- 22 Oct 20
To mark what would have been her 90th birthday, we're revisiting Niall Stokes' tribute to Philomena, the mother of Philip Lynott and a star in her own right – originally published in Hot Press shortly after her death in 2019.
There are few of us now who would dare to underestimate the importance of Philip Lynott to music in Ireland. He was one of the great pioneering figures, who blazed a trail for the many legions that have since followed.
Students of modern Irish music will know, of course, that Van Morrison was first out of the traps. He left Belfast for London with his group Them, and hit the charts first, in 1964, with the single ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’. That was a cover version of a traditional blues song, originally made popular by Big Joe Williams in 1935. On the flip-side of that single was a song called ‘Gloria’. Boasting just three chords and nothing that you could really call a melody, it was a stunning, explosive piece of musical voodoo that would ultimately far outstrip the A-side in terms of influence and importance.
From an Irish perspective, it was a landmark moment. Written by Van Morrison at the age of just eighteen, and sung by the man himself, the song was steeped in the blues and soul music. It was also powerfully carnal, and very much of the moment, capturing something raw and elemental in a way that would fire the collective imagination of rock’n’roll musicians, far off into the future, including the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, David Bowie, U2, Simple Minds and Patti Smith – all of whom played notable cover versions. For those who heard and understood, especially in Ireland, there was a sense that things might never be the same again. And they weren’t.
In the early to mid-60s, other Irish bands battled for recognition during the years of the beat boom. An Englishman and a student at Trinity College, Ian Whitcomb and his band of Irish musicians who traded as Bluesville, had three US Hot 100 hits in 1964, though their success felt far away at the time, and was not sustained.
For everyone else, the mountain seemed too high to climb. The Gentry, The Creatures, The Chosen Few, The Uptown Band and Ditch Cassidy were all contenders, but none of them ever properly achieved lift-off. Granny’s Intentions from Limerick moved to London and secured a deal with Deram Records, but they eventually stalled. It was Rory Gallagher who next broke through, in a big way, with Taste. Formed in Cork in 1966, the band were signed by Polydor Records, releasing their eponymous debut album, Taste, in April 1969.
Taste were a power-trio with a phenomenal virtuoso guitarist in Rory. With the rise of Jimi Hendrix and Cream, the format was in vogue, and Rory took it to new places, before going solo – and scaling ever more vertiginous heights. He was the second great pioneer.
Back in Dublin, Brush Shiels had formed Skid Row, with a gangling young black kid from Crumlin by the name of Philip Lynott as lead singer. But when Gary Moore travelled down from Belfast to join the group, the attraction of going the power-trio route became obvious. Gary could play the guitar like a demon. He could also sing. As could Brush. Brush decided that they didn't need a singer out front. The band leader let Philip down gently, giving him a bass guitar by way of compensation – and Skid Row duly signed to CBS Records. Their story is one of what might have been, as management skulduggery derailed the operation internationally, and they failed to find a crossover audience back at home.
Skid Row’s misfortune saw Thin Lizzy – with Philip Lynott as prime mover – emerge as the third great pioneering influence, after Van and Rory. Thin Lizzy started out as a power-trio of sorts too. But, inspired by the Irish folk and ballad revival, and taking inspiration from Van Morrison’s official solo debut album, 1968’s Belfast-drenched Astral Weeks, Lizzy mixed a folkier feel, and songs about Ireland, and about Dublin, with blues and Hendrix-influenced tracks.
Their debut, Thin Lizzy, was released in 1971 and they had their first hit with ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ in 1973, before the band’s guitarist Eric Bell left.
The new twin-guitar Lizzy that coalesced after the split gathered momentum gradually as a live act, before breaking out globally with the Jailbreak LP, in 1976. Lifted from that album, the single ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ was a No.1 hit in Ireland, No.8 in the UK and No.12 in the US. Thin Lizzy had arrived as a major force. Philip Lynott walked and talked like a real rock star. He had charisma to burn. People in Ireland loved him.
STATE OF DEPRESSION
Even before Thin Lizzy had gone mega, fans were aware of Philip Lynott's mother, Philomena.
She appeared, on the Thin Lizzy LP, referred to simply as ‘mother’, in the song ‘Clifton Grange Hotel’ – a paean to the showbiz hotel she ran in Manchester. She was there too, as a kind of benign, underlying spirit, in the title tracks of Thin Lizzy’s second and third albums, Shades of a Blue Orphanage and Vagabonds of the Western World respectively.
And then she arrived fully formed in ‘Philomena’, a song Philip Lynott wrote specially for her, and released on Nightlife in November 1974. The song positions Philip as a classic Irish wild rover-come-troubador, wandering the world and casting a wistful eye back towards his home place. We know, as listeners now, that Philomena herself had been a wild, wild rover, and the thought gives the song an added piquancy and resonance. But, tellingly, Philip leaves the listener in no doubt whatsoever about the depth of his affection for the woman after whom the song is named.
