Why I'm sure my castle gave me cancer. Michael Flatley reveals the toxic renovation he fears made him ill – and how he's facing a £25m bill to make his home safe again

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  • Flatley’s Lord Of The Dance: A Lifetime Of Standing Ovations tour begins in July
  • READ MORE: Drugs, bitter feuds, tragedies – a new documentary charts the dark side of The Beach Boys’ sunny sound 

Michael Flatley has risen from the ashes many times, his unrelenting drive powering him back from adversity to bigger things. But when the Irish dancing legend was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer 18 months ago he doubted he could do it again.

Thankfully Michael, 65, is now in remission, and squeezing every last drop out of life with a revival of his most successful show, Lord Of The Dance, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2022, and the realisation of some very personal dreams. 

‘It isn’t how many times you go down, it’s how many you get back up,’ he says. ‘After the cancer diagnosis I made a promise to myself: I didn’t want to be lying on my death bed thinking, “I wish I’d tried that or I wish I’d just gone for it.” You never regret the things you did, you regret the things you didn’t do.

‘The tough part of cancer isn’t just the physical, it’s the psychological. I’m always telling my dancers to follow their dreams and for 25 years I promised myself I’d launch an Irish whiskey in honour of my dad. I’ve done it. I’m not going to leave any stone unturned. I’m going to go for it.’

It was the week before Christmas in 2022, after he and his wife Niamh and their son Michael Jr, now 17, had been to Dubai for some sun, that he went for tests at the Princess Grace Hospital in Monaco, where he also has a home. 

Michael Flatley is involved in an ongoing legal battle over what he claims are unsafe levels of toxic chemicals at his 18th-century Irish estate, Castlehyde, in Fermoy, County Cork

Michael Flatley is involved in an ongoing legal battle over what he claims are unsafe levels of toxic chemicals at his 18th-century Irish estate, Castlehyde, in Fermoy, County Cork

Michael Flatley (pictured) starring in Lord Of The Dance in 1996. The show celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2022

Michael Flatley (pictured) starring in Lord Of The Dance in 1996. The show celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2022

‘I never bring my phone to the pool but I had to take a call from a fellow in Ireland,’ he recalls. ‘I’d completely forgotten about the tests but when the phone rang it was my doctor. He said, “Mr Flatley, I have some terrible, terrible news…”

‘He started to explain so I walked away from my sun lounger. My wife was staring at me so I hid behind a bush because I didn’t want her to see my face. He told me where I had the cancer and that it required immediate surgery. 

‘I was thinking to myself, “What have I done to deserve this?” I turned and there was Niamh. She was listening to everything because she loves me. Then she hugged me and everything seemed a little better.’

He underwent surgery in London. ‘I remember lying on the gurney in the freezing cold hospital hallway, looking up at that white ceiling and thinking, “Will I ever come out of this room? Did I give my wife and son a big enough hug? Did I do enough in my life? Have I given enough of myself? Have I helped enough people? Have I followed my dream? Have I done all the things I promised I would do?” 

‘That moment changed my life. When the nurses came back I gave myself a blessing and said, “Dear Lord, I surrender to you. If it’s time, I’m more than happy to go. But please help me have more time with my beautiful wife and son and follow those last few dreams.”

‘You’re going to come up against brick walls in everything; you have to go over or under or round or crash right through them. That’s the attitude I’ve tried to have in life. Nothing is impossible. Just put your head down and keep going. Eliminate naysayers. So I went into surgery thinking, “I’ll be hugging my wife in a few hours.” I thank God that he was good to me and gave me another chance.’

It’s not his first second chance. After an injury during his Feet Of Flames tour in 2000, doctors advised him to stop dancing altogether. He refused to be beaten and continued to perform for another 16 years. 

He had skin cancer in 2003. In 2006, on the eve of the European leg of his Celtic Tiger tour, he was struck by a mystery virus that left him with symptoms ranging from lethargy to joint and muscular pain, and it failed to clear up despite months of rest.

