Thursday 14 November 2019

Liam Ó Maonlaí: It's hard to go through the chaos of separating

Andrea Smith lunches with Liam O Maonlai at the Marker Hotel
Andrea Smith lunches with Liam O Maonlai at the Marker Hotel
The Market Hotel in Dublin
The Hothouse Flowers
Liam O Maonlai with the Hothouse Flowers at Croke Park in 1987, supporting U2's Joshua Tree tour

Andrea Smith

As a woman, it's kind of depressing when you're interviewing a man who has better hair than you do, but musician Liam Ó Maonlaí of Hothouse Flowers fame is the undisputed winner of today's magnificent mane award.

With his easy manner and thoughtful eyes, Liam seems confident and assured, but over our delicious starter of cauliflower, ginger and blue cheese soup at the Marker Hotel, he admits to being shy. Part of the reason he ever took to the stage was to expose a part of himself that he would normally keep hidden.

Liam grew up in Clonskeagh, as the son of Corkman Seán Ó Maonlaí, and former Abbey actress Eithne Lydon. "Our mum used to try out the scripts on us at home, and would burst into tears doing the dishes as part of her character," he laughs. "My younger brother Colm would start to cry because she was crying. Mum has just touched the 80 mark, and she's fantastic and a great piano player. She opened me up to things like flamenco music, African music and rhythm."

Liam's father loved Irish, and adored the relationship between the language, the land and the people, which he passed on to his son, who attended Irish school at Coláiste Eoin. "My dad taught me Irish songs and language as a boy, and I'm rich for it," he says. "I don't know what I would be like without the language. He was a passionate man and had such a strong vision because he went to school with Seán Ó Riada, who I believe did more for the country than any man with a gun. Culture makes people look up, not down, and it lifts your head beyond the struggle."

Andrea Smith lunches with Liam O Maonlai at the Marker Hotel
Andrea Smith lunches with Liam O Maonlai at the Marker Hotel

There was a bit of drama after Liam left school, when he ran away to London, aged 18, after having a row with his dad. He lived in a squat in Brixton, and his parents were worried because he didn't tell them where he was going or contact them. "Looking back, there must have been a cruelty in my disappearance, but it was something I felt I needed to do," he says, adding that he was in contact with an ex-girlfriend, who told his mother that he was alive. "I did nothing in London, which was my ambition, and I lived in a squat and saw all walks of life. We just made fun for ourselves. I had a little guitar but I never took the leap to go busking. I had confidence in myself and my music, but I was terribly shy and didn't know where to begin."

Liam got wind of the fact that he had been accepted into Trinity College, so he returned to Dublin after two months. He also smoothed things over with his parents. He began studying philosophy, Irish and classical civilisation, but left as it wasn't for him and music was calling. He sang, and mostly played the piano, whistle, and a little bit of accordion.

The Hothouse Flowers
The Hothouse Flowers

Hothouse Flowers began life at Coláiste Eoin, because Fiachna Ó Braonáin was in Liam's brother's class, and when they jammed together, something gelled between them. They put together a blues/soul band and, as they added more members, they began winning competitions and gaining fans.

"We wrote two songs in Irish and something magical happened," says Liam. "I got the courage then to tell my dad that I was leaving college, because no one could talk me down from what I wanted."

Liam O Maonlai with the Hothouse Flowers at Croke Park in 1987, supporting U2's Joshua Tree tour
Liam O Maonlai with the Hothouse Flowers at Croke Park in 1987, supporting U2's Joshua Tree tour

Liam explained that he felt that he could embark on a music career with his whole heart. It was the clearest conversation he had ever had with his father, who came to understand how strongly he felt. "I think every father and son has a bumpy patch when boys are becoming men, as it's our nature," he explains over his main course of tagliatelle and prawns.

"My dad was from one generation, and I had to find a way to make him see that my generation was valid and so were my feelings," he continues. "Phil Lynott was at our third gig, and it was shortly before he died. It was amazing because he was such an icon, sitting in that function room in Foxrock. That was the night I saw stars. My parents came to the gigs and really started seeing it then too. My dad even kept tapes in his car that I had recorded, so he had a chance to hear me and the way I thought without me being present, and it made him realise that I wasn't him. Our relationship got better as we got older, and he died at 65 of a heart attack, which was way too young.

