'I suppose it's insecurity, it's not wanting to be compared' - Phelim Drew talks finally exploring dad Ronnie's songbook
As the son of The Dubliners' Ronnie, Phelim Drew has always had a connection to folk tunes. However, the actor and musician steered away from playing what he called "dad's music". Now, as part of TradFest, he's exploring his father's songbook - and delving into his complex character, writes Ronan O'Reilly
First things first. Given the confrontational and often aggressive times we live in, it is refreshing to hear Phelim Drew remark that manners maketh the man. But he also admits to occasionally wondering whether he is a little too well schooled when it comes to watching his own Ps and Qs.
By Phelim's own account, his late parents - Dubliners singer Ronnie and Deirdre (née McCartan) - were "unconventional" in their approach to raising him and older sister Cliodhna. "Yeah, they could be strict," he recalls. "My father was brought up by his grandparents, so he had a sort of Victorian idea of bringing up children whereas my mother was very, very soft. The weird thing about my mum and dad is that they could be strict, but you never knew what things they were going to be strict on. Like, manners was a big thing. Very important at home. And to this day, I'm grateful to them for that. In today's society, it's undervalued - etiquette and manners - whether it's on the road or on the footpath or in a restaurant or in a bar. I think rudeness is something that none of us likes to encounter. My parents were great like that. But," he adds with a wry smile, "if anything they stretched it maybe a little too far, because over the years I think I've probably given some people more respect than they deserved."
Now aged 49, Phelim - who has four children with his wife Sue Collins, half of the comedy duo DirtBirds and a founder-member of The Nualas - has been one of the country's most respected and recognisable actors for the past three decades. His lengthy CV includes leading stage roles in The Plough and the Stars, King Lear and The Playboy of the Western World, as well as countless screen parts.
Currently in rehearsals for a new production of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre, he is also set to front a sold-out show at TradFest this week. 'A Celebration of Ronnie, The Dubs and Others' will reflect on the life and music of his father and other luminaries in the pantheon of Irish music.
It was the early 1960s when Ronnie Drew - who died in August 2008 after a two-year battle with throat cancer - founded the Dubliners with the late Barney McKenna, Luke Kelly and Ciarán Bourke. Despite a long history of performing in bands himself, Phelim admits that he had previously "steered away from that sort of music because that was my dad's music".
He explains: "I suppose it's insecurity, it's not wanting to be compared, pride maybe kept me [from doing it]. Like any business, I've spent 30 years working as an actor and I still feel that I'm learning all the time. So to go into that area, you're nervous about setting yourself to be kind of knocked down."
Nonetheless, Phelim acknowledges picking up "a certain confidence" from appearing in Once the musical over the course of three consecutive summers. "What I was bowled over by was that we used to do a little session before each show and we had a rolling repertoire of songs that we did," he says, "and I was really taken by the fact that people's reaction to these songs was so honest. They loved hearing songs like The Leaving of Liverpool or Star of The County Down." It began to feel, he says, that the time had come "to revisit the legacy that my father and the Dubliners left behind. So I started learning songs and listening to the Dubliners' back catalogue, and it was just wonderful to come across songs that I'd forgotten I had even heard".
Perhaps surprisingly for anyone who remembers Ronnie's droll, acerbic and highly articulate contributions during countless appearances on TV chat shows, it seems that he was plagued by self-doubt. "I think the older he got, the more insecure he got about his own ability," says Phelim. "Which is strange. I think when he was younger he was rebelling against his upbringing, rebelling against post-war austerity. He was quite strong and fearless, and he displayed that when he was dying with cancer. He kind of regained that strength.
"It was like extraordinary - my uncles Tony and Gerry and my grandfather Paddy, they were quite wiry, not apparently physically strong men, but they had an inner strength. If they shook your hand, you knew about it, and to this day with Tony, you still would. But they also had... I don't know how you'd describe it, a very, very strong core."
It is, of course, impossible to speak about The Dubliners without mentioning the demon drink. By Phelim's reckoning, "the sparklers were starting to fizzle out of the party" by the time he was born in May 1969. "I think the level of drinking they were doing was starting to take its toll," he concedes. "I know from my father that he drank to the point that he made himself so sick that he couldn't drink any more. So he had these enforced periods of abstinence and I think that - I suppose you'd now call it untreated alcoholism - made him quite insecure.
"Ultimately it destroyed the group, because first of all Ciarán got very sick and then Luke got very sick, which may or may not have been alcohol-related. But their lifestyle definitely didn't help the way their lives were heading." Given that Phelim's mother was a non-drinker - "but was great fun, she loved a party" - she was "a steadying influence in my father's life and, thereby, a steadying influence in our lives". He adds: "I think he just started to develop this lack of self-confidence, which he retained then for the rest of his life. He was quite insecure, he needed constant reassurance. That's not unusual in performers."
As Ronnie approached his 60th birthday, two close friends encouraged him into a recovery programme that resulted in more than a decade of "a really healthy abstinence" from alcohol. "That was a great period in our lives as a family, because the monkey was off his back. And then, after about 12 years, things just changed and he started to romance the idea of a glass of wine. But at that stage nobody would begrudge him the odd glass of wine, because he was getting on - and, in actual fact, more often than not he wasn't abusing alcohol. He was just having a couple of glasses of wine."
While acknowledging that "the insecurity of the work" probably also played a part in his father's lack of confidence, Phelim insists there were never any objections to his own acting ambitions. "He was quite tough and it was a real question of, well, let's see what you can do," he says. "And he came to a show that I did and, from then on, he was very supportive - once he could see that there was something there. Because both my parents were very practical and if I was barking up the wrong tree, I'm sure they would have said, 'I think, Joxer, you're not cut out for this'."
For his part, Ronnie was an avid reader whose interests stretched from theology ("He was quite spiritual; he was less religious than spiritual") to Agatha Christie and the collected works of Graham Greene. His preferred television viewing included vintage comedy shows such as It Ain't Half Hot Mum and - all featuring his favourite Ronnie Barker - Porridge, Open All Hours and The Two Ronnies.
Meanwhile, Phelim Drew is trying to keep the diary as full as possible. He is due to take his one-man show, Joxer Daly Esq, around the country during the spring. Further appearances at a festival in Holland and at the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith, west London are also pencilled in.
Even as a well established and highly acclaimed performer, though, he admits that getting enough work is a problem nowadays. Swingeing cuts in arts funding during the recession years have yet to be reversed. Meanwhile, many of the country's smaller theatre companies have been forced out of business. The frustrations get to him. "I'm sick of f**king sitting around waiting for things to happen," he says. "When I was at a certain age, you could get a call three weeks in advance of rehearsals starting - and so you knew you were starting work in three weeks. Now it's like, 'What are you doing in February 2020?'. And you're, like, that's no use to me, I've a family to rear."
With the future looking less than certain, Phelim has recently completed an intensive three-month course to qualify as a tour guide. "I'm just keeping things going and, if things work out for other things, well and good," he observes. "But I'm just trying to get the ball rolling independently of other people and how they make decisions."
And if that determined tone sounds familiar, it shouldn't be a surprise. Phelim Drew: very much his own man. Like father, like son.
TradFest runs from January 23-27, tradfest.ie
Photos taken on location at the Stella Theatre, 207 Rathmines Road Lower, Dublin 6; stellatheatre.ie