Remembering Philomena Lynott, the Queen of Irish Rock ’n’ Roll
In a little pub in Dublin, an unashamed rock fan with all the hair, tattoos and logos is also unashamed about shedding a tear, as his girlfriend holds his hand.
They’ve just looked at an online death notice: “LYNOTT, Philomena (Phyllis) - June. 12, 2019, (Sutton, Co. Dublin and formerly of Leighlin Road, Crumlin), Peacefully, surrounded by her loving family at her home, beloved mother of the late Philip Lynott; very sadly missed by her loving sisters Betty and Irene, her brother Peter and nephew Graham, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews, extended family, relatives and her many friends at home and abroad.”
The clue, of course, is “beloved mother of the late Philip Lynott,” frontman of Thin Lizzy and the first black Irish cultural icon. He died in 1986, but the fact that his legacy seems to grow with the passing years is so significant because of his mom’s life’s work. There’s a statue of him on a nearby street that wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for Philomena’s campaigning. It’s become a bit of a good-luck symbol and a tourist destination for visiting rock fans.
The local fan is struggling to find his words. He knew Philomena – it seems almost everyone did. “She had a driver who took her to every Thin Lizzy tribute gig,” he recalls. “She would always stay till the end so she could speak to everyone.” A pause. “She declined treatment for the cancer. She faced it down. She spoke to all her close friends to say goodbye two weeks before.” A longer pause, a mouthful of Guinness. “She’s getting buried beside him. I remember her saying she was looking forward to having a word with Phil.”
The death is personal for the fan, and for many other people in the little pub. And in other pubs across Dublin. And in other places in Ireland and across the world. It might seem amazing that an 88-year-old woman who liked to crochet, do crosswords and talk about her son is being mourned in such a manner by so many people. But then, Philomena Lynott was amazing. The story of how she fought to keep Phil’s legacy alive is well-known, and it struck a chord in many a parent’s heart.
“Losing a child would be a pain that’s unthinkable,” the rock fan’s girlfriend says. “Your heart would be ripped out. You’d never be the same. Anything you can do to keep them around, you’d do until your dying day. Like she did.” “She was a warrior queen,” the rock fan says. The girlfriend adds, “A lioness.”
Philomena’s life began in an ordinary way, on Oct. 22, 1930, and it continued in an ordinary way until her teens. She was the fourth of nine children who left school at age 13 to work in an old-people’s home; then, with the bright lights of new opportunities in an England that was rebuilding itself after the Second World War, she moved to Manchester in 1947. A man at a dance hall asked her to join him, and that’s when things stopped being ordinary.
“Philip’s father came all across the dance floor and he asked for a dance, and I couldn’t refuse him,” Philomena told the Daily Mail of Cecil Parris in 2010.
“He had walked the whole length of the floor and everybody looked at him. Remember, they didn’t want black to be mixing with white. It was fate – something said to me to get up and dance. And when I danced, the floor got full of people. He was a good dancer. When the dance was over, I walked back to where all the women stood and they all backed off – I was a ‘nigger lover.’ Then, when I left that dance hall that night, as I walked outside, two Polish guys that me and another girl had been to a dance with started to grab me, and [Cecil] grabbed them and protected me. And that’s when he said, ‘Would you like to go out with me?’ And I must have said yes.”
She lost her virginity to Cecil on a nearby golf course, and by the time she realized she was pregnant, he’d left the U.K. to work elsewhere. (She was never in love with him, she said.) After several attempts to force a miscarriage, she faced the fact that she was going to become a mother.
The first result of that was to be kicked out of the hostel where she lived. “I used to wear an old-fashioned corset to keep my stomach in because I couldn’t let people know – because I wasn’t married,” she said. “And to have a baby out of wedlock in those days, you were classed as a tramp. You were classed as the baddest of the bad. … None of my family knew that I was having a baby. I couldn’t tell them; the shame was unmerciful.”
When Phil Lynott born on Aug. 20, 1949, Philomena was sent to a home for unmarried mothers, and told the only way she’d be allowed to leave was if she put him up for adoption. The nuns who ran the establishment told her that if she didn’t follow instructions, her family would be told about her state of disgrace.
“It was awful what they did to me in that place,” she recalled. “They put me out to work in the shed because I was the lowest of the lowest – because I had a black baby. Even today, I live with a bad back because it was freezing working in the shed.”
