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John & Tim Lyons (Co. Cork)
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(photos: John Howson)
John Lyons was born on 31st October 1933. Tim was born on 8th December 1937. Both were born in Evergreen Road in Turner’s Cross, a suburb of Cork City. Their grandfather (whom they never met), was a stone-mason living in Mulcarthy’s Bridge, near Banteer, Co.Cork. He was a member of the Irish Land League, a political organisation which sought to help poor tenant farmers. As its aim was to abolish landlordism in Ireland, the family was evicted from their home and local people took them in to stay. John and Tim’s father, also called Tim, was fourteen years old at this time. One night, he and a friend made a plan. They packed a bag, climbed out the window, and walked to Cork city. There they signed on with the British Navy and their father, Tim Sr. became a gunner, fighting in The Battle of Jutland in 1916. On leaving the Navy, he met and married a Cork woman called Kathleen Buckley.
As young children, John and Tim were known as Jackie, (a popular name in Cork) and Tadhg (Pronounced ‘Tige’ – Tiger without the ‘r’). They had two brothers, Richie and Patrick and a sister Nora. After his Navy service, their father got a job in Henry Ford’s motor works in Cork city as a machine operator, making con-rods. Later, as work became scarce, he tried his hand at anything he could, including photograph framing. He usually worked at home, but also visited people’s houses, carrying his carpenter’s tools and a large mitre block on the back of his Raleigh bike. At home, he also cut hair, turning the sitting room into a barber’s shop with a striped pole outside over the gate.
The family moved to north Cork, near Banteer, the area where their father had been brought up. They rented a gate house on an estate in Dromtariffe owned by Captain Leader, which was named ‘Rosnalee’, situated between Mallow and Millstreet on the road to Killarney. The first music John and Tim remember was when their first cousin Paddy Kelleher visited the house and played piano accordion. They were actually living a short distance from Sliabh Luachra (The Rushy Mountain), an area rich in music, but were too young to realise it at the time.
In 1946, their father moved to England in search of work and as an ex-Navy man he was able to get a council house in Wolverhampton, paying a rent of just 10d. He eventually moved the whole family there. John moved over in 1949 when he was coming up to sixteen years old and his father got him an apprenticeship as an electrician with the Electric Construction Co. A year later, Tim followed him over. He was then twelve and continued his schooling in Wolverhampton until he was fifteen. His father wanted him to become a tool-maker and he got him an apprenticeship at the Wolverhampton Die Casting Company.
Whilst in England, the only music they came across was on the radio. On Sunday mornings, they would listen to ‘As I Roved Out’ with field recordings which had been recorded by Seamus Ennis and Peter Kennedy. Another favourite programme of theirs was ‘The Jimmy Shand Show’ on Radio Luxembourg, which was the nearest they could get to Irish music. Irish National Radio reception was very poor in those days as it was broadcast from Athlone (the centre of Ireland) and they couldn’t receive it in England.
They would buy mouth-organs and try to imitate what they heard on the radio. On a Saturday afternoon, they would play music in their bedroom. Tim can remember that John made a set of drums out of Tate & Lyle tins (sugar containers) with some canvas stretched over them. Later, the brothers clubbed together and bought a Hohner one-row melodeon between them.
While they were all living in Wolverhampton, they still kept the house in North Cork, which they would return to for summer holidays. In 1954, John received his enrolment papers for the army, as conscription was still in place. His father had not had a good experience in the British forces and he told John to leave England. John moved back to Ireland and lived in the house in North Cork with his sister Nora. Tim spent his teenage years in Wolverhampton and then the same scenario arose. After finishing his apprenticeship at 21, he too received his conscription papers. Tim then, using a false name, left the factory where he worked and sought work elsewhere; he worked for a time on building sites in Birmingham but as he could not reveal his correct tax details, he had to use an emergency tax code, which left him financially crippled, so in 1959 he too went back to Ireland.
By this time John was beginning to get involved with local musicians. There was a dance platform near to the house where they lived, under a large spreading chestnut tree. On a summer’s evening, musicians would arrive and play local polkas and slides for the dancing. John had bought a Paolo Soprani button accordion and was playing with Sean Lynch’s band from Kanturk. Around this time, he was meeting several Sliabh Luachra players including fiddle players Dennis Murphy known as ‘The Weaver’ and Morris O’ Keefe from Kishkeam, nephew of the legendary Padraig O’Keeffe. Also accordion player Johnny O’Leary from Maulykeavane, and he remembers John and Julia Clifford were also with them. When Tim returned home, in 1959, they both played with Tommy Doocey’s band from Banteer, and later with Mick Williams’ Duhallow Céilí Band which played all around North Cork and parts of Kerry.
