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Rotten luck: Johnny Lydon on being a bit Oirish


Shot by both sides: John Lydon grew up in London steeped in Irish culture

Shot by both sides: John Lydon grew up in London steeped in Irish culture

Shot by both sides: John Lydon grew up in London steeped in Irish culture

John Lydon has never been afraid to lash out. Everyone from the British royal family to ex-manager Malcolm McLaren has been ripe for attack from the provocateur whose Sex Pistols rewrote rock's rule book in the 1970s and terrorised the Establishment.

But readers of his new memoir, Anger is an Energy, might be surprised by the venom this second generation Irishman - still known to many by his old Pistols' stage moniker, Johnny Rotten - reserves for Irish people.

"I never felt Irish," he writes early on in the book. "I always felt, 'I'm English, this is where I come from, and that's that'. Because you'd be reminded of that when you went to Ireland: 'Ye're not Oirish,' the locals would say. So it was like, 'Bloody hell, shot by both sides here'."

Lydon was born into a working-class enclave of north London in 1956. His mother, Eileen, was from the Cork village of Carrigrohane and his father, John, from Tuam, Galway, and he grew up steeped in a brand of displaced Irish culture and surrounded by Irish relations of all hues.

Poverty stalked the family and he claims to have contracted meningitis - which saw him in hospital for months - from the rats that were frequent visitors to the family's back yard.

Like many children of ex-pats from the 'Old Country', he would encounter his fair share of anti-Irish sentiment in his teens, a fact chronicled in his acclaimed first memoir, 1994's No Black, No Dogs, No Irish, whose title references the inflammatory notices that used to be posted on the doors of shops in London in the 1970s.

But Anger is an Energy - whose name is taken from a line of one of his best known songs, Public Image Ltd's 'Rise' - finds him frequently (and dismissively) talking about the "Paddies" he encountered growing up and their copious drinking. "On the [building] sites, it was hard to deal with the threatening behaviour of the Paddies," he writes. "They were always trying to enforce a pecking order."

He also insists that the Irish are inherently more snobbish than their English counterparts: "The Irish can be incredible snobs - much more so than anything in Britain, even with the class structure. It's always lurking there."

One feels that much of his venom stems from a visit to Dublin in 1980 that saw him arrested after a pub brawl, for which he still pleads his innocence. The next morning in court, he was refused bail, partly he says, because the prosecution had "tried to claim I'd called the bartender an 'Irish pig'." He was sent to Mountjoy jail for the weekend.

Incarceration at the Joy was an experience that stayed with him. "Inside there, it was tough - really, really tough and hard - a punishing regime," he writes. "The warders would wake me up all night long with their truncheons and make me stand by the bed."

But even in such a sobering environment, Lydon found a moment of levity: "You were allowed an hour of telly, and who came up but yours truly on the news! Then there was a programme about the history of music and yours truly was on that, too, with all the other inmates surrounding me and looking at me. The embarrassment! I just wanted to crawl under the concrete. The prisoners were fine, though."

He was sentenced to three months in prison when the case resumed, but after an appeal from his lawyer he got bail and immediately returned to Britain, where he began working on what would become the highly regarded Flowers of Romance album from his critically lauded second band, Public Image Ltd.

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Three months later, the case was thrown out of court in 10 minutes. "The judge saw right through the contradictions in the two witnesses' statements. They didn't even bother to turn up, at least not till after the case had been dismissed. I was acquitted but not before I was asked to make a £100 donation to the 'poor box'. That's Irish justice for you."

He didn't return to Ireland until 2008, when he played the Electric Picnic festival with the reformed Sex Pistols. It was also an unhappy occasion as he told this reporter in an interview last year. "I don't think they even grasped what the Pistols were about and I think some of them had an issue that there were St George's flags on stage," he recalled. "A number of the drunken louts actually thought we were there to celebrate the royal family - despite all I've said and done about that institution over the years. And I thought 'Oh my God, it's true - the Irish really are dumb'."

Even his Irish relations are not immune from a vicious tongue-lashing and in one of the book's more voyeuristic passages, he describes trouble he experienced with "Galway second-arse cousins" at the occasion of his father's funeral.

"They were disgraceful and disgusting," he writes. "Here I am trying to celebrate the death of my dad and one of the daughters of a cousin stands in front of me, raises her dress and does a clippety-cloppety dance, and asks me, 'Look, Oi can dance! Can ye get me oan X Factor?' The answer was 'No' and her response was, 'Yer a c**t'.

"That's how they behaved with us. How ugly is that? There's some serious sickness in people. It's like, we are meant to be the Irish abroad, and we're getting Irish from Ireland behaving not very Irish at all."

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