Irish music helped birth American country music and influenced world culture. And the Irish have always viewed traditional music as a good way to make a living.
But until “Riverdance” and Michael Flatley’s Las Vegas-style stage extravaganzas, Irish dance was something kids used to do for a little while, like T-Ball or soccer, until they grew up.
Elizabeth “Eilish” Flatley, an immigrant from Ireland’s County Carlow who settled in the Chicago area, had a role in keeping Irish dance alive and contributing to its avant-garde evolution. She raised five children, and one, Michael, became the world’s most famous Irish dancer, prowling stages with a grace and machismo that helped popularize it and make it an acceptable pastime for boys who, in previous generations, might have shied from jigs, reels and hornpipes.
Mrs. Flatley was “a fantastic dancer,” as was her mother, Hannah Ryan, Michael Flatley said. “We were blessed that my mother and my grandmother both carried on the tradition and gave us the opportunity to do something that is uniquely Irish,” he said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.
A Frankfort resident, Mrs. Flatley died Wednesday at Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox. She was 81.
“Her heart gave out,” Flatley said.
“What I’ll always remember, every time anybody walked in that door, she put her two arms out and made you feel so welcome,” he said. “She was just so loving.”
She grew up Elizabeth “Eilish” Ryan, an only child in Dranagh, near the town of St. Mullins and the picturesque Blackstairs Mountains of County Carlow. Flatley said their farm has “been in the family for hundreds of years.” The Ryans had a tradition of sporting vigor. In addition to her step-dancing mother, “My grandfather [Patrick] was a champion hammer-thrower and discus-thrower,” he said.
In 1947, the same year as Michael Flatley Sr., she and her parents left Ireland for better opportunities. She met Flatley’s father, who was from near Ballymote in County Sligo, at an Irish dance in Detroit. They married in 1956 and lived in a one-room apartment.
“It was very difficult, very hard to get by. Nobody had money. After World War II that was just the way it was,” she said in her son’s 2006 autobiography, “Lord of the Dance.” The Flatleys had five children within seven years.
In 1960, after moving to the Chicago area, they started a plumbing company. Through unrelenting hard work they built it into a business now run by their son Patrick. She used to answer three phones at a time at Flatley’s Plumbing Express.
“My father and my mother worked together year after year,” Michael Flatley said. “They never took weekends off. They never took holidays off. We didn’t have nannies or housekeepers or baby sitters. She did it all.”
They kept the plumbing business going “in that freezing cold and that searing Chicago heat,” their son said. “I’m so, so proud of them.”
“What a fabulous relationship,” he said. “Sixty years to be married to the same person.” Michael Flatley Sr. died in 2015.
Their son, who graduated from Brother Rice High School in 1977, was still working for his father’s business as he trained for Ireland’s world dance competition. He credits his mother for motivating him. “I would have deep conversations with her,” he said. “She was always so encouraging. She would always say, ‘Of course you can do it!’ ”
As a teen, he became the first American to win the world dance contest. He was clocked by the Guinness World Records as the globe’s fastest tap dancer at 28 taps a second, and later, 35.
Flatley was principal choreographer for the 1995 show “Riverdance,” which became a sensation, with continuous touring companies all over the world. He went on to create the shows “Lord of the Dance,” “Feet of Flames” and “Celtic Tiger,” with upper-body movement previously unseen in Irish dance, and global influences including flamenco and hip-hop. At one point in 2000, he was earning $1.6 million a week, according to Guinness World Records.
His mother was a constant supportive presence. In Flatley’s autobiography, she explained her pride in his impact on Irish dance, saying, “He made it a viable, an acceptable thing for people to do, where, before Michael, it was all done behind closed doors. It was almost like something to be ashamed of. He made it the in thing to do, and it has been extended and brought up and developed and it makes money for people. Finally, it’s an acceptable form of entertainment.”
“She came all over the world to see the shows,” Flatley said. But her tastes remained humble. Her son said her favorite meal was a tuna fish sandwich and chocolate milk.
In addition to her sons, Mrs. Flatley is also survived by daughters Annie Flatley, Liza Callahan and Thomasina “Thoma” Griffin; 11 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Visitation is 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday Dec. 31 at Sheehy & Sons Funeral Home, 9000 W. 151st St., Orland Park. Mass and burial are planned at St. Mullins Cemetery in County Carlow, Flatley said, “the graveyard where my father was buried, and where my mother will join him.”