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Counting his blessings

Liam Ó Maonlaí of Hothouse Flowers told David Hennessy about 37 years of the Hothouse Flowers, how he earned his father’s respect after defying him to give music a go and when he ran away from home to live in a squat in Brixton.

Hothouse Flowers’ Liam Ó Maonlaí will be playing some dates around the UK fresh from playing the Pairc festival in Birmingham.

Known for songs like Don’t Go, Give it Up and I Can See Clearly Now, it is now 37 years since the Hothouse Flowers first formed. The band would burst onto the scene in 1988 when their debut album People became the most successful Irish album in history.

People would be number one album in Ireland as well as number two in the UK.

While he couldn’t have exactly predicted such success, Liam says: “You have to believe in yourself when you set about something, and when I started performing with the band, I saw the road ahead because I had to see it.

“I had to tell my father, ‘Sorry, I’m not doing college. I’m doing this. And I know I can do it. And I know it’s gonna do well. We don’t know the details on how it’s going to, the ins and outs of where it’s going to reach and what awards it might get or that’.

“But I did have to sort of believe that this was going to be an important contribution to music.

“I had to believe that completely, 100%.

“I had to believe that but then you believe that and then you put it away.

“You put it in the work and carry on.

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“I suppose the main thing for me is to get the deepest pleasure I can from the making of the music.

“It keeps coming back, the joy of going on stage with four or five people that I know so well and taking the music out for a ride.

“It keeps us all, I think, intrigued and excited by something that might otherwise have exhausted itself.”

The Hothouse Flowers are only three years off 40 years as a band, a milestone not many bands make it to.

“It says something about human nature, I think.

“Maybe if there wasn’t music, we might not be finding ourselves in the same room but music was the thing that brought us through thick and thin.

“There would be times when you just don’t know what to say to your friend.

“And there were times when we might not have been great for talking to each other.

“But the musical channels always stayed open.

“And that’s what has us still here really.

“We all kind of find it remarkable that we are friends and we value that friendship.

“Something might be going on in our personal lives, we’re there for each other.

“As I speak I’m counting my blessings for that.”

Liam remembers the day the band shared a bill with INXS and Deborah Harry at Wembley Stadium in 1991.

“That was a pretty amazing day. Wembley Stadium.

“I remember sound checking that day and singing a big Connemara sean-nós song, filling the stadium with a big Connemara sean-nós song was a pretty amazing feeling.

“I think I sang two or three verses so it got a proper airing.

“Who would have thought that maybe 50 or 100 years ago that that might ever ever ever in a lifetime have happened?

“And then we had a gig which can be heard on YouTube.

“So exciting, we were in good form that day. It’s so exciting to hear it.

“We’ve got absent friends from that day.”

Leo Barnes, the band’s saxophone player died in April of this year and with no family, Liam took responsibility for his funeral.

“He passed away just two months ago.

“He was an invaluable member of the band back in those days, an invaluable part of the sound of the band.

“He’ll be sorely missed.

“And it was a it was very moving.

“Myself and Jerry (Fehilly) our original drummer- He had no next of kin- So we took it upon ourselves to provide the funeral for him.

“It was a privilege to do that. We had people from all his different worlds.

“He came up through Artane.

“He was in the boys’ home there so he went through that awful system that so many have survived. And so many have not survived.

“He came through it and survived and flew like a bird thanks to music.

“He was in the Artane Boys Band.

“And then he was in the army band.

“And from there, he got a scholarship to Bordeaux, studied under a master saxophone player.

“He was a real unsung hero of Irish music so it was a privilege to be able to act in some way as next of kin for him.

“Sadly, it was a very emotional day when we said to goodbye to him.

“I feel very privileged whenever I’m in any way connected to somebody’s passing in that respect, or I can sing a song and try and provide an atmosphere or a sound for people to maybe still their minds a little bit of all the questions and all the other thoughts that might be rushing around, that come from the trauma of losing somebody and trying to figure out what’s going on, what it is all about.

“To sing a song in that atmosphere is a real serious privilege.

“I take it very seriously, and I’m very grateful to be asked whenever I am asked.”

Leo is not the only one no longer with us from that day at Wembley in 1991.

Backing vocalist Claudia Fontaine passed away in 2018.

“And Claudia Fontaine was just a golden voice on People and Home and Songs from the Rain and was a sixth member of the band.

“A woman from the Caribbean world but from London, she just came in as a session musician for our work and we hit it off with her to such a degree.

“So we carry the sadness as well of missing those people.”

Yet another sad note talking about that ‘amazing day’ is that the actor Dudley Sutton, who was known for playing Tinker in Lovejoy, joined the band onstage that day, and also sadly passed in 2018.

“He was a lover of Ireland, of Dublin in particular.

“He knew Dublin in the 50s when I think it must have been a very, very exciting place with the Dubliners and all the sort of folk revival that was happening then and a sense of identity that was being reborn in those days.

“And he was there for that, he was friendly with Behan and many others, Kavanagh, his contemporaries of the time.

“He loved us, he really took a shine to us.

“We had such fun in this company.

“So yeah, another another privilege to be around and to have met somebody like that.”

Long before he would come to play Wembley Stadium or Top of the Pops, Liam would come to London and lived in a squat in Brixton when he was eighteen and ‘running away’.

“I’d just left school, 18 or something.

“It was pretty tough but it’s a great memory to have.

“It’s a great thing to look back on. The Caribbean-African culture in Brixton was fantastic.

“Living in the squat I also saw the sadder parts of people’s lives, I saw a lot of heroin addiction, drug addiction, a lot of people living marginal lifestyles, and getting through life through crime basically.

“I was very depressed at that time. Not in a way I could actually point at.

“I mean, I was functioning and having a laugh.

