Jack McLean/Sean Tierney

Sean Tierney

Jack McLean

Saturday 22 April 2000
JackMcLean-450x250SEAN TIERNEY, who died late afternoon last Monday in Glasgow aged only 58, was a Glaswegian, a left-wing communist who never joined the Communist Party, a lawyer, a songwriter and lyricist, a habitue of pubs, a librarian, an expert on Italian renaissance, and a family man who never fathered a child, an enigma. Born Sean, he changed his name to John in his late teens when he discovered that his name denoted his Catholic background and, as the saying goes, he ”didnae get the job”. It was later in his early twenties when he qualified as a librarian working in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library that he was to revert to his real name Sean. Born in the Gorbals to Irish immigrant parents, Sean started his public life as an altar boy, quickly being dismissed as a neophyte priest because of his penchant for a Reverend Heresy. He was to remain to the end of his days an unrepentant sceptic. In the early 1970s he enrolled at Strathclyde University to study law, graduating in 1976. By now he was a well-known songwriter, especially known for the parodies which he created for many of the emergent folk, almost music hall, singers like Billy Connolly. It was an odd combination. He wrote the splendid jests of songs and remained an august, if bohemian, lecturer in food law at Glasgow’s College of Food Technology. Sean claimed to be the only legal expert on food law in Europe and he might have been right at that. I did an article on the famous case of Stephenson v an Italian lady who owned a cafe in Greenock, in which part of a snail was found in an opaque bottle of lemonade. I followed it up the next week with a satirical account of the 1920s trial. All of the information came from Sean Tierney. But to the songs. He wrote the Saltcoats song, Saltcoats furr the Fair, complete with the peely-wallie tally. The glorious Milngavie song was in Milngavie, the folks would die, if they knew-o, how many folks have had to sign, on the Broo-o! There was The Two Little Boys in Blue, which hardly endeared him to Strathclyde police. Billy Connolly and Hamish Imlach recorded his songs as they were a staple for many a Scottish and Irish performer. They were impertinent and cheery and highly literate. Connolly once wanted to give him royalties but Sean was peculiarly proud. ”I wrote them to be songs,” he told Connolly, ”not be paid for.” Sometimes it was hard to sing them. Sean wrote a marvellous song to the tune of the Sash, called The Moustache My Father Wore, a splendid ditty based on a fantasy that a family of Orangemen retained the fossilised moustache of their old dad on the mantelpiece. That it was sung to this old sectarian air meant that some bigots had never heard the words of the song. Entertainer and friend Charlie Devlin says he got more smacks in the mouth than he could cope with because the faithful of both sides heard only the tune. A lot of French, too. Gus/Lord/Macdonald, a chum for years, wanted this gifted lawyer to join World in Action back in his glory days. Brendan McLaughlin, the publican and entrepreneur, got the Scotia Writers Prize off the ground only because Sean thought it up. He thought up a lot, including bringing up two families of children, though none of them was biologically his. The children think of him as the best dad you could have. A man of great learning, he was inclined to a self-diffidence which could irritate. The college principal Dr Bannatyne relied on his legal judgment but couldn’t get him to apply for promotion. His students found him so youthful in his demeanour they used to give him advice. It’s not just the college he served for so long (he started the very advent of it a quarter of a century ago), there are tears throughout Scotland, for he was a great man for travelling the country. Two last thoughts. I once took him back to stay overnight at my mother’s house. He had a huge Alsatian whom he named Hitler. My mother was more scared of Sean, with his wild Karl Marx beard, that she was of the dog, even more scared than she was of Hitler. Within 10 minutes she had the skillet on frying him a midnight breakfast. The other is that he told his pal Tony Donnelly, the librarian at the college, he was a favourite in that he was leaving all he had to him. ”I want to know that I can leave **** all at least to someone I like.”

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