Cecil managed to find her and get her out of the home, after which she bounced from slum to slum. In one place, she had to share a bed with a woman who had mental problems; in another, the understanding was that the landlord got to sleep with his tenants, forcing Philomena to “run to the police.”
She found herself pregnant again and gave birth to a daughter Jeanette, which made life more challenging as she tried to work to support her family and also look after them.
When a bus moved away as she struggled to get aboard with her children, she felt that “racism, loneliness and poverty” had defeated her. She decided to ask her parents to take Phil to Ireland, and gave up Jeanette for adoption. A kindly nun, who helped look after the girl, told her that a good couple had been found and said, “Why don’t you let your little girl have a break? Because you’re going to have to spend the rest of your life living in the slums. This child will have a wonderful life.” Philomena recalled "that was how I let Jeannette go.”
She felt happier about knowing Phil was in Dubln – even though her mother told friends and neighbors that he was the son of a “black lady who had died.” “That allowed me to go and take the three jobs and send money to Mammy for keeping him, and then I’d send him his pocket money,” Philomena said. “I kept him very trendy; he was the first kid in Dublin to have a Dalek machine. And from that, I came out of the gutter. I got myself three jobs – I was working a full week, I was a barmaid at night, and I was doing markets at the weekend."
In 1952 she gave birth to another boy, James, the son of a black American G.I. who promised to take her to the U.S. and marry her. “When he went back, his grandma and mother didn’t want him marrying a white woman," she recalled. "They lived down South, don’t forget. They lived in South Carolina, where the Ku Klux Klan was very active. Big time. Think about it.” James suffered from poor health, so when another nun said another couple had been found, Philomena felt it was right to allow the adoption.
While Phil prospered in Dublin, things began to go well for his mom too, though her romantic life continued to be difficult. “When I’d meet boyfriends and maybe I’d have a second date … I’d say to them, ‘I think I’d better tell you, since you’ve asked me out a second time, I have a baby; I’m not married,'" she said. "They’d say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter.’ ‘Well, but I’d better tell you that my baby is black.’ After that, it was trying to get me to bed because I was ‘a tramp.’ And that went on for a long time. … So, all I did was keep working and working. I didn’t bother with men.”
That changed when she met Denis Keeley, who she’d spend 50 years with until his death in 2010. With the help of the savings she put together, they took over the Clifton Grange Hotel in Manchester, which became known as “the Showbiz hotel” because of its clientele. By that time, Phil had formed Thin Lizzy and the band would stay there during British tours.
Responding to the nightlife needs of the residents, the hotel bar usually opened at 2AM and closed at 6AM; breakfast was served in the early afternoon. Notable guests included the Sex Pistols, who struggled to find accommodation after their notorious foul-mouthed appearance on British TV. Philomena put them up. “They came down to the bar and we had a great night,” she told the Manchester Evening News. “They were the nicest-mannered. ... I’ve never forgotten them.”
In 1980 she moved back to Ireland when Phil gave her a present of her own home for her 50th birthday. That gave her a chance to work on her relationship with her son, which she said was more akin to being close friends than parent and child, due to their years of forced disconnection. It wasn’t to last – Phil succumbed to the effects of drug addiction and died on Jan. 4, 1986.
“All of a sudden, he just took ill,” Philomena said the following year. "I got him a doctor … he just didn’t seem to be getting any better. I was getting terribly frightened.” On Christmas day 1985, he was taken to an emergency clinic. The next morning, she recalled, “a police lady came to the door and said Philip wasn’t responding to treatment. … We got down there, and, well, it was awful. From the time we entered the hospital, I never left it until the last.”
Watch Philomena Lynott Talk About Phil Lynott’s Death
The tragedy was the catalyst for Philomena to become a well-known person in her own right. After a period of mourning, she set about making sure no one forgot her son.
It started quite simply: When Thin Lizzy fans went to visit Phll’s grave in the Sutton area of Dublin, they’d often see her there, looking after the memorial and sometimes talking or even arguing with her late son. She’d invite some of the fans home for a cup of tea and a chat, and they’d see the memorial room she made for him.
And the word spread.
See Philomena Lynott and Billy Connolly at Phil Lynott’s Grave
When plans were made to launch the annual Vibe for Philo celebration, organizers asked for Philomena’s blessing and got much more than that – the only time she missed the event was when partner Dennis Keeley died, the same day her son had, in 2010.
