Guest Post No. 11: John Doyle on Thin Lizzy and Dublin, ’73

Whiskey in the Jar. Thin Lizzy. 1973.

Those were dangerous days in Dublin. The bombings started in 1972; the grim shadow of sectarian rage in Northern Ireland was visited upon us. The grey, grainy footage of that time, when I it see online today, does not make it seem remote to me. It was grey then. It was. If you were young and wanted the succor and escape of rock ‘n roll, there wasn’t much to be had. A few bands playing in a few small clubs and pubs. The whole scene in Ireland was about the showbands – cover bands and cabaret acts playing country dance halls and ballrooms in Dublin. Bland stuff. Eventually that scene too would fade, in part because the nation’s taste in music changed and in part because it became dangerous to tour. The Miami Showband, one of the most popular, massacred after a gig in the North. Their van blown up, three of them shot dead. That happened.

In January of 1973 something bizarre suddenly made us happy. Thin Lizzy were on the English charts. Their single Whiskey in the Jar was a hit. A big effin’ hit. They were on Top of the Pops. They were on the cover of magazines. English magazines. The song was everywhere. The ancient ballad turned into a rock song about a rogue who robbed, was tricked by his true love and jailed. There was an immense guitar solo in the middle of it, a side-road taken into something that was Irish, muscular rock and vividly melodic. It was all that. “Musha ring dumma do damma da..”

Back then in Dublin, there was always Thin Lizzy. A trio – bass, guitar, drums. They’d play anywhere. Pubs and dancehalls. There were Peace Concerts to make everyone feel hopeful about peace, not violence, man, and Thin Lizzy would always play. The most distinctive thing about them was Phil Lynott. Phil was black and at that time you could probably count the number of black men in Dublin on the fingers of one hand. There were some foreign students at Trinity, and Phil. Tall and skinny with an Afro, Phil was both exotic and a quintessential Dublin man. When he opened his mouth to speak, the thickness of his Dublin accent was astonishing. You couldn’t miss Phil. Everyone remembered seeing him on the street. He was yer man. I had seen the guy who played that amazing guitar solo, Eric Bell, on the bus. Yer man.

The fact that Thin Lizzy had a hit single took a while to sink in. Especially for us kids. How could the guy I’d seen on the bus last month be on Top of the Pops playing a massive guitar solo, and not a bother on him? It did sink in, eventually. It sunk in that people were going to record shops all over England, possibly all over Europe, and buying Whiskey in the Jar. When they heard Phil drawl out, “Me, I like sleepin’, especially in my Molly’s chambers” they thought the Irish were cool. Not barbarians murdering each other. That was happiness. Phil did well for us. He was a pop star, and photographed and interviewed. An English journalist asked him what it was like to be Irish and black. Phil smiled and said, “Kinda like a pint of Guinness.” That made us laugh. We rarely laughed in those grey, dangerous days. “Musha ring dumma do damma da..”

John Doyle’s brilliant two books are “A Great Feast of Light” and “The World is a Ball,” available everywhere. He is the Globe and Mail’s tv critic and writes a lot and very well about soccer. He was my teacher at York University, and if I hadn’t met him, my life would be very different, and probably a lot less fun.

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