“And if you see my mother,” he sings, as if he’s having a last yap with someone who is set to make the journey back, “Tell her I’m keeping fine/ Will you tell her that I love her/ And I’ll try and write sometime / If you see my oul’ one/ Give her all of my love/ For she has a heart of gold there/ As good as God above.”
That Philip loved Philomena dearly was never in doubt. He hugely admired her sense of independence, and also the chutzpah she had shown in establishing her own business. He recognised that the bohemian life she was leading made of her more a fellow spirit than a maternal figure. He was happy to be part of that world – and, equally, to share, with her, the fruits of his own rock 'n’ roll success and the world it opened up for him.
She became a more visible presence in his life. He’d treat Philomena royally when she was invited to Thin Lizzy gigs. He had developed the routine where he’d use the mirror bass to shine a light on beautiful women in the audience and tease them with the old one-two: “Is there anyone out there with a bit of Irish in them?" Pause. "Is there anyone out there who’d like a bit of Irish in them?”
But when Philomena was on the premises, he’d pick her out and introduce her to the fans. He’d always had a way of making her feel special, but those were moments when she felt particularly proud. She loved being Philip’s mother, and his friend.
Thin Lizzy’s success peaked with the towering double album Live and Dangerous, which went double platinum in the UK in 1978. That year Philip’s first daughter, Sarah was born. In 1980, he married Caroline Crowther and the couple had their second child together, Cathleen. Philip Lynott bought a house on Burrow Road in Sutton for the family, and they returned to Ireland together.
He also bought a house for Philomena, on the Strand Road in Sutton, called White Horses. That he wanted Philomena close to him, and to his family, was clear. She remained in that beautiful spot, overlooking Dublin Bay, more or less for the rest of her life, living with her partner Dennis Keeley until he died in 2010, and accompanied throughout by her close friend, ally and confidant Graham Cohen.
There were further high-points in Philip’s career: chart success with Gary Moore on ‘Parisienne Walkways’ and ‘Out In The Fields’; a No.4 album with Thin Lizzy’s Thunder & Lightning; the use, as the Top of the Pops theme tune, of ‘Yellow Pearl’ – originally released on his debut Philip Lynott album, Solo In Soho, and included in a different mix on the follow-up, Philip Lynott; the much loved single and video ‘Old Town’ – and so on...
The story of the tragic death of Philip Lynott will be familiar to fans of Philip Lynott and of Thin Lizzy, all over the world. Philomena was with Philip when he died of septicemia, in Salisbury General Infirmary, on January 4, 1986. It is impossible to convey just how traumatic the experience was for Philomena: believing that he could be saved and then watching in horror as life finally and cruelly slipped away from him. To say that her son’s death left Philomena devastated and bereft is to understate it. She was plunged into a state of depression from which she found it very difficult to recover.
TIME FOR EVERYONE
She did eventually turn the corner, finding a new sense of purpose in dedicating her life to doing everything she possibly could to preserve Philip Lynott’s memory. Hot Press became a more integral part of that journey with the publication of her memoir My Boy, written with Jackie Hayden, of this parish, in 1995. It became a No.1 best seller in Ireland, and was released through Virgin Books in the UK.
It was a hugely positive and cathartic experience for Philomena, being able to tell the full story of her relationship with her son, and the terrible circumstances of his drug addiction and, ultimately, his death for the first time, and in such a powerful, far-reaching way. The energy and commitment that she brought to the cause of promoting the book was extraordinary. She did as many radio and TV interviews as we asked of her, never complaining once. We organised signings and she happily spent almost an entire day in places like Eason’s on O’Connell Street and Dubray Books on Grafton Street. And she was the same in bookshops all over Ireland, always willing to go the extra mile.
She was hugely generous in her approach to fans. She spent time talking to them. She wrote personal dedications specially for them. And she kept going – and going – long after the vast majority of authors would have packed up and wandered home.
Almost overnight, Philomena herself became a star. Recognised constantly on the street, she was the subject of considerable, ongoing media attention. The book, and the celebrity which it afforded her, helped enormously too in the campaign to have a statue of Philip erected in Dublin.
It is extraordinary to think now that she, and her friends and supporters in the Roisin Dubh Trust, had to raise the funds themselves to get the now famous life-size statue of Philip Lynott made. Bureaucrats just didn’t get it that a rock star could be a culturally important figure. But Philomena was unrelenting. In spite of official indifference, the Roisin Dubh Trust raised the money and made it happen.
It was one of the great joys of her life that agreement was finally reached with Dublin City Council, and that the statue was erected on Harry Street, just off Philip’s beloved Grafton Street in 2005. The statue will stand forever as a monument not just to the great man, but also to the love that Philomena had for him, and the fierce dedication with which she went about the task of ensuring that his importance would be recognised by the city, and the people, of Dublin – a place that he loved more than anywhere else in the world.
