Saturday 20 April 2019

Flashback 1984: Dubliner's frontman Luke Kelly passes away

This weekend 32 years ago, The Dubliners' frontman Luke Kelly passed away at the age of just 43

Singing legend: Luke Kelly pictured on O’Connell Bridge, September 5, 1980. Photo: Donal Doherty.
Singing legend: Luke Kelly pictured on O’Connell Bridge, September 5, 1980. Photo: Donal Doherty.

Ger Siggins

He was just 43 years old, a cruelly young age to die for a man with so much more to give as a singer, writer and performer. Just before 11pm on January 30, 1984, Luke Kelly died in the Richmond Hospital in his native Dublin.

His death was widely mourned, and the city came to a halt for his funeral. His musical compadres, The Dubliners, were devastated, while Ronnie Drew was too upset to perform. It brought to an end a glittering career as frontman of a band that brought Irish traditional music to a new audience, both at home and abroad. Kelly's voice was unique and full of emotion, heard in its finest on songs such as Peggy Gordon, Dirty Old Town, Scorn Not His Simplicity, and his final recording, A Song for Ireland.

Perhaps his finest hour was On Raglan Road, a powerful ballad he put to the words of Patrick Kavanagh at the poet's suggestion. Kelly took the traditional tune The Dawning of the Day and married it to Kavanagh's plaintive tale of his unrequited love for Hilda Moriarty, who married Fianna Fáil minister Donough O'Malley.

Kelly had endured several years of ill-health, with on-stage collapses in the Cork Opera House in 1980, and the Embankment in Tallaght the following year leading to a diagnosis of a brain tumour. He had two operations and appeared to have recovered by the summer of 1983, when he was back performing and recording as The Dubliners celebrated their golden jubilee. But that December, on tour in Germany, he had a seizure before a gig in Mannheim. He spent Christmas at home with his partner of eight years, Madeleine Seiler, but went into hospital in the New Year for the last time.

In the Irish Independent, Willie Dillon reported on his removal, which packed to overflowing the Church of the Holy Child in Whitehall. Kelly's brothers, John, Jimmy and Paddy carried his coffin along with banjo player Barney McKenna. Among the mourners were the Furey Brothers and Wolfe Tones, actress Siobhán McKenna and soccer star Pat Jennings. There too was Labour Party senator Michael D Higgins whose wife, Sabina Coyne, had been bridesmaid at Kelly's marriage to Deirdre O'Connell in 1965. Other political figures to pay their respects included Charles Haughey, Tomás Mac Giolla, Noel Browne and Joe Cahill.

In a tribute in the Sunday Independent, Ulick O'Connor wrote about first encountering Kelly: "The dead fifties were behind us then as we slipped into a rollicking decade. Luke's head seemed a symbol of the new freedom. A gigantic orange halo encircled his fine chiselled features. If he'd landed in Peru, they would have taken him for an Aztec god."

Ronnie Drew pointed out that Kelly sang with perfect diction. "When you hear Luke sing The Town I Loved So Well it would be hard to pin down where he is from, but with the earlier stuff, songs like Take Her Up to Monto you would know 100pc that he was a Dub. He was very cultured in the way he put a song across. He wanted everyone to understand the lyrics when he was gigging all over Europe."

"He was a great interpreter of songs," recalled John Sheahan. "He took risks in singing and in the manner he phrased songs. He would hold on for that millisecond longer than anyone else would dare to, then catch up on the melody and create a certain tension with the listener. It's like a high jumper going those extra few millimetres and beating the height. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. When it works, it's wonderful. When it fails, you're grateful they took the chance."

Kelly's voice lives on, and the music he made with men who have joined him: Ciaran Bourke in 1988, Ronnie Drew 2008, Barney McKenna 2012 and Jim McCann in 2015.

Madeleine Seiler still runs The Headline Agency, which promotes many Irish and international artists such as Mundy, Eleanor McEvoy and Mary Coughlan.

And up in Glasnevin Cemetery, the "dead centre" of his native town, a headstone bears a simple inscription: "Luke Kelly - Dubliner".

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