Irish railways were bringing in new diesel engines and John found work as a maintenance electrician in Dublin. Because of the erratic shift work, John soon left and started work with Unidare, maker of electric cables. Tim, now in Cork, trudged around the area looking for work, but to no avail. Eventually John managed to get him a job at Unidare also, working in the tool room and they lived together in digs in Dublin.
They found lots of music in Dublin and were regular visitors to the Piper’s Club in Thomas Street and sessions at St Mary’s Music Club in Church Street. They remember this as being one of the great venues for traditional sessions. They were in self-catering digs and one day whilst buying some cutlery, they got talking to the shopkeeper, and got onto the topic of music. He turned out to be the great Clare fiddle and concertina player John Kelly, who had moved to Dublin in 1945. They remember him as one of the stalwarts of the Dublin traditional music scene along with flute player Dessie O’Connor, accordion player Sonny Brogan, Galway fiddle player Joe Leary and banjo player Barney McKenna. At that time, Barney was also playing jazz in a bar in Howth, County Dublin. He was soon to join the Ronnie Drew Group which later became the Dubliners.
Ireland was building its first oil refinery at Whitegate in County Cork and advertised for electricians. They were offering high wages. John and flute player Mick Kelly found employment in Whitegate. However, after 6 months that job finished so they moved to England to find work.
Tim had stayed in Dublin still working for Unidare until that job came to an end. He got another job in a small sheet metalworks but that didn’t last either, so after three years in Dublin, in 1963 he also decided to hit the road and headed for London. He wasn’t married then, but had met his future wife Anna and she went to London around the same time.
While in England, John met his first wife Marian with whom he had six children; Martin, Dominic, Katie, Kieran, Eoin and Liam, all of whom are now adults and some of whom are following in John’s footsteps playing traditional music. John and his young family eventually moved to County Clare where work was plentiful. They rented a house in Newmarket-on-Fergus as there was work in Shannon and music nearby as well. Newmarket was close to Shannon which was booming, with an increasing number of factories being built. John recalls that they used to go to Clare before they actually went to live there, often to fleadhs and the festivals on the west coast. This was when Willie Clancy was still alive so it was, of course, before the famous Willie Clancy Week was going then. They loved Clare because of the great music, so when John decided to settle back in Ireland it was not his home county of Cork he chose, but County Clare where the work and the music were.
Shortly after John arrived in Newmarket-on-Fergus, the Bunratty Cottage sessions started and for a number of years John became a regular member, together with Martin Talty, Paddy O’ Donoghue, Jimmy Flynn, Denis Doody and Tony Lynch.
Meanwhile Tim was enjoying life in London where he spent the next eight years. He had found the Irish pubs and the folk clubs, in particular The Singers’ Club where he met Ewan McColl. Once it was realised that Tim had songs, he was regularly asked to sing and eventually he started getting bookings at the club. McColl invited Tim to his house in Kent where he was introduced (via McColl’s recording collection) to some of the great Irish singers like Elizabeth Cronin, Robert Cinnamond, Joe Heaney and Nicolás Tóibín. Around this time, Tim was also asked to join a group of singers, The Exiles, alongside Enoch Kent, Gordon McCulloch, Bobby Campbell and Paul Lenihan. They didn’t play together very often but Tim recalls a memorable open air ‘Ban the Bomb’ concert in Trafalgar Square and an unforgettable trip to the Isle of Arran to play at a midnight rave where he thinks the pop group ‘The Monkees’ also appeared. Tim was featured on the Exiles’ 1967 Topic LP “The Hale and The Hanged” (12T164) playing button accordion.
