Heroin Misuse & Meeting an Irish Rock Legend’s Mother
Meeting a Rock Legend’s Mother with an Anti-Drugs Message
Niall McElwee, PhD
Senior Editor, Dissertation Doctor’s Clinic
A Pretty Amazing Back Catalogue
In Ireland, the rock band Thin Lizzy has gone down in music history. Songs such as ‘Chinatown’, ‘Killer on the Loose’, ‘Jailbreak’, ‘The Boys are Back in Town’, ‘Waiting for an Alibi’, ‘Sarah’ and ‘Parisenne Walkways’ are regularly cited by other leading musicians as being hugely influential on their careers and by rock journalists as being seminal songs. When internationally famous musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi come to Dublin, Ireland they regularly visit and pay homage in a little house in a village called Howth. In that house lives the mother of Phillip Lynott. We don’t tend to hear much about the parents of famous musicians, sports starts or movie stars, so I thought I might do just that in this article.
A Black Irishman
Let me give some background to those of you who don’t know about our Phil (I say ‘our’ because we love him and claim him as ours). Phil was Ireland’s first celebrated black rock star indeed, he is, to date, our only major Irish black rock star (I don’t think that Samantha Mumba, our black pop princess, would mind me stating that). Phil was born in Bromwich, near Birmingham, England on August the 20th 1949, the son of Philomena Lynott, a white Irish Catholic mother and Cecil Parris, a black Brazilian father. He enjoyed a very close relationship with his mother throughout his life but, as with too many children and youth now, he would barely become acquainted with his biological father. I believe this loss stayed with Phil all his short life and found expression in some of his self-destructive behaviours.
Can you imagine for a moment how difficult it must have been growing up as a fatherless black boy in the oppressed Catholic Church dominated Ireland of the 1950’s and 1960’s ? In our pre-Celtic Tiger world travelling days, this was most definitely a recipe for social isolation. If you think Phil had a cocky swagger in his concerts and in video footage, I can assure you that it was well earned as Thin Lizzy were the first Irish rock band to appear on BBC’s Top of the Pops programme, performing a rearranged ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ which is now the definitive version played by DJs the world over.
A Creative Band and a Creative Guy
Thin Lizzy were a truly creative band even if you are not an aficionado of rock music. I could pick several albums to illustrate this point, but I particularly like one of the early ones because it resonates for me due to its name alone – Shades of a Blue Orphanage. I just love the relational photo on the front and the inclusion of children in their normal street attire looking defiantly into the camera. They seem to be daring us adults to enter their world.
In 1985, Phil recorded what would become the smash hit single ‘Out in the Fields’ with another Irish guitar legend, Gary Moore. On the strength of this success, Phil secured a solo recording deal with a record company called Polydor and began recording what would have been his third solo album. There would not be a fourth. This is not only a personal tragedy for his family and friends but also one for music lovers the world over. Phil was to join what I might term the ‘youthful dead’ such as Jim Morrison, Jimmi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain.
Back to the Future
On a beautiful autumn day in Killarney, County Kerry his mother, Philomena, told a hushed national conference audience of local politicians and community workers of her final Christmas visit to Phil’s house in London that was to end so tragically. She recounted how one of her grandchildren ran out to her and shouted fearfully, “Nanny, it’s raining in the house.” Of course, it was not raining inside but Phil had climbed fully clothed into his bath in a pathetic attempt to regulate his body heat and Philomena had to run up the stairs and pull him out of the bath whilst those famously faded denims clung so heavily to him. This is not something any mother or, indeed, father should ever have to do, but Philomena managed to find inner strength and she pulled her son out, undressed him and put him back into his bed.
Phil later collapsed and his Mom called a Doctor who was unfamiliar with his drug addiction and, unfortunately, critical treatment time was lost. It was only then that Phil’s Mom discovered he had a long time heroin injecting problem. Her son was an addict. She shared with the conference audience her embarrassment at being unaware of such a serious problem with someone she had so much contact with indeed, she has asked herself this question of herself every day since. Sadly, Phil died a couple of weeks later just into the new year of 1986 aged 36 years of age from “multiple internal abscesses causing blood poisoning leading to kidney, liver and heart failure”.
From Boys to Men
What a woman Philomena is. In her seventies at the time I met her and alert as a button with a very clear message and a whole lifetime of experience. It was kind of an unreal situation to be in finding myself co-presenting with her at a conference on alcohol and substance misuse. I don’t think that Philomena will mind me stating that she is somewhat deaf and the night before our presentations, a number of the speakers met up for a meal in the hotel. I ended up sitting opposite her with some local politicians from Kerry and she referred to me throughout the meal as “that boy” and no amount of conversation and explanation would convince her otherwise. So, a boy I remained for the night and, I suppose, in the greater scheme of things to her, a boy I am.
It’s not often that one gets to meet the mother of a world famous rock icon that is Phil Lynott and even less often one gets an opportunity to share stories and mutual reading material (she has written a book called My Boy which is well worth reading and I gave her a copy of our book on heroin misuse in the midlands, Darkness on the Edge of Town). Phil Lynott’s legacy to the music world is immense. Philomena told me that she receives fans from all over the world into her house practically on a daily basis and she is the Godmother of children around the world. A bronze statue of Phil was erected in Dublin just off Grafton Street in Dublin’s city centre and almost 5,000 fans turned up for the unveiling ceremony, which was attended by Philomena, former band members and friends from the far reaches of the globe.
I wanted this article to be truly relational in tone and content. I guess the point I want to make is that all of us could quite easily be touched by misfortune and circumstance and we could do well to remember that maxim, “There but for the Grace of God go I.”All of us have a family somewhere. All of us deserve a second and third chance. I think there is a moral onus on us, as researchers, to remember always there is a family, there is a wider connection than the individual, there are always people left behind who need to be reached out to and engaged with. I never really thought about Phil Lynott’s Mom before I met her in Kerry. That was my mistake.
There is a serious point to this article. Heroin misuse does not just affect those living in large metropolitan areas. It reaches into the smallest towns and villages around Ireland. Although none of us wants to hear that heroin addiction is a part of daily existence in one’s own town – as Philomena found out to her cost – to ignore hard drugs misuse is a recipe for disaster. We must be courageous and confront this head on. We must be inclusive in our approach and talk with all service providers and agencies in an attempt to effect change. We must honour the legacy of those lost to the light.
* Sincere thanks to the South Kerry Life Education Mobile Ltd and, in particular, Chris Barrow and Michael O’ Donoghue for their kindness, relational approach and good humour. Their conference was entitled Second National Conference for Local Authorities & the Public Service Concerning Substance and Alcohol Misuse. It was held in Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland.