Dubliners:Tales of a golden age
Fond memories of Luke Kelly, Ciaran Bourke and Ronnie Drew accompany The Dubliners as they prepare to perform A Time To Remember in Dublin this Christmas. On tour in Germany, Barney McKenna and John Sheahan treat Barry Egan to a glimpse of the rare oul' times
'Impressively, the night veils the immense porch of dusk," the 19th-Century German poet Clemens Brentano wrote, "and every human heart knows who has won, who has lost." It is on just such an impressive night in Berlin just over a week ago, that John Sheahan's heart is pondering all that has been lost to him. He and The Dubliners have just come offstage after a three and a half hour show in front of 3,000 people in Tempodrom. The 70-year-old is not too drained to remember three great men close to him: Luke Kelly, Ciaran Bourke and Ronnie Drew.
Sheahan says that when Luke died in January 1984, he felt his presence onstage "very strongly" for a year after the legend of Irish folk passed on. "It was like he was lurking in the wings ready to come on, especially when you would sing some of his old songs. He could have a gruff exterior, but he had a heart of gold."
There are vivid memories of staying in the same hotel as Abba in Australia in 1974 and that paid-up member of the Irish Communist Party, Luke Kelly, being bemused by the limos for each individual member of the Swedish supergroup. At the pool, French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, who had played with The Dubliners onstage the previous night, asked John and Luke about the tin whistle. That night onstage, remembers John, Luke distorted the story to the effect that "the great Stephane Grappelli told me today that John Sheahan is the best tin whistle player in the world!"
As for Ciaran, "the longhaired wayward chieftain sloping in from the Celtic mist", who died in 1988, John recalls with a wry smile the night in the early Seventies they went drinking together "somewhere in France. I asked him what he wanted to drink when we got to the pub. He eyed a long line of liqueurs on the top shelf and said, 'I think we'll start on the left hand side.' I don't remember much after that. But Ciaran was a dreamer and a philosopher, a gentle soul."
John has fond memories of that other gentle soul who died in August 2008. In the mid-Sixties, women in Ireland would come up to the other members of The Dubliners and say that Ronnie had "Our Lord's face and Our Lord's eyes". John recalls on his own wedding day seeing Ronnie's piercing, icy blue eyes full of tears.
"He was hugging my mother Mary and crying his eyes out. I'll never forget it. It was as if he was after losing a son himself!" John laughs. "He felt a certain affinity for my mother because her maiden name was Drew. Drew was such an unusual name then." The Dubliners played jigs and reels on the steps of the church in Dublin's Haddington Road when John and his bride married on April 8, 1967.
He met Mary Brogan, from Ballybay in Co Monaghan, who was staying in then-Dubliner member Bob Lynch's house in Glasnevin in 1965. "She was a lodger, as they used to say in those days." The young musician had a motorbike, a BSA 250, and asked her whether she would like to go out to Dublin airport for a coffee at midnight. "So off we went on the bike," John smiles.
"A motorcycle? I was on shanks' mare," Barney McKenna laughs, the following day on the bus to Hamburg. He is a talking history book. The Dubliners were very much viewed as anti-establishment in the late Sixties and Seventies in Ireland, singing about seven drunken nights and floozies in Monto and, talking to Barney, you can see why.
He says, looking back, that the Catholic church was "very hard on the women in those days". He says he knew women who got into trouble and were "disgraced" and had to leave Ireland. He says that the Irish Catholic church was a bigger disgrace itself.
It's a family affair on the bus to Hamburg. Barney's sister, Marie, is sitting opposite with her husband, Tommy (a Barney lookalike), and their daughter, Deirdre, and her husband, Owen. John Sheahan's sister, Mary, is on the next row along. Her husband, Paul, recently died. Her daughter, Hilary, had a baby -- Daniel Paul -- the night of the Berlin show.
The Marian Finucane Show rings John to talk about Liam Clancy who passed away the night before. John reads a poem from the bus he wrote about Clancy. When he comes off the phone to Marian in Montrose, he tells me that: "If Luke and Ciaran were on this bus now, we'd be playing cards. Luke would be a great bluffer. He'd have feck all in his hand.
"We never had a heated discussion about a musical arrangement. We usually rowed about politics or games of cards," he continues. "There was a great bond between us all. It was never expressed verbally but it was very much there. If someone wasn't in form on a particular night, the rest automatically chipped in a bit harder to compensate for it."
Someone says softly that Barney, the poor lamb, has blocked the toilet, and it is best not to go there until we get to Hamburg.
