Wednesday 20 February 2019

'It scares me but we all have to go some time'

Tributes pour in for legend who put Dublin on world music map

Heart of a lion: Singer Ronnie Drew passed away in St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin yesterday
Heart of a lion: Singer Ronnie Drew passed away in St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin yesterday

MAEVE SHEEHAN

MUSICIANS, entertainers, politicians and artists paid tribute to the legendary singer Ronnie Drew, who died in his native Dublin after a long battle with cancer.

The singer was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2006 and underwent months of treatment at St Vincent's Hospital. He struggled hard to beat the cancer and was said to be hopeful of returning to the stage. He underwent six months of intensive chemotherapy and for a while appeared to be doing well. His health worsened in recent days and he succumbed yesterday.

A statement released by his family last night said: "Ronnie Drew passed away peacefully at 2pm today after a long illness with his family by his side. The family would like to express their gratitude to Professor Crown and the entire staff of St Vincent's Private Hospital.

"The family are very grateful for all the letters of support and good wishes during Ronnie's illness. Details of funeral arrangements will be announced in due course."

Ronnie Drew battled bravely with cancer, admitting in an interview to being terrified of dying. "Death scares me but we all have a certain amount of time to live. We all have to go some time. It's a killer disease and I don't know if I can beat it or not," he said.

President Mary McAleese led the tributes, saying: "It is with great sadness that I have learned of the death of Ronnie Drew.

"Ronnie was a champion of traditional Irish music and, with the Dubliners, he re-energised and refreshened our

Joseph O'Connor, Page 27 Editorial, Page 26 Obituary, Page 34

unique musical heritage. He brought great pleasure to the people of Ireland and yet more around the world.

"Ronnie will be greatly missed by many but most particularly by his family, with whom our thoughts are today."

Professor John Crown, the cancer specialist who treated him through his illness, said: "He bore his final illness with great courage and great dignity. He was a great source of humour and good cheer to other patients on the unit," he said. "He will be sadly missed, as will his late wife."

Ronnie was without doubt one of Ireland's most popular musicians. More than one million viewers tuned in when Bono organised a tribute to the Dubliner earlier this year. The U2 frontman unveiled the song The Ballad of Ronnie Drew on the Late Late Show.

Last night Bono said: "Weddings, funerals, barmitzvahs . . . that's what I loved about Ronnie Drew's voice and spirit. Music to inspire, to console . . . an optimism that was contagious . . . that's what U2 took from the Dubliners.

"Ronnie has left his earthly tour for one of the heavens, they need him up there -- it's a little too quiet and pious. God is lonely for a voice louder than His own . . ."

Paul McGuinness, the U2 manager, told the Sunday Independent that Ronnie was "a truly great man, a great performer, a great father and a great actor, funnily enough, although few would remember his performance in Richard's Cork Leg".

The group that began life as the Ronnie Drew Group in 1962 soon changed their name to the Dubliners. Ronnie Drew, Luke Kelly, Ciaran Bourke and Barney McKenna played their first gigs in O'Donoghue's pub on Merrion Row, earning a reputation as hard-living, hard-drinking musicians.

The huge success the group attained in the 1970s waned in the following decade.

Gay Byrne, the original Late Late Show host, recalled having the group on the programme during a dip in their fortunes. "It was 25 years ago. They were down on their luck. They came on the Late Late Show to tell their story and we gave them the entire show from beginning to end."

Overnight, bookings for the Dubliners started rolling in. A week later Gay received a card from Germany: "Thanks Head for the remould, Ronnie."

"It is one of the classic messages of all time," said Gay Byrne. "Ever since then, we remained very good friends. He was always in good form and he was one of those people you always left smiling."

Saddened friends and colleagues in the music industry recalled different facets of the singer.

Writer and broadcaster Ulick O'Connor, who knew Ronnie from the early years, remembered an intelligent and well-read man.

"He was the brightest of the lot of them. Ronnie gave the impression most of the time as the wisecracking guy, but in fact if anyone was asked to give a lecture on literature he would be the one who would do it best," he said.

"He was a deep guy, he worked things out for himself. His wife Deirdre was fantastic. He wouldn't have gone beyond 50 if it wasn't for her."

Shay Healy, the songwriter and broadcaster, said he met Ronnie recently and found him in good form, sipping a glass of wine. "I think he kind of knew himself that it was getting closer," he said. "In his last days he made extraordinary efforts to be at different places, to go to other people's concerts and support them. He worked very successfully through what I have considered a very difficult time of his life. He was brave and noble in pursuit of his art in the end."

The death of Ronnie's wife, Deirdre, in June last year had a huge effect on him. They had been married for 40 years.

"Ah, another good man gone," said Liam Clancy, of the Clancy Brothers, on hearing the news. He recalled Deirdre Drew's funeral. "I said to my wife when I saw Ronnie that he wouldn't last long. He couldn't really cope without her. When Ronnie was on the drink, playing throughout Europe, he would go on a bender for a few days and then get the jitters. Deirdre would fly over and bring him back."

The day before he died, Ronnie met up with some of his oldest friends. Phil Coulter, who produced many of the iconic Dubliners records, was there. So were Jim McCann, Barney McKenna and John Sheehan, Ronnie's old band mates.

"The old dogs," said Phil Coulter this weekend. "To me he was a pal for close on 40 years. There was a lot more to Ronnie than most people think. He was very bright, very well read. Had he been dealt a different hand of cards he would have been on the stage or would've been a high-powered barrister. He had a great command of language and he had an unrivalled a presence.

"But he was also of the old school. I had dinner in my house last year for Billy Connolly, Ralph McTell, Paddy Reilly, Ronnie and a whole bunch of us from the old days and he was telling some bawdy story when Geraldine, my wife, came into the room to see if we were all right and he stopped dead. He was like that; he wouldn't use bad language in front of a woman."

Taoiseach Brain Cowen yesterday joined tributes to the singer. "His unique singing voice was loved by so many people," said Mr Cowen.

"It's a sad, sad day," said the singer Mary Coughlan, who recorded a duet with Ronnie in June, adding that Ronnie's death marked the end of an era. "God bless you Ronnie," she said.

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