Philomena displayed that same cornucopia of generosity in her relationship with fans at the Vibe for Philo, run by Smiley Bolger, in Dublin every year. She showed it, again, to the fans who took to appearing at her house in Sutton unannounced and knocked on the door: she’d invite them in, listen to the stories of when they first saw Thin Lizzy in action, show them the room in which she had gathered just some of her Philip Lynott memorabilia, including the jukebox he had been so proud of owning. There was never a trace of snobbery in her attitude: she had time for everyone, and fans loved her immensely for it.
Philomena was invited to memorial gigs all over the UK and Europe and travelled as a guest of honour. And in doing so, she encouraged fans to keep the flame alive, and to fly the Lizzy flag high. There is no doubt whatsoever that Philomena played the central role in ensuring that Philip Lynott’s music was remembered, and would be revered, and played – not just on the radio but also by other rock ’n‘ roll bands.
Jon Bon Jovi, Henry Rollins, Slash, members of Metallica, Ash, Snow Patrol, Therapy?, Adam Clayton of U2, Philip Chevron of The Pogues, Damien Dempsey, Glen Hansard, Imelda May, Julie Feeney, Gavin James and dozens more all loved meeting Philomena and talking to her about Philip and what his music meant to them. And she helped to inspire them to cover his songs: ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’, of course, but also ‘Jailbreak’ and ‘Whiskey In The Jar’, among others.
DANCING IN THE MOONLIGHT
We didn’t know it of course, but – even after the initial publication of My Boy – Philomena’s life remained an enigma wrapped in a puzzle. The publication of the book proved momentous in more ways than one. We re-published it, in updated form in 2011 and it went to No. 1 for a second time, and remained there for six weeks. Now, it told the story of the two other children – Philomena and Leslie – to whom Philomena had given birth, in the years immediately after Philip had been born.
Ireland was a terribly conservative place at the time. No one was given even the slightest form of sex education. And so, Philomena – like the vast majority of girls – was an innocent abroad when she left Dublin to become a nurse in Birmingham.
But England was horribly conservative too. A white girl with a black child – as Philomena was after Philip had been born – was almost inevitably given a hard time. Philomena was pushed into a home for unmarried mothers. She did her time in the English equivalent of a magdalene laundry. There were no supports available from social services. And so when the father of her third child, Leslie, left England for America, Philomena was stuck. On her own, and with three children to care for, and with no way of earning a living, she was forced to give Philomena and Leslie up for adoption.
Among other things, what the re-telling of the story, in all of its painful and heart-breaking detail, revealed was that Philomena Lynott had a rebel spirit. And she retained it throughout her life. She refused to be co-opted to the ordinary. She had a big personality and the ability to light up a room. The star quality that Philip had in spades, in large measure, came straight from her.
She was a formidable woman. She played it hard, she played it tough – because she had learned that she'd have to, to survive. If people disrespected Philip, she took it personally. There were times when those close to her might have wished that she were less combative. But that too was how she had negotiated her way through life. There was, as others have said, never a dull moment when you were with her. That was, in part at least, because she had a great sense of humour. She came regularly into the Hot Press offices and always loved meeting the different members of staff, and having a bit of fun with them, playing practical jokes and telling tall tales.
We worked with her too on the Philip Lynott Exhibition, which was such a big success with fans; and on the book Philip Lynott: Still In Love With You, which she loved. She was enormously proud of both, and of the fresh – and wonderfully positive – wave of love and affection, for Philip and for his music, that they helped to inspire among fans. Throughout all of this, and well into her eighties, her energy was truly extraordinary, at times almost superhuman.
Over the past couple of years, Philomena was acutely aware that her time was limited. She had been diagnosed with cancer and decided against chemotherapy. She gradually cut back on appearances, preferring to stay at home. The quiet life didn’t necessarily suit her, but it was a decision that she never regretted nonetheless. In many ways, with the statue in place, and Philip’s records still being played on the radio, and fans writing to her and calling to the house in numbers sufficient to confirm that his legacy had been assured, she figured that she had achieved what she set out to, and that Philip’s place in the rock firmament was being recognised and cherished. Over 30 years since his untimely death, for her it was mission accomplished.
I’m sure there were times when, like an old, old, old master musician, she kept on wishin’, that she was headed for the number one hit country again. But she did not linger too long on that thought. She did not rage against the dying of the light. She had decided to go gentle into that good night and she did.
In that, there is a lesson for all of us. As the song says: “We’ll sure miss you honey, now that you’re not around/ now that you’re not around this old town”...
Now, let’s go dancing in the moonlight, one more time with feeling. In memory of Philip and of Philomena Lynott.
Ooh la la.