En route Barney and his sister prove to be thoroughly enjoyable company. He remembers, with occasional prompting from her, a charity gig The Dubliners played for The Irish Wheelchair Association in the mid-Seventies in Dublin. "A huge row broke out. There were coshes in socks and everything flying around," he recalls, before adding with immaculate comic timing, "and by the end of the fighting, there was more going out in wheelchairs than came in."
There is a touch of the Samuel Becketts or James Joyces about the way these (in)famous Dubliners of a certain golden age speak. On the Friday night, backstage in the dressing room in Berlin, Barney had told me that when he was met by an RTE News film crew at Dublin airport after playing Wild Rover on Top Of The Pops in 1987 with The Pogues, he was asked how it felt to be a star. "Over the moon," he replied.
"And I'm still over the moon," Barney laughs in Fischerhaus restaurant in Landungsbrucken in the port of Hamburg. "I'm 70 on December 16," Barney says. "It is also Beethoven's birthday."
Poor oul' Barney had a stroke eight years ago. He has been unfortunate with his health. He had diabetes, which was diagnosed late, and he lost the sight in his right eye completely. He walks unsteadily, with assistance. He walks on water when he plays the banjo onstage, however. Later, in front of 4,000 people in the sold-out Congress Centrum in Hamburg, he is the king of all he surveys. He sings I Wish I Had Someone To Love Me before doing his tenor banjo solo with Eamon Campbell, looking like a giant Walt Disney mouse, accompanying him on guitar. Barney tells the crowd during his Joycean monologue that if he talks too fast then they should listen quicker.
In the hotel after the show, I flick through the booklet of pictures on The Dubliners' new CD, A Time To Remember, with Barney's help. They had a real physical presence, these young men once upon a time. They looked like the Jesse James gang en route to rob a bank in Missouri in 1867. Back in Sixties Dublin, they stuck out like a sore thumb. Asked whether they ever got threatened or beaten up for the way they looked, Barney laughs: "No, we were hardy boys. Ciaran was a hard man. And I was brought up in Dunnycarney North," he says. "We were walked off Achill Island one time when we went there to busk in 1963. Put off the island. We were doing no harm."
Were there bars in Dublin in the so-called rare oul' times where The Dubliners -- who came to personify the era -- couldn't get served because their type wasn't wanted?
"Oh yeah," he says, "They talk all about Dublin in the rare oul' times but that's all very well. I remember one time in Dublin it was a case of drink up and shut up: in other words, if you went to sing a song, you were told no singing allowed in here. If you took out a musical instrument, they called the guards. You had to go outside Dublin back then, to have a tune out in Baldoyle and Raheny and Howth."
I am reminded of the famous occasion when Ronnie met poet Paddy Kavanagh on Baggot Street once upon a time and they decided to go for a jar.
Drew: "Drink. Grand. We'll go to Mooney's."
Kavanagh: "I can't. I'm barred. What about the Waterloo House?"
Drew: "Well, I'm barred out of the Waterloo House. We'll go to the Crookit Bawbee."
Kavanagh: "I can't go in there. I'm barred. I know, we'll go to Searson's."
Drew: "For f***'s sake, Paddy. I'm barred there."
They ended up in O'Donoghues on Merrion Row, where The Dubliners were loosely formed over pints in 1962. John Sheahan can recall the first meeting he had with the band in another pub up the road from O'Donoghues -- Doheny & Nesbits. John, then a mere boy of 26, had just left his pensionable job at the ESB to join The Dubliners in 1965 and a "row broke out and it was all 'f*** you' and 'f*** you' and the band broke up!" John recalls with horror.
"I think Ronnie accidentally kicked Barney under the table on the shins. I went home and I thought: 'Jesus, what am I after doing? I've given up my job and the band is gone!'"
A few days later the phone went and it was Ronnie. "Are you OK for the gig in Thurles on Friday?" he said. John told him he was available but he added that he thought The Dubliners broke up before his eyes only 48 hours earlier on Baggot Street. Ronnie put him wise: "Ah, don't take any notice of that! That happens every week!"
John's father, Patrick, a guard, told him that if it didn't work out "there was always a roof here for you".
How did your father feel about joining a group fronted by a communist with a beard?
"A communist and the rest of the dossers!" John laughs at the memory. "It didn't bother my dad. He was quite broad-minded."
At the gigs in Berlin and Hamburg, John reads aloud a poem in homage to another of his late lamented friends. Ronnie's Heaven goes like this:
"What's it like Ronnie -- your new life?
