Noel Pearson, the film producer and former manager of The Dubliners, remembers that Kelly’s false teeth kept falling out during his performances as King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973, the hit musical that Pearson produced at the Gaiety Theatre.
The actor and comedian Niall Tóibín, who performed with Kelly in several revue pieces over the years, says Kelly used to flash them when he’d open up on a song. And when he got his teeth stuck in a song few could match him. He was a force of nature, and one of the great interpreters of songs.
“I remember being in a theatre in London,” says Pearson. “There were 3,500 people in it. I was with Oscar Lewenstein, who ran the Royal Court at the time; he was the guy who did Billy Liar first, and Julie Felix was with us.
“Luke Kelly came out and sang ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’ while playing the banjo and then he put the banjo down like a rifle and sang quicker and quicker. Nobody understood a word, but the place went bananas, and he took the banjo up and he played a few chords and he sang in the most melodic, beautiful tone, ‘Peggy Gordon’, and the place erupted again. When he was on form there was no folk singer better than him — either today or then. Nobody came close.”
Tóibín says Kelly’s singing style was markedly different to Ronnie Drew, his fellow Dubliner: “Luke had this great strength in his voice. The chin would be out and he’d give it the full wallop every time. He was a very aggressive performer. He commanded you to listen by his attitude, whereas Ronnie used to charm you into it — he was the auld pals act, easy-going; he’d worm his way in. Luke was a very determined character. He’d walk on stage with every intention of overpowering the audience: ‘listen to this, ye blackguards’, and the eyes would be sparkling.”
Kelly was born in Nov 1940, and grew up on Sheriff’s Street in Dublin. He left school at 13 and worked odd jobs before emigrating to England where he began his schooling in folk music in earnest. This was augmented by a year in London in the mid-1960s under the wing of Ewan MacColl, who Kelly cited as his greatest influence in music, although they endured an uneasy relationship. Kelly reckoned his mentor to be a great songwriter but not a great singer.
As well as gathering a songbook of folk songs in the UK, Kelly was absorbed by all the great left-wing struggles of the 1960s, including the anti-Apartheid movement, civil rights in the United States, and the campaigns to stop the war in Vietnam and nuclear disarmament. He used to be known in British folk circles as Luke ‘Sun is Burning’ Kelly, after one of the songs that is most associated with him.
The liberal causes led to easy newspaper headlines later in his career like ‘Troubadour of the Downtrodden’, but he liked golf and other bourgeois comforts. “He was a smoked-salmon socialist,” says Pearson. “He liked the good life. He had money stashed. He had the big house in Dartmouth Square. It was all a load of bollocks, but that isn’t to say he wasn’t generous. He was generous to people. He loved the gossip and the craic and the scandal. He had opinions about everything.”
Ronnie Drew used to challenge him on his love of communism, wondering why, if it was so great an idea, so many people wanted to leave communist countries. This used to get up Kelly’s goat. Drew’s favourite Luke Kelly story involved a pub scene when a drunk said to Kelly, “If I had a gun, I’d join the IRA”. To which Kelly replied, “If you had a gun, you’d pawn it.”
Although The Dubliners are synonymous with Irish folk songs — Kelly said he was “thunderstruck” at his first experience of a Fleadh Cheoil in Miltown Malbay, Co Clare — the band dropped a lot of the rebel songs as The Troubles took hold in Northern Ireland.
Kelly was averse to sentimentality. He rarely performed ‘Scorn Not His Simplicity’ — one of his most famous songs, penned by Phil Coulter about his Down syndrome son — on stage, for example.
Kelly married Deirdre O’Connell, founder of Focus Theatre, in 1965. Sabina Coyne, the wife of President Michael D Higgins, was a bridesmaid at their wedding. They separated in the early 1970s; Kelly spent the final years of his life in a relationship with Madeleine Seiler.
Of the five main members of The Dubliners, it was said Ciarán Bourke and himself drank longest and hardest. According to actor Phelim Drew, quoted in his father Ronnie Drew’s memoir, Ronnie, which was published shortly after Ronnie Drew died in 2008: “Dad used to say about Ciarán, if they were going on the piss together, ‘You start on Monday and I’ll meet you on Wednesday.’ He would drink pints just for thirst. Whiskey he drank to get drunk. Ciarán and Luke, they really took it to another level and so they were an accident waiting to happen, really. They were wild.”
