A talent for sights and sounds

Sean Lyons with paintings

“Creativity is the greatest rebellion in existence.”

IT’S NO surprise that the grandson of a man who watched the Easter Rising leaders lead the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army from Liberty Hall to the GPO in Dublin in 1916, has a rebellious streak. Despite having art teachers at secondary school who showed scant interest in the more working class pupils and a music teacher who told his parents that he would ‘never be a musician,’ Sean Lyons is now not only a musician of some repute, but an exceptionally talented artist. However, had his grandfather—then an 11-year-old boy—not been on the streets to witness Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, Tom Clarke, Seán MacDiarmada and Joseph Plunkett, then Glasgow’s loss might have been Dublin’s gain.

“My paternal grandfather, Denis (Dinny) Lyons actually witnessed the Easter Rising taking place,” Sean said. “He watched that all unfurl as an 11-year -old boy. He saw Connolly and Pearse marching to the GPO. He was holed up in the cellar of a pub with his sister for a couple of days when the place was getting shelled. They’d lost their mother, but she turned up in hospital a few days later after having been shot in the leg from a bullet that had ricocheted. A few years later, my grandfather’s brother—who was working on the canal, building the roads and had a flat in the Garngad—brought half the family, the youngest siblings, over to Glasgow to get away from all the trouble I presume.”

Sean’s father, John Lyons was brought up in the Garngad, which was affectionately known as ‘Little Ireland.’ His mother, Maria Theresa, was from the Gallowgate with strong family links to Armagh. They met, married and had two daughters, Alice and Helen, and two sons, Sean and Gerry. Despite not having overly fond memories of Haghill—where he grew up—due to frequent anti-Catholicism and anti-Irish racism, his family home was a happy one, where creativity flourished and the Irish family link was cherished and nurtured.

“I always had an interest in music and art from a young age,” Sean explained. “I would have gotten it from my father’s side because there’s a fair bit of music there. We had a wee organ up in the Garngad and on a Sunday my granda would sit and play hymns on it and my dad played a bit of guitar. There was music in the family and the family in Dublin, who we were still close to. They were all musicians and were in bands. In fact some of the first music I learned on guitar was due to a cousin in Ireland who showed me the 12-bar blues.

“My dad was also instrumental in fostering my love of art. He would often just sit with his drawing book at home and sketch. My dad was a far better artist than I was. It was just life I guess, but he should have gone to art school. However, when you were from a working class family in the Garngad in the 1950s, there weren’t too many people going to art school. My dad was a brilliant artist—technically he was really good. That said I think my talent was natural. I think everybody gets gifts. I think the sad thing is that most people don’t find out what their gifts are. They get caught up in the capitalist world where they have to go out and work and give your life up. My dad did push it though, he’d get loads of paper and sit and draw with me. He was very supportive. We used to go and see the Christ of St John of the Cross painting by Salvador Dalí regularly too when we were young. Our Sunday walk would be from Haghill to the Art Galleries and back so you’d worked up a good appetite for your ribs and cabbage! I’ve always loved Salvador Dalí as a result of that. Both my parents were really supportive of my art and music. They were never the type to say ‘get a real job!”

Musical influences

While Sean did have ‘real jobs’—including an interesting stint as a graphic artist at Glasgow Zoo—he always made time to indulge his creative side by continuing to paint and play in his own band, The Quiet Men. His early musical influences came via the heavy metal scene and bands like Rush and AC/DC, before moving to bands like Pink Floyd and James. However his biggest musical hero was Buddy Holly, which again can be traced back to a paternal influence.

“My biggest musical hero was Buddy Holly,” Sean said. “I got that from my father, who had his records in the house. Buddy Holly is one of the greats. You hear him in a lot of modern music every day. You hear his riffs. He did it all himself. He brought orchestras into music and I love that because I love experimenting. Peggy Sue was probably one of the first songs I learned. It was the rhythms with him too. He had great rhythms.”

As well as making music with his own band, Sean played in Country and Western style bands at weekends to make some extra money, something that he felt stood him in good stead, as the musicians he played with were very experienced.