He continued to keep in touch with the London-Irish scene attending Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann meetings in the Greyhound, Fulham Palace Road. At a Fleadh Cheoil in Cecil Sharp House in Camden, he met Jim Doody, a singer and teacher who asked him to go on tour with him and that was Tim’s first foray into the English folk clubs. Their first bookings were in Devon and although they didn’t do much after that, the folk scene were starting to hear of Tim and he was getting solo work all over the country such as another ‘Ban the Bomb’ concert in Exeter Town Hall with Julie Felix and the Ian Campbell folk group, The Beaford Festival with A.L. Lloyd and Dave and Toni Arthur and in 1967, an appearance at the Sidmouth Folk Festival in Devon. In 1969, he was also included on a Topic compilation LP (12T184) ‘The Breeze from Eireann’ where he played alongside tin whistle player Festy Conlon. During this time, he still had a full time job on a building site in Brixton. The young foreman there was a follower of folk music and a fan of Luke Kelly’s. When it was necessary for Tim to leave the site to catch an afternoon train to a venue, he would cover for him in return for a fiver in the pub on a Friday night. Tim remembers that the money from folk clubs was good then. He would get fifteen pounds for a night singing which was to him a week’s work in London. He had particularly gained a following in the North of England and came to know The Watersons, staying at Mike’s house when he sang at Hull. But it was the North East that took him to their heart and Tim often stayed with his good friend Tom Gilfellon. When he told them that he was going back home to Ireland in 1970, they organised a farewell concert for him. The night was a sell-out and Tim remembers he got a fee of £30, his highest ever fee in those times. Tim had, by then, decided to move to County Clare.
John was certainly enjoying the local music in Clare with regular Ennis sessions in Hogan’s (now Brogan’s), Kelly’s and Paddy Arthur’s where he met a lot of local musicians and singers including John Joe Casey, Dessie Mulcaire, Séamus MacMathúna, Johnny Galvin, Paddy Murphy and Carl McTigue. He also made many trips west to Miltown Malbay and Doolin where he met and played with the Russell Brothers: Packie, Gussie and Micho, and he remembers that in those days it was a quiet little session with just the local musicians, usually in O’Connor’s pub. In Miltown, he would meet and play with Jimmy Ward and Willie Clancy and also J.J Talty, Martin Talty and the singer Mick Flynn. It was lively times, mainly in Queally’s pub. There was a little snug in the back where Willie Clancy would play, until he moved to Lynch’s which was then owned by Willie’s friend Tom Friel. This became a stronghold for traditional music in the town.
Regarding the source of his songs, John remembers that they came from everywhere. He learned them from the radio, from singers he met and from books. Before he moved to Clare, he would cut songs out of the Cork Weekly Examiner (Carbury’s Column) which had a traditional song every week, and stick them in a scrapbook; he was always looking for new songs. He started entering singing competitions at the fleadhs and became Munster Champion, and he succeeded in coming 2nd at the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Boyle in 1960.
Tim’s move to Clare in May 1970 gave him work in Shannon and the local music scene was of course a great attraction to him. He recalls that there were sessions at the drop of a hat, often on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights with great local musicians. John was well ensconced in the music scene in Clare by the early 1970s, visiting fleadhs and festivals in Scarriff, Tulla, Feakle, Ennis and Ennistymon. In East Clare, sessions he would never miss were in Donnellan’s in Kilkishen, and the Blacksticks in O’Callaghan’s Mills where he would meet and play with Martin Rochford, Vincent Griffin, Paddy O’Donoghue and Eddie Duggan. John was also a co-founder of the Shannon Folk Club which booked many new and exciting acts that were emerging on the folk scene such as Paul Brady, Joe Burke, Stockton’s Wing, De Dannan and Stoker’s Lodge. At this time John didn’t travel much outside of County Clare but he remembers a coach load of musicians including Willie Clancy, Quilty tin whistle player Joe Cunneen and P.J Downes going to Dublin to do a television programme for RTE called ‘Bring Down the Lamp’.
Around this time, Tim was playing music with singer, tin whistle and flute player Micho Russell on a weekly basis in O’Connor’s Pub in Doolin which was at that time the heart of the west Clare scene. This resulted in the duo being invited, by Leon Lamal the agent for the group ‘Rum’, to tour Belgium for two weeks including three gigs in France, two in Paris and one in Orléans. In 1972, Tim recorded an LP for the Leader label called ‘The Green Linnet’ (LER3036) and John was also recorded in 1974 for an LP on Topic called ‘The May Morning Dew’ (12TS248). There were few paid bookings in Ireland then. Although John recalls in earlier days when he played at Hogan’s in Ennis, the musicians were each given a bag of sandwiches at the end of the session which they ate outside under the archway of the pub before travelling home.
The Topic LP that John made provoked an awareness of John in England and he was invited to do some folk club tours. In 1976, John went to America for three weeks. This was for the bicentenary celebrations of the United States and the party of twenty five who travelled there reads like a Who’s Who of Irish traditional music; it included Ollie Conway, Willie Keane and The Mullagh Set, Junior Crehan, Tom Munnelly, Ciarán MacMathúna, Denis Doody, Donal O’Connor, Paddy Tunney, Micho Russell, Maeve Donnelly, Sonny McDonagh, Sonny Murray and De Danann.
