- 03 Apr 19
Philip Lynott broke down racial barriers in Ireland to an extraordinary degree – but as regular racist incidents show, we still have a long way to go as a society.
I was thinking about Philip Lynott last week. Had he lived, the great Irish rock star would be 70 years of age, on 20 August 2019. Seventy fucking years. To anyone who knew him well, that is an astonishing thought.
I know that it isn’t literally true to say that Philip was the first black man in Ireland. But he was. Ireland was a frighteningly white, mono-cultural place in the 1960s. A few Italians had come here to run restaurants. And a smattering of people from Pakistan and China had also slipped in, to join the non-existent culinary fun, running establishments of occasionally dubious pedigree. Or maybe that was just the Irish stomachs they served.
But of black people there were more or less none. In a way, that should not be surprising. The population of Ireland had been in continual decline from 1851 onwards, the only census that showed an increase occurring in 1951 – and that ‘upward surge’ amounted to just .3%. So why would anyone have come here from places like Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal or Jamaica? This was an economic backwater that couldn’t provide work for its own citizens – who were leaving in droves – never mind anyone from far-flung, unfamiliar places...
I don’t know how I missed it. A report published in 2018, titled ‘Being Black in the EU’, revealed that Ireland ranked second worst in Europe for violent incidents against black people. An extraordinary 13% of black people in Ireland reported that they had been attacked. In England the figure was just 3%. Over half (51%) of people of African descent said that they had experienced hate-motivated harassment compared to 21% in the UK. My gut might say: fuck, that can’t be true. Then again, I have seen enough racism here to know that it exists.
When Philip Lynott, son of Philomena Lynott and Cecil Parris from British Guiana, arrived in Dublin from England as a kid, he was literally landing in a foreign country. Thankfully, as one black dude – by which we mean black or, like Philip, mixed race – in a room of 40 at school, he hardly represented a threat. And besides, collections were constantly being made in Irish schools and churches for “the little black babies.” It is cringe-inducing to think of that conceit now (the money was being collected for the Catholic Church and its ‘missionaries’) but looked at in one way, Philip was like an emissary of sorts – one of those mythical kids from elsewhere made flesh. For Dublin people, accepting him seems to have proven relatively easy.
By the time Philip was in his teens, black music had exploded into the mainstream of pop culture. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones acknowledged the British beat boom’s debt to Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Tamla Motown had arrived and The Supremes, The Four Tops and Martha and The Vandellas (among many more) were having hit records. So too were the great soul singers, artists like Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, James Brown and Wilson Pickett.
To a kid growing up in Ireland back then, black music was like a pulse from another planet – one that had far more going for it than the narrow, pokey, priest-ridden, anti-sensual, antiseptic, asexual one we were forced to fluther around with, in the grey old island we inhabited at the time.
I remember the first moment I saw Philip onstage – at a ‘dance’, as they were called – in CUS hall, on Leeson Street in Dublin. He was the lead singer with Skid Row then, with Brush Shiels on bass, Noel Bridgeman on drums and Gary Moore on guitar. They were brilliant that night. The band was hot. But it was Philo, out front, who was the magnetic focal point.
A game of football recently. The opposition doesn’t matter. They were Dublin lads, most of them from a relatively under-privileged working class community to the west of the city. There wasn’t a non-Irish face among them. I mean no disrespect: that’s just the arithmetic.
In contrast, Hot Press was represented by players from Spain, Brazil, Mexico, the Congo (via Belgium), Portugal, Nigeria, Albania, Algeria and Ireland. It was a good, hard-fought, competitive cup game. There was a bit of needle at times, but that’s to be expected. At one point, however, the opposition goalkeeper came racing off his line, in response to some tangle. “Check their fucking passports,” he said. “Send them home.” Either the referee didn’t hear it or he pretended not to. As it happens, some of these guys have lived in Ireland since they were 2 or 3. Many are Irish or European citizens. Others are students. All of them are on valid visas and work permits.
But even if they weren’t, the racist intent would have been the same. It is not the first time we have experienced it on a football field. And it will not be the last. But it is equally disturbing every time, this vein of pure hatred. It made the news when the Irish international footballer, Cyrus Christie, was racially abused on social media, following his own goal (not his fault) in the 5-1 drubbing by Denmark in the World Cup play-off in Dublin. But the truth is that racist abuse happens weekly on football pitches all over Ireland. I’m not sure why, but I had imagined that we were better than this. Apparently not.
Even at that early stage in his career, Philip Lynott had charisma to burn. He looked the part, his tight curls and the fact that he was black adding to the mystique for any casual rube, like me, who was looking on. He threw unforgettable shapes. Skid Row played ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, The Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’ and Jimi Hendrix’s ‘If 6 Was 9’. Philo made all the right moves. He was a star. I went home feeling that I’d made a connection: to what, I wasn’t quite yet sure, but I knew that it was special.