Is it the way the old masters painted it --
Floating on a damp cloud
In the company of winged creatures
Listening to non-stop harp music?
I could paint you in,
But not your expectations:
'Would somebody for Christ's sake
Get me down from here and show me
The fountain of champagne -- I thought this
Was meant to be a celebration!'"
He also paints Ronnie free from pain and "all is clear now/Ulysses simpler than the Lord's Prayer/Beckett no more waiting for Godot".
I ask John the following day over dinner in Hamburg if there were times, to quote Beckett, when you thought we can't go on, we'll go on? When Luke died, then Ciaran, then Ronnie?
"There were times like that, I suppose. If Sean Cannon hadn't already been with us before Luke died, I'm not sure whether we would have gone on or not, because when Luke first got sick around 1980, he was hospitalised for periods between then and when he died in 1984, and we had Sean come along as a kind of stand-in for Luke. So when Luke died, I suppose, Sean was a natural one to stay on."
Indeed, on the tour Sean Cannon leads the vocals on rollicking renditions of Kelly The Boy From Killane, The Black Velvet Band, Whiskey In The Jar and The Wild Rover. There are images of the band down through the years flashing up on a giant projector over the stage as The Dubliners 2009 -- Sean, John, Barney, Patsy Watchorn and Eamon Campbell -- entertain packed German houses. Patsy Watchorn does a remarkable version of Ewan MacColl's Dirty Old Town with all of Hamburg, it seems, singing along. Overhead, the image of Luke makes him look like a red-haired Christ. I'm not far off.
To sum up the kind of generosity Luke possessed, John recalls going over to his house in 7 Dartmouth Square and remarking upon an antique table in the living room that Deirdre, Luke's wife, had just bought. John said that his own wife Mary had just bought a set of chairs "the exact feckin' match for that table". In jest, John said that either he would have to take his table or Luke would have to take John's chairs. "'Do you like the table?' Luke asked. 'Right. Have it.' He pushed me out the door and put it on the roof-rack of the car."
"What about Deirdre?" John protested.
"Don't worry about Deirdre," Luke replied.
"I still have that table," John adds.
At Lubeck Airport on the Monday I ask the former ESB man, John Sheahan, whether he has any final memories of it all. "Playing Top Of The Pops in 1967 with Seven Drunken Nights seemed the most unlikely place for a group like us to be," he says, "because we were very un-popish and the song was a pure freak of an accident. I remember when it first got into the charts we met an Irish showband in London during Lent -- there was no dancing at home -- and we were told about the chart position. Ronnie said: 'Is that good or bad?'"
It was good, John.
"It has been an adventure," he says. "When I left the ESB, people said to me that it would probably last about four or five years. That was 1965," John laughs. "Ronnie probably described it best when he said 'We had a party that went on for about 20 years.'"
At the airport, John can recall one particular party night when he couldn't wake Luke in his seat at the bar of some hotel in Europe they were staying in. "I couldn't get him up to bed. So I got a brainwave. There were casters on the chair and I got the chair and wheeled it out into the corridor and into the lift and up to his room and pushed him in. He was still in the chair the next morning. He didn't know how he got there," John laughs as the Ryanair announcement is made.
Barney is having a bit of trouble going through the metal detector machine before we board the plane. They check him with a mobile scanner. It makes noises. John makes jokes that Barney is out of tune. Before we get on the plane for the dirty old town of Dublin, there is just enough time for one more story.
In the early days doing gigs down the country, before he left the pensionable job, John would be anxious to get back for his job at the ESB the next morning. Trying to get Luke and Ronnie and Ciaran into the bus after the gig was like trying to herd mice. It was a litany of one-for-the-roads in the pub.
Either that or John would be told -- usually by Luke -- that a very decent man has just bought the band a round of drinks and it would very bad form to leave now without supping them all up. Any excuse at all not to leave. Eventually, John, frustrated and unable to take any more, slipped the barman five quid -- a lot of money in 1964 -- to shut the bar after that round. Three rounds later the bar was still open. "I didn't want to show my cards in public so on the bus home I said to Ronnie who was sitting beside me: 'He's some fecking chancer, that barman. I gave him a fiver to close the bar about two hours ago.'"
"Ah," says Ronnie, "I knew what you were up to. I saw it. I gave him a tenner to keep it open."
The Dubliners will be performing their show, A Time To Remember at Vicar Street on December 28, 29 and 30. Tickets from Ticketmaster, phone number: 0818719300.
New double CD, A Time To Remember on general release.