Michael and wife Niamh at their beloved 18th-century Irish estate, Castlehyde

Michael and wife Niamh at their beloved 18th-century Irish estate, Castlehyde

Then he met ‘bio-energy’ healer Michael O’Doherty, whose treatments involve rebalancing the body’s energy system. ‘He’s my secret weapon,’ says Michael. ‘You have no idea how powerful this man is. As soon as he’s done I feel like a million dollars. There’s nobody like him.’

Surviving the latest illness has made Michael more focused than ever. As well as the tour, last month he launched his own Flatley Irish Whiskey label and he’s just finished making Dancelord, a six-part TV series about his life. He’s also creating a new show, Michael Flatley’s Christmas Dance Spectacular.

He’s also involved in an ongoing legal battle over what he claims are unsafe levels of toxic chemicals at his 18th-century Irish estate, Castlehyde, in Fermoy, County Cork.

After a fire in 2016, the family moved out while remediation works were done. But Michael says he and his family suffered ill health after moving back in, and last October they were forced to leave again after experts conducting routine maintenance detected unsafe levels of chloride residue. Michael claims the main renovation contractor, Austin Newport Group Ltd, failed to address the issue. Austin denies the claims.

‘I was one of the fittest people in Ireland,’ says Michael. ‘But when we moved back in I never felt right, and all of a sudden I got cancer. All of a sudden I’ve developed asthma too. How did this happen? We must have been breathing in toxins. We were told to leave immediately and we’ve been living in hotels ever since.’

Michael bought the property for £2.5 million in 1999, when Lord Of The Dance had made him one of the world’s highest-paid performers. He spent an estimated £25 million renovating it, and in October 2006 he and Niamh held their lavish wedding reception there for 250 guests.

But he claims the cost of removing the toxic residue from the property will be £25.6 million. ‘I’ve put an absolute fortune and all my love, energy and focus into that home for 25 years,’ he says. ‘I’ve brought it back to life. It’s heartbreaking.’

It’s all a long way from his humble roots in Chicago, where he was born to Irish emigrés Michael, a plumber, and Elizabeth. He was sent to Irish dance lessons at the age of 11 and just six years later he won the World Irish Dance title. But he was flat broke until his 30s, working on building sites with his brother and their father while continuing to dance.

Everything changed on 30 April 1994, when he and his dance partner Jean Butler gave a seven-minute interval performance of Riverdance at Eurovision in Dublin. By February 1995 it had been developed into a stand-alone show and sold a record 120,000 tickets for a five-week run at the Point Theatre in Dublin.

But by October, on the eve of its second London run, Michael had parted company with the production over an alleged contract dispute. ‘When I got fired from Riverdance I was heartbroken,’ he recalls. ‘I felt so betrayed. My dad called me and I knew I had to break the news.

Michael (pictured this year) has launched his own Flatley Irish Whiskey label and has just  finished making Dancelord, a six-part TV series about his life

Michael (pictured this year) has launched his own Flatley Irish Whiskey label and has just  finished making Dancelord, a six-part TV series about his life

‘But he said to me, “You created Riverdance. Just go and create your own show again. We believe in you.” Every promoter told me lightning doesn’t strike twice and there’s only room for one show like this. But Riverdance was doing theatres – I wanted to go into arenas.’

And so Lord Of The Dance, which has to date sold more than 60 million tickets, was born. In the cast was a dancer called Niamh O’Brien. ‘She was my leading lady, a very special woman. We became best friends years before I asked her out. That’s one of those signs that it would be the happiest marriage in the world.’

Michael, whose legs were once insured for £30 million, hung up his dancing shoes after performing for the last time at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in 2016. But the Flatley magic will return to the UK this summer. 

‘God gave me this little bit of talent to share with the world. He challenged me by knocking me off my high horse when I got fired from Riverdance and gave me the chance to come back and do it all again. My reward was my beautiful wife and son. Who could have imagined an Irish jig would outsell the biggest rock bands in the world? I’m proud of that and all the dancers who give everything to help me achieve my dream.’

  • Michael Flatley’s Lord Of The Dance: A Lifetime Of Standing Ovations tour starts in the UK in July. For further information, go to lordofthedance.com.