Tim recorded another LP for the American label Green Linnet which was released in 1978 and called ‘Easter Snow’ (SIF1014). In the same year, Tim was asked to join De Danann, and they toured England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Holland, Belgium and Germany before embarking on a massive eleven week tour of America.
In the 1980s Tim became very active musically. Gigs where his traditional songs were wanted started to increase, particularly in Dublin where new folk clubs were starting up, like the one at Slattery’s on Capel Street. Tim had tried to write songs when he lived in London but found himself too influenced by Ewan McColl. He recalls writing a song about the 1966 Aberfan disaster but after examining it, he realised it was a carbon copy of the song ‘The Gresford Disaster’. He didn't start seriously writing songs until 1985, twenty years later, and when he was increasingly getting bookings to sing his own, often comic, songs.
In 1988, Tim and Anna moved to Galway and became involved in the music scene there. Then while on a visit back to Clare in 1989, Tim had a chance meeting with flute player and singer/songwriter Fintan Vallelly. It was in Friel's bar in Miltown Malbay, and after a little friendly altercation about one of Fintan's songs called ‘The Moving Statues’ which Tim sang, but thought it to have been written by Belfast singer, the late Brian Moore. Tim and Fintan got on very well. Fintan was intrigued that they were both writing similar satirical songs but in different styles and he asked Tim to join him on a tour of Scotland the following April. It went very well and in 1989 they released a cassette together called ‘Knock Knock Knock’ (UFMA tapes001) and in 2000 a CD under the name ‘Schitheredee’ called ‘Big Guns and Hairy Drums’ (WHN002) which concentrated on their own humorous songs. They also got themselves an agent, Frank Bechhofer, who organised tours all over England and Scotland which they continued to do until around 1995.
In 1997, Tim appeared on an American CD called, ‘Celtic Mouth Music’ (Ellipsis Arts CD4070) and in 1998 on a compilation of music and songs from 1798 uprising against British rule in Ireland called, ‘The Croppy’s Complaint’ (CRCD03).
Back in Clare, John was playing on a regular basis with local musicians around the Shannon area including Pat Mullins, Pat Costello and Martin Breen. They were known as ‘Tradaree’ and toured in Ireland and in Brittany. John was recorded on two Shannon based tapes called ‘Down Our Street’ and ‘The Artful Dodgers’ and in 1993 he recorded a solo singing cassette called ‘The Troubled Man’ (WWOO2). This was the same year that John met his second wife Ann, also a singer, at the singing festival in Ennistymon. The following year he was included on a French compilation CD called ‘Voyage Musical – Irlande’ (YA225704). Around this time, the Ennis Singers Club was founded by the late Peadar McNamara and John was included on a compilation recording of the Club called ‘Clare Songs, Rare Songs, and Quare Songs’. In the early 2000s John played and sang with the late Haulie Moloney in Malachy's Bar in Quin and they recorded a CD appropriately titled ‘Malachy's Men’.
As well as playing with local musicians, John continued to make occasional appearances at some of the English folk festivals such as Sidmouth and the National Festival Folk Festival at Loughborough, and English folk clubs such as the Swindon Folksingers Club. In 2001, John performed with Sean Talty (son of the late Martin Talty) and Eamon McGivney at The Beethoven Festival in Bonn, Germany.
John still lives near Newmarket-on-Fergus with his wife Ann. They have two children Aisling and Sean, who are award winning traditional musicians in their own right. Aisling plays harp and concertina and Sean plays tin whistle and uilleann pipes. The family are members of the Tulla Branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and John is a Patron of Cnoc na Gaoithe the new Tulla Comhaltas Cultural Centre.
Tim and Anna now live in County Galway and Tim still sings and plays at various gatherings around Ireland. Recently he has been involved in an Irish Arts Council funded song writing project called ‘The Wild Bees Nest’, and has recorded his latest, and first serious, song on the CD which is the culmination of the project.
After spending their lives criss-crossing the Irish sea for work, singing and music have been, and are still a very important part of what these two remarkable brothers do. Yet amazingly, apart from playing in so many sessions together, they have rarely shared a stage. The good news is that in recent years they have started to appear together and long may they continue to do so.
John & Tim Lyons can be heard on: VT158CD
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