Remembering Luke Kelly - one of modern Ireland's most important cultural icons

Remembering Luke Kelly - one of modern Ireland's most important cultural icons

LUKE KELLY was a mere 43-years-old when he died on January 30, 1984 but the impact he left on a new post-war generation of Irish people was far-reaching.

A balladeer, musician and political activist, Kelly’s ability to sing ‘his heart out’ with ‘perfect diction’ in the words of Bono and the late Ronnie Drew bear testimony to the gift of his irreplaceable voice to stir and move the most hardened of souls with song and sentiment.

One of his most enduring talents was his ability to almost convince audiences that the songs he sung and the lyrics used were stories from his own life.

Indeed, while Luke often sang of the poor, the oppressed, the worker, the lover or the rebel –the realities of his own life and upbringing enlivened and gave weight to his songs and the emotional way in which he sang them. And his own childhood and youth was anything but privileged.

Born on November 17, 1940 to a working class family near the Five Lamps area of Dublin, where in the words of his sister Betty, the family lived in ‘poverty of the utmost’, sharing communal toilets and taps with eight other families.

By all accounts, Luke was a good student, an avid reader, and gave and received his fair share of knocks and bruises on the playing field for Home Farm FC and his local GAA club. His father was fortunate enough to have a life-long job at the Jacob’s Biscuit Factory.

He had Scottish connections on his mother’s side, and his maternal grandmother lived with the Kelly family until her death in 1953.

This Caledonian influence certainly added to the passion with which he sang a number of Scottish songs about the oppressed and the working man such as Tramps and Hawkers, The Blantyre Explosion, and A Parcel of Rogues.

Notwithstanding his mother’s influences, Kelly was all the same a quintessential Dubliner, with a fierce pride in his humble roots, and sympathy for the plight of the poor and downtrodden.

A house fire in 1953 gutted the family home and forced the Kellys to move to Whitehall. Like many Irish people in the 1950s, Luke left school at a young age, and survived for the next few years of his life doing various menial jobs.

His post-school years would also see the singer develop his interest in music and learn to play the banjo, which later in life would see him encapsulate one of the most endearing sights on the Irish folk scene – tightly clenched eyes, a bushy red head and beard, the ever-present banjo, and lyrics sung from the depths of his soul.

This image, as argued by Bono, allowed the performer to be both visually and musically striking.

The bleak economic realities of 1950s Ireland saw Luke emigrate to England in 1957 to work alongside his brother Paddy as a steel fixer on a building site where, not long into the job, Luke was apparently fired for demanding better pay and conditions for the workers.

Not to be undone however, he eked out a living by odd-jobing, where the work varied from cleaning lavatories to selling hoovers door-to-door.

His initial years in England were that of an itinerant worker spending most of his time in Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Birmingham or wherever available work would take him.

Luke’s entrance on the musical stage after 1960 stemmed from his interest and involvement in the folk scene that was witnessing a resurgence in this period in folk clubs throughout England, in particular in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and then later in Leeds where he often frequented McReady’s pub to take part in musical sessions there.

With banjo in hand, he displayed a tremendous interest in discovering and mesmerizing folk songs from throughout Britain and Ireland and injecting life into them with his own unique and unforgettable voice.

Some of these songs which he popularized would go on to be seen as Irish ballads when in fact their origin and story lay elsewhere.

Notable examples include Ewan McCall’s DirtyOldTown (an English folk song about Salford outside Manchester) and Peggy Gordon (a Scottish love song).

The performer also befriended a great number of people who were to have a strong influence on his music and politics, including Pete Seeger, Dominic Behan (brother of Brendan and author of the iconic McAlpines Fusiliers) and Ewan McCall, a central figure in the English folk scene and an unwavering Communist.

As Luke’s music and busking started to pay dividends so too his political convictions came out into the open.

This period in his life would see him openly espouse socialist and communist views that venerated the plight of the worker in the midst of what he saw as a corrupt and greedy capitalist system.

Luke was to remain steadfastly committed to these views throughout his life. In part influenced by McCall, and his own circle of socialist friends, Luke joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, and became an active participant in left-wing organisations such as the Young Communist League and the Connolly Association in England.

He was also actively involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s (CND).

Luke’s left-wing politics and the experiences of life as an Irish laborer in England gave added life to Luke’s later renditions of songs such as The Sun is Burning, Poor Paddy on the Railway, England’s Motorway/ Come My Little Son, and of course McAlpine’s Fusiliers.

Seeing an opportunity to return home and find work during the ballad boom in Ireland in the early 1960s, Luke returned home in 1962 after over four years in England.

Luke Kelly

O’Donoghue’s Pub on Merrion Row would be the setting that would bring together the people whose musical skills, energy and distinction would take a lead in putting Irish folk music onto the world stage.

The pub already had a reputation as a session house but it was its role in bringing together the likes of Ronnie Drew, ‘Banjo’ Barney McKenna and Luke Kelly followed later by Ciaran Bourke and John Sheahan that guaranteed its place in Irish folk history.

