, Ireland, died Friday of congestive heart failure at his home in the Chicago suburb of Frankfort.

“He was my hero,” Michael Flatley Jr. said from London. “My heart is broken.”

In 1947, Mr. Flatley immigrated to America. He got married in Detroit in 1956 before he and his wife Elizabeth, a native of County Carlow, moved to Chicago.

They started a plumbing business that’s operated in the southwest suburbs for 58 years, Flatley’s Plumbing Express.

“He worked like a dog,” said another son, Patrick. “He just never stopped. Every house we lived in since we were little, he built himself.”

When his five children were growing up, Mr. Flatley used to play Irish music at home, including traditional flute recordings by Seamus Tansey, and Matt Molloy, who would later join the Chieftains. Elizabeth Flatley was a gifted step dancer who performed with her mother, champion dancer Hannah Ryan.

Michael Flatley Jr. started his training at Chicago’s Dennehy School of Irish Dance. In Flatley’s biography, “Lord of the Dance,” his father recalled, “Mike had only been dancing for five weeks when the teacher came over to me and said, ‘You’ve an unusual kid here. I’ve never seen a guy with feet who can dance like that.’ ”

“Then my dad put up a broken mirror for me and my whole world changed,” Flatley said in the book. “Suddenly, I could see myself dance. And I started to think I might someday be good at this.”

He became the first American to win Ireland’s world dance competition, and he was clocked by the Guinness Book of Records as the globe’s fastest tap dancer. Flatley was principal choreographer for the 1995 show “Riverdance,” which became a sensation, with continuous touring companies all over the world.

He was still working for his father’s business when he was training for the world competition.

“At the time, I was still digging ditches for dad, but my father wanted me to win the Irish crown almost as much as I did, so he gave me time off to dance in the garage,” Flatley wrote in his biography.

The plumbing company had a “murderous schedule,” he said. “The Flatleys worked on birthdays, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. We worked in 110 degrees with humidity, the mosquitoes crawling on our backs.”

The younger Flatley’s agility has been attributed in part to the boxing lessons his dad enrolled him in because of neighborhood bullies.

“When after one too many bloody noses my father realized how much fighting was going on, he took my younger brother Patrick and me to boxing classes,” Flatley said.

Michael Flatley Sr. with his wife Elizabeth.
Michael Flatley Sr. with his wife Elizabeth.

In his biography, he recalled his father’s call to arms. “A hero dies once,” Mickey,” he told me. “A coward dies a thousand times.” God help me, I thought he’d made that up himself.”

Mr. Flatley is also survived by his wife Elizabeth; daughters Annie Flatley, Liza Callahan and Thomasina “Thoma” Griffin, 11 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Visitation is planned from 4 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Robert J. Sheehy & Sons Funeral Home in Orland Park. A funeral Mass is planned in Ireland, with burial at St. Mullins Cemetery in County Carlow, Ireland.