Bourke died in 1988, a few years after Kelly, who collapsed on stage during a gig at the Cork Opera House in Jun 1980, and was rushed to hospital. He had a brain tumour removed. He continued performing but he was diminished. The last song he recorded was ‘Song for Ireland’.
In Dec 1983, Kelly had a seizure before a gig in Mannheim, Germany. He spent that Christmas in Dublin with his family, but entered hospital again in the New Year and died, Jan 30, 1984. His funeral brought Dublin to a halt. His headstone at Glasnevin Cemetery bears the inscription: “Luke Kelly — Dubliner”.
nThe Legend of Luke Kelly — 30th Anniversary Concert is on 7.30pm, Thursday, Jan 30, Vicar St, Dublin, and 8pm, Sunday, Feb 2 at the Cork Opera House. Ronnie Drew’s memoir Ronnie is published by Penguin Ireland.
Bono, who has a signed photograph of the Dubliners in his bathroom, likes to say that when the hard men of rock’n’roll are lined up — like AC/DC, Led Zeppelin (and including U2, for some reason) — they’re “like a girl’s choir” compared to The Dubliners. Who would disagree?
The comedian Billy Connolly was transfixed when he saw them perform at Glasgow City Hall in the 1960s: “I had never seen such a collection of hairy people in my life,” he said later. “I. had never seen such energy, honest-to-God energy, like Luke Kelly’s. I had never heard a voice as extraordinary as Ronnie Drew’s. I had never heard banjo-playing as amazing as Barney McKenna’s.
“Ciarán Bourke looked like the gypsy from one of his own songs who was likely to run off with your girlfriend. If my memory serves me well there was also a little guy called John who did the most beautiful version on mandolin of ‘Róisín Dubh’, which I will remember until my dying day, and with a bit of luck will have it played on that occasion.”
The band was thrown together by chance in 1962. Ronnie Drew knew Barney McKenna (or “Barney from Donnycarney”) from seeing him at the Fiddler’s Club in Dublin. He met Luke Kelly for the first time at a regular session at the International Bar on Wicklow St. Kelly was just back from the UK and had a hat full of songs Drew hadn’t heard. The three started to go to O’Donoghue’s on Baggot St where Ciarán Bourke, who was studying agriculture around the corner at UCD, used to drop in to play his whistle. According to Drew, they “didn’t consciously form; they just played”.
They took off for a Ballad Tour of Ireland together, which was “half a success”, if not always glamorous. After a gig in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, they were put up in a big, empty room over a pub. When it got particularly cold during the night, the four band members lifted up the old carpet in the room and got in under it for some warmth.
At the time, they were still trading under the name the Ronnie Drew Ballad Group (or The Ronnie Drew Ballet Group, as one poster apparently referred to them on that first Irish tour). It was Luke Kelly, who was reading James Joyce’s Dubliners during a rehearsal, who hit on the name The Dubliners.
In 1967, the BBC refused to play their bawdy song, ‘Seven Drunken Nights’. The dose of controversy propelled them forward. A year later, they performed on The Ed Sullivan Show, America’s premier TV ticket, on St Patrick’s Day. A few months later, they played the Royal Albert Hall in London.
The band socialised with the best of them during the 1960s. Ronnie Drew recalled meeting Jimi Hendrix and a few of his cohorts at the Speakeasy Club in London, and it being “like backstage at some pantomime the way everybody was dressed up”.
With their attitude and appearance, and the beards, of course, the Dubliners were like no other act that appeared on Top of the Pops. John Sheahan, the band’s fiddler, who joined during Kelly’s hiatus in the UK in the mid-1960s, was the only member who had any formal music education, and is the longest surviving of the group.
The ’60s were their heyday. Ronnie Drew left to go solo in 1975, but re-joined in 1980. Others joined the troupe over the years, including Jim McCann, Seán Cannon and Paddy Reilly.