He was our Little Richard, our Stevie Wonder and our Jimi Hendrix all rolled into one. Just by stepping out onstage, Philip Lynott made Ireland seem like a far bigger, more cosmopolitan and worthwhile place. And I wanted more of that. More rock ’n’ roll. But also more variety. More difference. A broader palette. More of that ineluctable magic that black music carried within it – and that was such a tonic for a young teenage Irish troop, struggling to uncover a better way of understanding the world and our potential place in it.
So who torched the hotels? However locals might want to dress it up, it was a racist attack. It was also, I suspect, one with an undercurrent of religious prejudice. We don’t want any brown-skinned people here. Refugees can go elsewhere. Or, as the goalie said, send them back to where they came from. Anyway, they’re not Catholics. They’re not welcome.
Moville is a small town. Population 1,480. You wouldn’t think it’d be too hard to figure out who could have orchestrated a nasty piece of work like burning down a building that was earmarked for refugees.
The same for Roosky, Co. Leitrim. Population 564. Even easier, you’d have thought. The local Gardaí must have a pretty good idea who doused the place in petrol. Who lit the fuse. It’s strange. I haven’t seen any mention at all of people being questioned.
How many Irish people are still stuck in a 1950s cultural warp? More than we might have imagined, it seems. I have a hunch that they are Irish Catholic nationalists of the old school. Anti-choice. Pro-Vatican. Anti-EU. Superstitious. Sectarian. Capable of violence. The kind of lumpen thugs who get a hard-on from burning people out of their homes. They’d be Brexiteers if they didn’t hate the English. They are cut from the same cloth.
There is racism here: looking at what happened in Moville and Roosky that is undeniable. But Ireland has changed despite the racists. It used to be said: there is no black music in Ireland. Things are wildly different now. Look at the artists who have been claiming our attention recently. Some of the most vital music of this generation is being made by the new Irish.
I’m thinking of The Rusangano Family, Loah, her sister Fehdah, Rejjie Snow, Jess Kavanagh of Barq, Jafaris, Soulé, Super Silly, Erica Cody, Hare Squead, DJ Mona-Lisa – and lots more besides – who have stepped to the forefront, as Philip Lynott did back in the ‘60s with Skid Row. And who have been accepted without reservation as equals in the Irish music family.
Listening to their records, on occasion, I try to imagine what kind of music Philip Lynott would be making now. Would he still be ploughing a metallic furrow? Or have shifted back into the folkier, more lyrical style of Thin Lizzy’s first three albums? Would he have brought Lizzy back together in Live and Dangerous mode, and had a whole new lease of life with the band? Or been inspired to move in a different direction completely by rap? Might he be seen as a father-figure among the new Irish? I think he would.
With affection, I try to imagine too what he would have looked like. Would that mass of curls have slipped into decline? Or would he have retained the big hair, but gone startlingly grey? None of the images that flash through the mind’s eye seem quite right, as if they are part of a different jigsaw. It is hard, of course, to think of Philip as anything other than the ace rock ’n’ roller that he was. As happens with those who die far too young, he is permanently locked in our collective imagination as a character who could have been the subject of Bob Dylan’s ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’. Ireland’s best-dressed rock star.
But this much I know. Philip Lynott’s towering presence in Irish music lore is emblematic of the fact that music in Ireland was always a healing, unifying force. The same applied to his guitar-slinging mate and frequent rival, the late Gary Moore, who came out of East Belfast at the age of 15, and moved to Dublin, entirely oblivious to sectarian barriers. Throughout the Troubles, contemporary Irish musicians in general remained immune to all of that sectarian bile. And in the same spirit, they are, I believe, also spiritually and politically opposed to the blight of racism. That has certainly been my experience.
Think about the classic Irish session and how it works. When we open our mouths to sing or pick up an instrument to play, we are all equal. In that Irish tradition, music is about openness. It is about sharing. It is about equality. Music is about love. It is about finding our place in the harmony.
A taxi driver from Bangladesh. He came to Ireland twenty five years ago. Got married. Had three kids. Lives in Blanchardstown, in Dublin 15. “Are you happy here?” I asked.
“Yes,” he says, “Dublin 15 is the best place in the world to live.” He was very specific about it: Dublin 15. “I waken up every morning and say thanks for the life that I have here in Ireland,” he continued. “And all of the children are happy together. They come from all over the place. They are all colours. They are part of the community. They have a wonderful school that makes them all feel at home. I don’t see any prejudice. I see children who get on well with one another. Really and truly, the community in Dublin 15 is amazing. It is the best place in the world for a young person to grow up. I really believe that.”
Happiness together. Our place in the harmony. These are the things that really matter. Irish musicians have shown the way. It is time for all of us to join them. Only by respecting one another, and working together, can we bring an end to racism in Ireland. But it can be done. Let us go beyond sectarianism. Let us go beyond racism. Let’s do it in honour of the first black Irishman. In honour of the great Philip Lynott.