News Liz O’Donnell

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Liz O'Donnell: After 30 years, it's time for his native city to honour the legendary Dubliner

Published 04/02/2014 | 02:30

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Wild Rover: Luke Kelly on O’Connell Bridge, Dublin, in 1980. Photo: Donal Doherty
Wild Rover: Luke Kelly on O’Connell Bridge, Dublin, in 1980. Photo: Donal Doherty

WE all know the way it happens. Whenever Irish people find themselves together, particularly when there is drink involved, the instinct to belt out a ballad is unstoppable. For us it is normal; foreigners find it extraordinary.

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On a recent outing in the United States involving a party bus ride home, the Irish contingent spontaneously launched into passionate renditions of old reliables ranging from 'There is an Isle' to 'She moves through the Fair'.

American and German passengers were startled, but charmed, by the fact that each Irish person had a song in them, word-perfect and delivered without a blush.

One American queried whether we were all part of some organised singing group!

I suppose it is part of who we are to open the lungs, throw back the head and sing for Ireland.

A regular favourite is '0n Raglan Road'. It is a song which perhaps captures best the high poetry of the Irish ballad. It would be difficult to improve the version of it as sung by the late beloved Luke Kelly of The Dubliners.

Luke died a relatively young man 30 years ago, but left a stunning cultural legacy of songs drawn from Ireland and Scotland, where his mother was born.

He has immortalised classics like 'The Town I loved so well' and 'Scorn not his simplicity' by Phil Coulter.

He was primarily a singer and musician of that sixties generation of protest singers, but was most famous for his collaboration and membership of The Dubliners.

When I knew him, it was near the end of his life. He was in declining health but was still performing with The Dubliners and managed by Noel Pearson, for whom I worked as a young graduate in one of my first jobs.

In the eighties, the band still drew huge crowds for live concerts in Germany and Scandanavia and in the United Kingdom and Australia.

Along with the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, they globalised Irish folk music, especially in the United States.

Luke was a committed socialist all his life and this ideology infused his renditions of the political anthems of Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie.

His red-haired wife Deirdre O'Connell was an Irish-American actress and theatre director born in the Bronx to a fiercely republican emigrant family, and she had her own important cultural life story.

She was an accomplished actor who brought the Stanislavsky method to Dublin and famously established the Focus Theatre in Pembroke Lane.

In due course, she would inspire a whole generation of Irish actors who followed the method, although her efforts were initially received with suspicion and antipathy by an inward-looking, 1960s Dublin.

Together as a couple, Luke and Deirdre were iconic characters. Luke with his leonine red curls and battered face singing his heart out, head thrown back and his unique voice piercing the air. Deirdre, with black capes and shawls flapping in the wind, forever walking around her beat of Dublin 2 with a dramatic air.

They had met while Luke was singing in the working men's clubs of London and the north of England. Her sister Geraldine recalls the attraction was "instant and terminal". Luke worked and lived hard. The toll of touring with The Dubliners took its toll on his health. He suffered dizziness and a brain tumour was diagnosed. He died at the young age of 44.

Of the many tributes to him, a favourite is that by Ulick O' Connor: "With his halo of orange curls and fine chiselled features, if he had landed in Peru, they would have taken him as an Aztec God."

Sadly, a planned statue commemorating Luke Kelly fell victim of the economic crash. The Dublin Docklands authority and Dublin City Council had agreed to commission the statue for the docks area of Dublin, where he was born. But the money dried up, much to the disappointment of his family.

Surely Dublin city authorities can revive the plan now – 30 years after his death – to honour the iconic balladeer whose renditions of much-loved songs bring enduring pleasure far beyond these shores.

It was ironic that his great hero Pete Seeger outlived him by 30 years and died aged 94 just last week.

Irish Independent

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