“You’d play social clubs and the like,” Sean said. “I did that at a really young age. The guys I would have been playing with were a lot older so it was a great experience. During the week I’d rehearse with my own band too so you’d be writing your own songs and stuff. But at the weekends I’d be out with these older guys and they had done all the big stuff in the 1950s, 60s and 70s so you learned a lot.”

Sounds of Ireland

These musical genres, however, were not those that eventually would define much of Sean’s musical output. The influence of growing up in an Irish home in Scotland was never far from the surface and having a connection with music— which, as he himself admits, is profusely sentimental—played a pivotal role in the musical path he was to take.
“There was an old album we used to play up in my granda’s house,” he said. “Every member of member of the family had a copy of it. It was by a man named Hank Locklin, he was an Irish-American country singer. He was a big star back then and did an album full of Irish songs and I still love that album to this day. There were songs on it like The Old Bog Road—a song I’d have learned and loved. It had old standards on it too like Danny Boy, Forty Shades of Green, so it was very sentimental.

“We also had an album that we always played, which was the Coatbridge Accordion Band—they were the band that took Celtic round the stadium after winning the European Cup in 1967. Again every member of the family had a copy of it. The sound of accordions is something I’ve always loved. It’s a very homely sound to me as well. After seeing that band and hearing that album, you’d learn those tunes. The irony was that my first rebel band was The Shamrock Rebels, who used to play in Derry Treanor’s in the Gorbals. The two guys—Billy Davidson and Jimmy Rowantree—who were in The Shamrock Rebels were actually in the accordion band and they were on the front cover of the album.

“I was 18 when I started with The Shamrock Rebels. I’d always loved that sound, but I became more aware of it then. It was a really emotional thing. You get to around 15, I think, and you start becoming more aware of your family and who you are. We would go to Dublin and stay with my family, because I still kept in touch with them. I called them uncles but they were actually my cousins. They looked like my dad and his brothers and it was obvious we were from the same family and it was an Irish family. We just happened to be the branch that were born and brought up in Scotland. I remember lying in bed and you’d have the headphones on listening to the likes of Kevin Barry and it was emotional. You’d be learning all these stories and that’s what I loved the songs were an education.”

Although Sean was a keen follower of the likes of Finbar Furey, The Wolfhound, Ray McAreavey and The Wolfe Tones, like many of those with a love for Irish music, an exciting new sound was to be added to the pantheon of the genre in the shape of a young London-born Irishman and his friends who had cut their teeth—quite literally in the lead singer’s case—in the punk scene in the 1970s.

“The Pogues came out and they changed everything,” Sean said. “I was friends with a girl in a place I worked and she knew The Pogues when they came to play up in Glasgow Uni. She’d bring in tapes, so I was quite familiar with them before they were well known. When they brought out Dirty Old Town, I heard it in a record shop in Aberdeen and it was played full blast and when I heard the solo come on and the pipes and the fiddle, that was me I was hooked. I found that I was home. That’s the sound I had been looking for all my life.

“I ended up being at parties with them when I was younger and hanging around backstage, sitting on a couch talking to Shane MacGowan when Fairytale of New York was Number 2 in the charts. So I’ve got great memories of them. They were just perfect. MacGowan’s voice and his poetry were fantastic and they had great musicians like Terry Woods in the band too.”

A (Blarney) Pilgrim path

After stints in The Shamrock Rebels, The Timbuck Five and his own band, Freedom Sons—who played gigs in New York and New Jersey—Sean joined The Blarney Pilgrims, who took their dedication to Irish music more seriously than some of the bands that were simply playing for beer money. This suited Sean down to a tee. He spoke of the fresh ‘swagger’ that his new band had hoped to bring to the scene—something that even Noel Gallagher previously made mention of when explaining how this quality in Irish rebel music gave Oasis songs their ‘punch-the-air quality.’

“When Charlie from The Blarney Pilgrims explained to me what he was thinking, I was intrigued,” Sean said. “He wanted to take the tribal swagger from the flute bands and fuse it together. It worked and it became the sound of many Glasgow Irish rebel bands. That band changed everything. There wasn’t a big Irish scene in the city the way there is now. They were great days. When you think about McNee’s people were queuing all the way down Eglinton Toll and they were coming from everywhere to see us on a Sunday. It was a wee phenomenon.