Ronnie was an already established musician in the city, so the group initially referred to themselves as the Ronnie Drew Group.

According to Barney McKenna, the group later opted for the name Dubliners after Luke, who happened to be reading James Joyce’s Dubliners at the time, suggested it. But in 1964, Luke left the group for a period of two years in which he honed his talents under the watchful eye of Ewan McCall in London – an experience he would later view as a sort of apprenticeship for better things to come.

He also got married to Deirdre O’Connell, an American singer and actress during this period. The late 1960s would see the group really hit the international stage with hits such as the controversial Seven Drunken Nights, The Black Velvet Band, and a performance of Muirsheen Durkin on the hugely popular Ed Sullivan Show in the US in 1968.

By now the Dubliners were a household name in Ireland and enjoyed tremendous support in numerous countries throughout the world.

The hectic scheduling and party lifestyle, however, took its toll. Luke’s marriage to Deirdre ended as a result, and close friends had by now expressed concern about his drinking.

The Dubliners, however, were later injected with even more energy when composer, Phil Coulter joined their management team.

It was under Coulter’s influence that Luke would sing two of his most memorable songs Scorn Not His Simplicity and The Town I Loved So Well - songs that illustrated both his compassion for the less fortunate and his concern for the turbulent events that were wreaking havoc in the North.

Scorn Not His Simplicity was a tribute written by Coulter for his handicapped son. Luke was so moved by the song when he first heard it that he pestered Coulter to allow him to sing it.

From that moment onward, Kelly only showed the utmost respect for the song, agreeing to sing it only on rare occasions and hardly ever at any of the Dubliners’ concerts.

The story behind Luke’s performance of Raglan Road also helped to ensure his place in Irish folklore.

So impressed was Patrick Kavanagh, the poem’s normally cantankerous author, with Luke’s singing, that one evening in the Bailey pub he suggested that he should sing it as a song.

Luke’s version of this song, set to the tune of The Dawning of the Day remains the definitive performance of this celebrated song about Kavanagh’s unrequited love for Hilda Moriarty, considered at one time to be one of the most beautiful women in Dublin society.

The rich variety of songs, their themes and stories, served to broaden his appeal even further and often reflected his political beliefs, which ranged from Irish nationalism (The Rising of the Moon a favourite of James Larkin, and Kelly, The Boy from Killane), to songs that addressed the great causes of the day such as Alabama 1958 (the US civil rights movement), The Sun is Coming (the nuclear arms race), Free the People (anti-internment) or songs that spoke of the struggles and tragedies of the working man (The Springhill Mining Disaster with the chorus ‘Bone and Blood are the Price of Coal’, The Blantyre Explosion, and Joe Hill).

There is no doubt however that The Dubliners and Luke Kelly are more famous for more broadly popular Irish classics such as the The Wild Rover, The Monto, Whiskey in the Jar, and Seven Drunken Nights.

Fellow Dubliner, John Sheahan once claimed that Luke got a level of satisfaction in challenging the social and political conservatism of the old Ireland through such songs.

By the turn of new decade, Luke and the Dubliners had done more to revitalise and re-invigorate Irish folk music and place on the world stage than any other group.

This says a lot given the wealth of musical talent such as the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem who likewise contributed greatly to the popularity of Irish ballads and traditional music at home and abroad.

It was not to last however and the beginning of Luke’s gradual exit from this life began when, after complaining of headaches for some time, he collapsed during a concert at the Cork Opera House on June 30, 1980.

He had also suffered from bouts of forgetfulness, shaking hands and a trembling voice that sometimes affected performances.

Initially it was felt that this could be attributed to his hectic schedule and party lifestyle, but a scan revealed that Luke had a brain tumour which would have to be operated on.

Despite this most serious of operations, the great man continued to tour with the Dubliners. He also gave up drinking for a few years in the hope of speeding a full recovery.

The failure of the medical treatment to prevent his decline however became apparent by the fact that he was more frequently forgetting lyrics from songs he had sung all his life, felt increasingly weaker and was forced to leave the stage during concerts on the continent in the autumn of 1983.

By this stage, Luke could no longer tour, had cancelled his remaining commitments, and flew back to his beloved Dublin for another operation.

He spent his last Christmas in the company of his partner of eight years, Madeleine Seiler, and loving family members in December of that year before having to return to hospital in the New Year.

December 1983 would also be the last time that his fans would see him perform live. While the toll of his declining health could be seen on his face, he sang his last song The Night Visiting Song with his characteristic depth and commitment.

It seemed fitting that the opening lines of the song start with “I must away now, I can no longer tarry”.

Within the following month, Luke Kelly’s mind and body had irrevocably drifted towards that permanent sleep and on January 30, 1984, the great performer succumbed to his illness.

On the day of his funeral, one mourner observed that if Luke had any idea of how much he was loved, he would never have died.

It is an illustration of his pride for his humble origins that Luke Kelly, a man of so many songs and words, now lies in peace in Glasnevin Cemetery where his headstone bears the simple words Luke Kelly -‘Dubliner’.