“But I look back on that time and just being very internal.

“It was an interesting thing to go through. I was very glad to come home as well. I could easily have just stayed there.

“I got a message from my parents to say that I had done well enough in my leaving that I had been accepted into third level education, that they would send me the money to get myself home.

“And so I did, and I was glad of that even though I had run away from home.”

Why had he run away? “It’s just father and son dynamics, whatever demon we inherited.

“We had a tough time during my teenage years.

“But then, as soon as I focused on what my life was about and what I wanted to do and I put that into action, I found self-respect. And in doing so, I found respect from him as well.

“And we ended up as great friends

“I always adored him anyway.

“He would be one of the reasons I do what I do. He taught me to sing, he gave me my language.

“So it was great to prove to him that the seeds he sowed have borne fruit.”

Still, I would say it was hard to tell parents who wanted you to go to college that you had other plans..

“Oh, yeah. But I was used to having fights and I finally had something to say.

“And I had something to offer.

“There was no two ways about my mind.

“I had a conversation with him promising in that I would study to repeat my year but my heart wasn’t in that.

“When I was promising him that I was gonna do well, and that I knew I was gonna do well, my heart was 200 per cent in that.

“So in theory, it was a hard question but actually in practice and reality, it was very clear what had to be done. There was no two ways about it.

“While it was hard, it was quick and it was done.

“It was tough.

“I suppose as a boy, I am proud of having had that conversation that probably most people have to have at some stage in their lives.

“They have to kind of go, ‘Maybe you’re wrong about this, dad. Maybe you’re wrong and maybe I’m right. And I’m going to show you that I’m right’.

“And I was able to do that.

“It took a while. It took a while for him to start seeing it.

“It wasn’t long when he came to a gig of ours in Dun Laoghaire.

“He gave me 100 pounds that night after the gig such was his feelings for the music.

“And that was it. That was it.

“That was him. He had become an ally and a friend.”

Had Liam put music off and gone to college to please his father, his dad would never have seen the success he saw his son have.

“He died in 1993. So we took off in 1988.

“That’s when I think we reached the zenith of our trajectory.

“We played the RDS under our own name, co-headlining with Tracy Chapman as well as Deacon Blue but it was our gig.

“That was the statement of our band really, I remember driving into Ballsbridge and seeing crowds and crowds of people and going, ‘Oh my God, they are coming to see me’.

“And people were coming from all over the country, all corners, and England and further afield all came to see us.

“It was very moving and my parents were there.

“Even when I talk about it, I go, ‘God did that really happen?’

“And he saw it.”

Liam has done some charity work for charities like the Simon Community and the Peter McVerry Trust who work with the homeless.

Considering it was only someone opening the door to him at that squat that gave him a place to stay, is this close to his heart because he could have been on the street?

“I’ll always remember being on the tube with a single ticket because I couldn’t afford a return and an address and nothing else, no money.

“That could have been it, that could have been me sitting in a station for the night.

“Yeah, absolutely. And we’re humans, you know.

“We’re all having an earthly experience, then some of us have it one way and some of us have it another way. And we’re all sharing this planet.

“So yeah, I think whenever I can, I would hope I can help a little bit and believe and see that we’re meant to be here.

“And that it can be a good life. And that it can be a shared life.”

Speaking of a shared life, how did you get through the last couple of years? “I decided to look at it as an opportunity to recharge my own batteries, my own relationship with life.

“I took to walking. First thing in the morning, I’d wake up, I’d just get out of bed and out the door.

“I just did it.

“And I found it put everything in perspective for me.

“A life changing time, actually. And also I’ve never been someone to really listen to the news.

“That didn’t change, I didn’t watch TV, I didn’t listen to the radio.

“What you need to know, you get to know. Word gets around, we’re humans.

“Even if we have to stay away from each other, we still communicate.

“I just found that the media was constantly talking about the same thing.

“And it seemed very political, and I wasn’t going to be letting that into my mind.

“So I just I kept my distance from it and I took no opinion about it either.

“But ultimately I took my own wellbeing as a central part of my health.

“I’m grateful for that and still trying to hold on to that.”

So what is next for Liam? “I’m in the process of making a solo album, I started working on it in Japan before things locked down.

“And then the Flowers is wide open.

“As I said, we’re still intrigued by music and we’re still seriously energized every time we play.

“And I think if we were to get eight days in a studio, I’d say we could make a pretty good record pretty handy as well. At some stage hopefully that might happen.

“I’d love to see us getting heard.

“I think we have something to say still and I’d like to see that happen.

“To play at such a level in Birmingham now is very satisfying.”

Liam and the Hothouse Flowers played the Pairc Festival in Birmingham along with Imelda May, Damien Dempsey, Nathan Carter, Sharon Shannon and Beoga.

Speaking ahead of it, Liam said: “It’s gonna be great.

“Imelda and Damien, they both just do incredible shows.

“I saw Imelda play in Vicar Street last month.

“It was mind blowing her show, the work she put into it. The inspiration that she harnessed.

“And then the joy she got out of it was absolutely inspiring, thrilling, and made me very proud to be a fellow countryman.

“I’m excited to see her there now and to be there. I like Birmingham. I like the people.

“I like England. I love it.

“Always loved coming over.

“I love the fact that we’re presenting ourselves as Irish people and that’s being celebrated. Always a great joy.”

Liam Ó Maonlaí tours around the UK from 2- 9 September.

He plays Cubley Hall Hotel in Penistone on Tuesday 6 September, Wreckingball Arts Centre in Hull on Wednesday 7 September, The Pelton Arms in Greenwich on Thursday 8 September, Kitchen Garden Arts Centre in Birmingham on Friday 9 September.

For more information on Liam, click here.

For more information on The Hothouse Flowers, click here.

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