“The Blarney Pilgrims weren’t just about music; we were fighting censorship too. We were the first band to come into the city centre. All the bands in the Southside and the Calton told us you can’t go into the city centre, but we did. We went up and booked venues in the city and held concerts. That was deliberate, we were fighting censorship and letting people know this was legitimate music, it was world music. If you go anywhere else in the world people are fascinated by it and they want to hear the stories because it’s folklore.

“That’s the whole tradition, people writing songs about their history to remember history. As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t just playing in a rebel band I had a purpose and a job to do. The way I looked at it was that you were playing a part, keeping those songs alive. You were creating a supportive environment for people and educating them through song. With The Blarney Pilgrims we really tried to do that well and professionally.”

Sean’s involvement with the Irish music scene afforded him the chance to tour all over Europe, New York and Australia. He was in The Blarney Pilgrims for eight years, contributing to their albums Marching Down Sackville Street—which is still a fond favourite with many in the Irish community—and Granda Was A Celtic Man. Since then, he has played with many other Irish bands and musicians, contributed to other musical releases and is working on reforming his own band, The Exiles.

Strokes of genius

However, in the midst of his musical career Sean continued to indulge his artistic talents and a print of one of his paintings of the late, great Jock Stein, even prompted Sir Alex Ferguson to part with £2500 for it.

“I was still painting at the same time as playing music,” he said. “I did the Jock Stein painting way back in 2000. I used to spend my summers down at Barrowfield, so when I was 10 or 11, my cousin and I would go down and be unofficial ballboys for Celtic if you like. You just walked on and there was Jock Stein and the likes of Peter Latchford, Ronnie Glavin and so on. So you would run about, get the ball for them and give it to Jock Stein. So obviously that image of him in my head with the coat stayed with me. He was just such an icon and I had a big canvas!

“Alex Ferguson paid £2500 for one of the prints of that one that was auctioned off for Drumchapel Amateurs. A story ran about it in The Celtic View. My uncle had a copy of it and he carried it around the pubs in his pocket showing it to anyone and everyone. It’s at moments like that you wish your parents were alive. When something great like that happens to you and you don’t have your parents, the first thing you think is that you wish they were alive to see it.”

Two of Sean’s more recent paintings can trace their origins back to the auld sod though—one, a stunning visual triptych of James Connolly (above) and another a depiction of Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne in a scene from the much-loved film The Quiet Man. Both have their genesis in the aforementioned love for the Emerald Isle that was cultivated within the Lyons family.

“My dad took us over to Ireland because it was important to him that we knew where we came from,” Sean explained. “So he took us over and introduced us to all our cousins and they looked like us, played music like us. Dublin was very important to me because of my family ties to it and obviously because of the fact that my grandfather—who was from Lower Gardiner Street—had seen Pearse and Connolly on the day of the Rising. James Connolly is a huge hero of mine. To be honest, I feel a bit guilty even selling an image of him. I convince myself that I’m selling my art and my work that I put time into, but at the back of mind it’s always there that it’s James Connolly and I feel a bit guilty. But then maybe someone might see the painting, wonder that it is and go and read about him, so there is that aspect too.

“Galway and Mayo are very special places too, and Cong in particular because it’s where The Quiet Man was filmed. I was out there with my parents years ago and we stumbled upon it by accident. Both of my parents were big fans of the film, so it was like arriving in the movie, because little had changed.”

“I feel something when I go to Ireland that I don’t feel anywhere else in the world,” Sean added. “It’s like when a beautiful melody strikes a chord and it just hits and there are no words to describe it. You get it with songs; you get it with painting and I get that in Ireland, that feeling.”

If you would like to purchase one of Sean’s paintings or prints visit one of the following sites:
http://www.innisfreearts.com/shop http://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/Innisfreeirisharts

Other items including t-shirts, bags, acrylic blocks, laptop sleeves and mobile phone cases can be purchased at: http://www.redbubble.com/people/innisfreearts/shop