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Thursday 14 December 2017

Life lessons with Liam Ó Maonlaí: 'We were looked down on by some people because we were Irish speakers'

Ré featuring Liam Ó Maonlaí, will perform on Jan 28 at St Michan's Church. Photo: Colin O'Riordan.
Ré featuring Liam Ó Maonlaí, will perform on Jan 28 at St Michan's Church. Photo: Colin O'Riordan.
Music men: Liam O Maonlai with Bono at the launch of The Hothouse Flowers' album in 2004
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

Liam Ó Maonlai (51), made his name as co-founder of the Hothouse Flowers and also has a traditional band, Ré. He and his brother Colm grew up in Clonskeagh as the sons of former Abbey actress, Eithne Lydon, and the late Seán Ó Maonlaí. Liam lives in Dublin with his French partner, Marion Agogué, and their daughter Pema (9). He is divorced from Aoife, with whom he has a son Cian (19).

My dad taught me to sing very early on. He was passionate about Ireland, and had a very strong sense of tradition and a huge sense of people. That wiped off on me. Irish was just in me and it was always something that brought pleasure, curiosity and a sense of belonging.

Mum would often cry while reading monologues in the kitchen, and when he was small, my brother would end up crying with her. She was great craic and really inventive, and there was a dramatic atmosphere in the house. After we came along, Mum would accept roles on TV or radio, but she didn't reckon she could do theatre and stage any more because it takes a lot of dedication and time.

We were looked down on by some people because we were Irish speakers. I have no idea why, but kids can be cruel and certain areas have a certain ethos. Not everyone likes Irish, and some people would like it not to be there as it represents the dirty past.

Most fathers and sons have a bumpy patch when the boys are becoming men. Love was never lost between my dad and I but it wasn't always easy. He wanted me to go to college and follow a certain path, but that path was most unclear to my head. He had to put in hard graft to get to where he was, and was aware that you could easily slip and get sucked up by idleness.

I ran away to London aged 18 after having a row with my dad, and lived in a squat. I was completely disorganised and unmotivated. I was very quiet and reserved and deep inside myself.

My ex-girlfriend mediated between myself and my family, and let them know I was OK. I came home because I was accepted into Trinity to do Irish, classical civilisation and philosophy. The reception from my family was lovely and I relished being back.

College didn't really work for me as I had no interest in it. The positive side was that there was always a music room or piano I could access. A few songs got written in those little spaces, and that may not have happened if I had long-term access.

With the Hothouse Flowers, we didn't know we were a band at first. We came together to perform in a competition and won it. When we started gigging, we hit gold on our third gig and realised it was blinding.

When I told my dad I was leaving college to do music full-time, that was the biggest contract I ever made. He admired my conviction because it was the first time he really saw it and was so proud when it worked out. Before that I was trying to convince him of something I wasn't sure of and couldn't see clearly myself.

It was exciting when record companies became interested and we were played on the radio, but being 'exclusive' was very difficult. We were told not to play anywhere unless it was part of the plan. That didn't suit us because part of our creative process was playing in nightclubs or busking.

It all started moving in a way that seemed to move away from us. You don't even know the people who have control over your career, and their decisions may not be for your benefit. That was a really tough experience and it divided us at times, but music was always our meeting ground.

When you become a parent, some kind of anchor or commitment to doing the right thing by your family goes deep into the ground. From the minute Cian came, he was a support to me. I could feel his love and it was powerful.

When my marriage ended, I learned that a break-up is an agreement. A sad one but just as precious and sacred as the agreement to get together. Aoife and I weren't splitting up really but moving away from each other. We kept Cian as the priority in it all and we're good friends now.

Aoife and I were hippy parents, and it was very 50:50 with Cian, whereas Marion had a very clear idea of how she wanted to raise Pema so I wasn't as hands on. I was more the hunter-gatherer type dad, where I concentrated on my side of things and she focused on nurturing this little soul.

I turned 51 in November and love getting older. I'm very aware that I don't look as young as I used to, but l'm no less able. I still feel like I'm growing up, and am as quietly observant now as I was when I was a kid.

Ré is a very new traditional band and every member has a heritage of music. When you're on stage and the music and the band are connecting, it's such a satisfying feeling. It never ceases to rejuvenate me, and it blasts out any kind of dance that would be lingering in my head after a week of doing nothing.

Ré featuring Liam Ó Maonlaí, will perform on Jan 28 at St Michan's Church, as part of TradFest Temple Bar, templebartrad.com

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