Irish writer Tony McCullagh recalled how she called to thank him for writing a piece about the Vibe for Philo. “I spent a couple of hours in the company of this wonderful woman -- a still grieving mother determined to be a guardian of her child’s legacy," he said. "With justifiable pride, she showed me some of the priceless memorabilia – the framed records, the scrapbook of press cuttings, her personal photographs. … Perhaps mindful of how much her son had meant to his legion of fans, she seemed to accept that she had a duty to share him with others.”
She went on to publish her memoir My Boy in 1995, which was later revised and became a bestseller in both editions. In the book, she recounted many of the trials and tribulations she’d encountered and her pride for what Phil had achieved. She described herself as “the proudest woman in the land” when the life-size statue of Phil was unveiled on what would have been his 56th birthday.
Years later, when it was apparently vandalized, she said, "it was just a bunch of high spirited boys, who meant no harm. So I am not annoyed with them. I’m only hoping that none of the lads got hurt.”
Watch Philomena Lynott at Phil Lynott Statue Unveiling
In 2012 she made headlines worldwide when she objected to the use of the Thin Lizzy classic “The Boys Are Back in Town” during a Republican election campaign. “I am really upset at Philip’s music being used in a political way that he himself would not have approved of,” she said.
“As far as I’m concerned, Mitt Romney’s opposition to gay marriage and to civil unions for gays makes him anti-gay, which is not something that Philip would have supported. He had some wonderful gay friends, as indeed I do. They all deserve equal treatment in every respect, whether it be in Ireland or in the United States. Neither would Philip have supported his policy of taxing the poor and offering tax cuts to the rich, which Paul Ryan is advocating. There is certainly no way that I would want the Lynott name to be associated with any of these ideas.”
In 2013, on her 83rd birthday, her house was burgled while she spoke on the phone upstairs. “I heard noise, but I thought it was the flower pots rattling in the wind,” she recalled. “The phone had been going off all day with Phil's fans ringing to wish me a happy birthday. … The robbers hearing me on the phone upstairs left immediately.” She saw them out of her window and assumed they were Thin Lizzy fans, so she gave them a wave. “The tallest one waved back, I really had no idea who they were,” she explained. "All my jewelry is fake, and I never keep cash in the house.”
When her own statue was unveiled in Ireland’s National Waxwork Museum, general manager Ed Coleman said, “2018 began on a bit of an emotional note with a waxwork of our longtime friend and patron, Philomena Lynott. We’re particularly proud that the introduction of her waxwork coincides with the centenary celebration of women’s suffrage. Philomena is our Queen Mother of Irish rock ‘n’ roll and we are proud to display her waxwork in the Museum.”
Philomena always regretted that her mother died without knowing about her other two children, who came back into her life in later years and whom she described as her best friends.
“The shame was unmerciful,” she said of her earlier years. “I couldn’t let my mother know I had two more children. When I had those children, to have children out of wedlock was a terrible thing. In my day, to have a child out of wedlock, you were a slut. You were classed as soiled goods. It was awful. … My sisters all knew – but not Mammy. … I loved my mother and she thought I was lovely. I took care of my mammy until the last. And that was that. After she died, I didn’t care who knew.”
Of her own longevity, she told VIP that "I have had great innings, but Mammy made it to 93, so you never know. You have to be ready, that is all.” It seems that she was indeed ready to say goodbye to her friends, be laid beside her son and go to “have a word” with him.
In a tribute, Irish president Michael D. Higgins said after meeting Philomena, he "was struck by her sense of humor, and the resilience which she summoned and on which she had to call many times in seeking to overcome the difficulties in her life,. She is owed a debt of gratitude for her unstinting campaign to keep Phil Lynott's legacy foremost in the public mind, and for her prominent role in public advocacy campaigns, including for the rights of members of the LGBT community and against drug use.”
Niall Stokes, editor of the influential Irish magazine Hot Press, said "she was a formidable and brilliant woman. … She was hugely determined and courageous – and absolutely committed to the campaign to ensure that Philip's memory was kept alive and his legacy celebrated.”
In press articles she was referred to as “the queen of Irish rock ’n’ roll” and similar honorifics – but perhaps she’d prefer former Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson’s description: “She was like everyone’s mum, rolled into one.”
Offered that quote as a choice memorial, the rock fan and his girlfriend in the little Dublin bar nod and smile.
Listen to Philomena Lynott Talk About Her Life