He was a very kind, quiet, loving and generous man, but he had a dry sense of humour and when he liked people, he didn't hold back. I miss him terribly, and it's sad that he never met my wives or my kids."

Liam was in his early 30s when he and former wife Aoife Tunney became parents to Cian, now 18. While their marriage subsequently broke down, they remained friends and co-parented their beloved son. "When our marriage ended, it was chaotic, as those things are, but it was never a war zone," he says. "Myself and Aoife are still sound. We're Cian's parents and have a lot of time for each other. It's hard to go through the chaos of separating from someone when you made a promise, but everybody ran with it and I'm so grateful for all the support. Cian and I are very close, and splitting up with his mum intensified things because our time together was just me and him."

Two years after the separation, Liam met his French partner, Marion Agogué. She came on the road to help the band with merchandising, and their relationship blossomed. They have settled in Dublin and are very happy together, and have an adored eight-year-old daughter, Pema, which means lotus. While she is at home with Pema now, Liam says that Marion has a lot of creative energy, and studied acting and worked in film before she came to Ireland.

"She cast extras and had a great eye for people," says Liam. "There are times when she will blow my mind with little observations and I think she is dying to get her teeth into something now that Pema is a little older. Marion took on a lot with me as a partner and I think the dust is still settling, as can happen when two people from different countries come together. I'm pretty stubborn and am not the tidiest of people. I love being at home, but I sleep a lot because I run on empty when on tour, so crash when I get home."

Liam turned 50 in November (over lunch we discover that we share a birthday) and says that he likes getting older. Marion and his pals threw a surprise party for him, and he says that the amazing wave of love he felt that night has sustained him through any potential negativity. "Mortality doesn't scare me, and thinking about death relaxes me and cheers me up no end," he laughs. "I'm a mellow guy, and I love people. We give each other value by just having a chat, so I try to give people my time."

The Flowers became internationally successful, but as they travelled around the world on constant tours, Liam felt they were in a fast lane that was exhausting. "It was impossible to date on the road, or even reap the benefits of being in rock'n'roll," he sighs. "We were always driving on to the next venue every night, so there was no sinning was taking place. Also, I wasn't doing enough of what I loved culturally."

They were on the road for seven years when Liam's dad died, and he decided to take a year out. He explained to his bandmates that he didn't want to be grieving in a random hotel, with all of his energy drained, and while it wasn't the best news to receive, they understood and didn't make it hard for him. He went on to make an album with two other musicians and got involved in traditional projects and loved being able to do exactly what he wanted. While he has enjoyed a successful solo career, and is excited about his newly-launched band Ré, Hothouse Flowers still perform together whenever possible, as there are still creative ideas and energy between him, Fiachna, Dave Clarke and Peter O'Toole. They are looking forward to performing at the forthcoming TradFest Temple Bar, which also features acts like Donovan, Paddy Casey, Eleanor McEvoy, Mundy, Cara Dillon and Mick Flannery.

In his early days, Liam was both a punk and a traditional musician, and he tells his story through his songs and includes rock'n'roll songs in his set.

He also enjoys performing with his brother Colm, a musician and actor who had a role in EastEnders."I want to do more with Colm and am going to America in March to do a show in a museum of modern and contemporary art," he says. "I'm going to the School of Glass Art in Seattle, because I have been working with a glass artist here to see if I can make music on any pieces and we found a few things that worked.

''I feel very lucky, because I'm living the dream of variety at the moment."

Hothouse Flowers perform at St Patrick's Cathedral on Wednesday, January 28 at 8pm as part of the 10th anniversary TradFest Temple Bar, which runs from January 28 to February 1. For the full TradFest ­Temple Bar programme, see

NAME: Liam Ó Maonlaí.

DATE OF BIRTH: November 7, 1964.

FAMILY: The son of former Abbey actress Eithne Lydon and the late Seán Ó Maonlaí. He has a son Cian, 18, from his first marriage, and a daughter Pema, with his French partner Marion Agogué. His brother Colm played Tom Banks in EastEnders.

TEENAGE PUNK YEARS: "I dug through my dad's old wardrobe to dress the part. I wore a big coat all the time, no matter what the weather was like, and my hair was short and spiky. Punk was great, as the more miserable you were, the better it was."

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