Rebel with many a cause who worked tirelessly to perfect his art
Published 31/01/2014 | 02:30
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the premature death of folk singer Luke Kelly.
Although words like 'legendary' and 'genius' are overused in relation to those who have made a mark on our cultural and political history – especially those whose lives were cut tragically short – they are accolades fully justified in relation to Kelly.
No one could sing like him. His friend and biographer, the trade unionist Des Geraghty, summed up his appeal, by insisting "he had a quality impossible to define and certainly impossible to learn". But this did not mean that Luke Kelly did not work hard; though blessed with a raw talent, he went to great efforts to perfect his vocal technique and constantly expand his repertoire, to include not just Irish but also international influences.
Born in Dublin's Sheriff Street in 1940, Kelly faced a future that was typical for working-class boys of that era; early exit from education (he left school at 13) and a variety of short-lived labouring jobs. Like many others he decided, in 1958, to seek opportunities in England, but for Kelly, the path he took from here on was unconventional, as he sought out music and political activism in the English folk music scene and spent time in Newcastle and Birmingham where he began to embrace the folk revival; he was also heavily influenced by the Scottish folk singer Ewan MacColl, perhaps his greatest mentor.
Arriving back in Dublin in 1962, he took advantage of some of the musical opportunities that were a part of the fast-growing traditional and folk music revival, performing on and off with the crew of musicians associated with Ronnie Drew that evolved into the Dubliners, then making an impact at a variety of Dublin locations including the Gate Theatre, O'Donoghue's pub in Merrion Row, the Abbey Tavern in Howth and the Embankment pub in Tallaght.
Initially, Kelly was somewhat ambivalent about being part of the group, concerned about commercialisation and conscious that he had much more to learn. He left for England again, expanded his repertoire and enjoyed a creative partnership with the woman who was soon to become be wife, American-born actress and theatre founder Deirdre O'Connell.
Returning to Dublin in 1965, he committed to the Dubliners, with the group making a commercial breakthrough as they became more professional and successful, touring, recording and making breakthroughs with such songs as 'Seven Drunken Nights', which landed them a chart hit and a slot on 'Top of the Pops'.
But settling in to a safe routine was never going to be an option for Kelly; what was notable about him was his desire and willingness to experiment and to keep politics to the forefront. A committed socialist republican, he was also a champion of the great left-wing causes of the 1960s, including the anti-Vietnam war movement and the campaign for nuclear disarmament and the anti-Apartheid movement; he also played benefit gigs for those campaigning on housing and travellers' rights.
In an interview in 1964 he said "a folk movement devoid of social purpose will get nowhere", joking that he "didn't know many Tory folk singers".
Kelly made a popular impact belting out songs like 'Monto', rebel songs and love ballads as the Dubliners urbanised folk and ballad singing, but he was never inward looking and sang work songs from abroad, including US trade union anthems and contemporary and political protest songs; he also sang, at the poet's request, Patrick Kavanagh's classic 'Raglan Road'.
With the Dubliners, he courted controversy with anti-internment songs during the Troubles, but he was not a supporter of violence; journalist Con Houilhan insisted, "he was utterly devoid of prejudice and at a time when tribal emotions were running wild he never lost his stance as a member of the world's brotherhood". The Dubliner's collaboration with song-writer Phil Coulter, involving new arrangements and instrumentation, resulted in powerful, haunting and moving songs, including 'Scorn Not His Simplicity' and 'The Town I Loved So Well', which Kelly made his own.
Kelly first became very ill in 1980 and was diagnosed with a brain tumour but continued to occasionally perform before his death at the age of just 43.
The music scene in the Dublin of his era was filled to the brim with drink and socialisation with fans and the excesses, combined with incessant touring and campaigns, took their physical and mental toll.
There is no doubting his charisma and outspokenness, but it would be a mistake to see Kelly as a party animal; he could also be quite solitary, was a voracious reader and a thoughtful, reflective artist who strived for excellence in his output and refused to rest on his laurels, always looking for the next song. He had no sense of self-satisfaction.
Kelly was a pivotal figure in the cultural revival of the 1960s and 1970s, and the re-invention of Irish music, which had an international impact, as well as remaining committed to the political focus of the folk movement. He was described as the "soul" of the Dubliners, but he was more than that; there was a purity, conviction and intensity to his singing that remains unmatched. For all the talk about his legacy, the best way to appreciate his originality and distinctiveness is to listen to him in full flight on the many recordings of his classic renditions we are lucky to have.
Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD