John Sheahan has a poem, a tribute to an old pal, Mr Drew… Ronnie's Heaven. He wrote it not long after Ronnie died of cancer in 2008. In it, Ronnie is free of pain, but the charismatic grump is still not short about sharing his opinions with God about the running of the gaff.
"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!'"
I ask John Sheahan does he believe he will meet Ronnie - and Luke Kelly and Barney McKenna and Ciaran Bourke - up there one day.
"I believe that in heaven, there will be a reunion of spirits," he says. "We will be bonded together by way of sharing a common experience, like members of an audience in a theatre. I'm not sure if we will experience thirst or a desire for music as we know it. If we do, then I think we'll only have to imagine it to experience it."
And what will be John's first words to his old band-mates?
"I believe there's a continuous holy hour up here, lads," John answers, before pausing. "What's the pint like?"
In 1974, The Dubliners were staying in the same hotel in Australia as a well-known Swedish quartet.
"We were staying for a few days in the Parmelia Hotel in Perth," John remembers. "I happened to look out my bedroom window to witness Abba's departure for their gig. Four stretch limos pulled in to the forecourt of the hotel and one Abba got into each limo. It all seemed rather strange to me. I wondered if they had a row and weren't talking!"
At the hotel's swimming pool, the incomparable jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli meet John and Luke Kelly and enquired casually about the tin whistle. That night on stage Luke slightly distorted the story when he told the crowd: "The great Stephane Grappelli told me today that John Sheahan is the best tin whistle player in the world!"
John Sheahan, now 80, probably is the world's best tin whistle player, and he is also one of its greatest storytellers. His memory is Proustian. "One morning on a German tour," he begins, "the tour bus was about to depart. There was no sign of Barney."
John phoned his room. "The bus is waiting. What's keeping you?' To which Barney replied, reasonably, "I'm trying to get the room back into my case."
John remembers that one night after a gig in London he couldn't wake Luke Kelly in his seat at the bar of the hotel they were staying in. John had a "brain wave". There were casters on the chair that Luke was snoring his head off in. "I got the chair and wheeled it out into the corridor and into the lift and up to Luke's room and pushed him in. He was still in the chair the next morning. Luke didn't know how he got there."
He recalls that in the early 1970s that he and Ciaran Bourke went drinking together "somewhere in France". John asked Ciaran what he wanted to drink when they arrived in the pub. John recalls Ciaran eyeing a long line of liqueurs on the top shelf. "I think we'll start on the left-hand side," Ciaran replied.
"I don't remember," John says now, "if we ever got to the right-hand side." Did John ever talk to Ciaran - "the long-haired wayward chieftain sloping in from the Celtic mist" - about his drinking? Or was that just not done in those days?
"Drinking was part and parcel of the music world then," John says. "When you arranged to meet another musician, socially or professionally, you named a pub. In general, each one managed their own drinking regime, and any advice about excess might be treated as an intrusion into one's private affairs.
"Having said that, within the Dubliners there was a positive attitude to being fit to perform to a professional standard, and to that end each member kept an eye on the others, and during a session on the afternoon of a show, there might be a remark like, 'Okay lads, we have a show to do tonight!'."
Ciaran's death at 53, "the loss of another brother from a family", left John with "a great feeling of sadness". And Luke Kelly was only 43 when he died.
"Luke's death left a deep impression in people's minds - indeed in the nation's psyche," John says. "He contributed so much in his short lifetime that one felt he had so much more to give - and that left the feeling that we all had suffered a great loss."
The attendance at Luke's funeral mass in Whitehall reflected his "universal appeal. It was a tribute fit for a king, attended by musicians, dignitaries and the man on the dole." John says he can still hear the stirring sound of a brass ensemble, led by Earl Gill on trumpet, playing him out with The Old Triangle.
Asked what was Luke like, John says that while home life for most of us is an anchor, a nest, a refuge, "Luke wasn't a rooted person. He was transient. He drifted from place to place - a will o' the wisp; he gravitated to the pub for company and the craic. The Leeson Lounge was an extension of his living room. McDaid's was his bank. He cashed his cheques there. He placed little value in material things. He was a gifted singer. His phrasing and interpretation of folk songs was such that his recordings have become definitive versions of songs for a whole new generation of singers."
John remembers how he once called over to Luke's house at 7 Dartmouth Square and remarked upon an antique table in the living room that Deirdre, Luke's wife, had just bought. John said to Luke that his wife Mary had just bought a set of chairs, "the exact feckin' match for that table". Half joking, John said that either he would have to take Luke's table, or Luke would have to take his 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.
"Mary and I still have the table," John says now, "and I treasure it along with the memory of Luke's generous gesture. He had scant regard for material things, preferring the pursuit of artistic endeavours."
John met Mary Morgan, from Ballybay in Co Monaghan, in 1965. He took her on a motorbike to Dublin airport for "a coffee at midnight".
"In the early 1960s, I formed a duo with singer/guitarist Bob Lynch. Mary was staying with Bob and his wife Joyce in Glasnevin at the time," he says. "She sometimes babysat for their children when Bob and I were gigging. I first heard Mary's name mentioned when Bob would phone home after a gig to see if everything was okay with the kids. I had conjured up an image of this Mary to be a kindly old lady, perhaps an old-age pensioner. So it was a pleasant surprise to meet Mary for the first time. We fell in love and married two years later. We were blessed with four children and five grandchildren. We celebrated our 53rd wedding anniversary this year."
On John and Mary's wedding day in 1967, Ronnie Drew's famous blue eyes were full of tears as he hugged John's mother Mary while crying his eyes out. Why did Ronnie cry? Did Ronnie feel a certain affinity for John's mother because her maiden name was Drew?
"I think he was somehow empathising with her on the notion of a mother losing a son," John says, adding that The Dubliners played jigs and reels on the steps of the church in Dublin's Haddington Road that day. "It like a mini concert for guests and passers-by."
There was a slightly bigger concert, that same year, when The Dubliners played the Royal Albert Hall for the first time. On that occasion, recalls John, Barney McKenna "got into a London taxi but couldn't remember the name of the Albert Hall. Eventually, he described his desired destination: 'I want to go to the big roundy place near Hyde Park!'"
What does he remember about The Dubliners playing Top of the Pops in 1967 with Seven Drunken Nights?
"I don't think we took it too seriously," he says. "It was just another television gig. I remember asking our manager, Phil Solomon, what fee we were getting, and he became quite indignant: 'I can't believe you are talking about a mundane television fee when this show has the potential to propel you into stardom!'" Twenty years later, in 1987, The Dubliners played on the same TV show with the Pogues, performing The Irish Rover.
"We first met the Pogues at a music festival in Vienna in the early 1980s. There was an immediate rapport between us," recalls John.
The Pogues' wildness and "love of the craic" reminded The Dubliners of their own attitudes 20 years earlier. "After the show, we played and drank into the early hours. That laid the foundation for our collaboration on The Irish Rover."
John was 26 when he chucked in his pensionable job at the ESB to join The Dubliners in 1965. It proved, initially, a somewhat volatile career move. "On the day that I formally left the ESB," he says, there was a "business meeting" in Doheny and Nesbitt's. During the meeting, a row broke out between Barney and Ronnie. Pints were spilt and tables were upended. The dialogue, recalls John, was basically thus: "Fuck you!" '"And fuck you too!" "And fuck the whole lot of you!"
"And that's the end of it..."
Two days later, Ronnie phoned John to see if he was free for a gig down the country that weekend. "But Ronnie," said John, "I thought the group broke up a few nights ago?"
"Ahhh," replied Ronnie, "don't take any notice of that - sure that happens every couple of weeks!"
Even allowing for nostalgic exaggeration, The Dubliners in the mid-1960s in Ireland looked like a gang of bearded outlaws as likely to rob a bank and murder as to play a few tunes while murdering a few pints of Guinness.
"Beards were rare at that time," John says. "A man sporting a beard attracted a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. But five bearded men appearing together… that was something to behold. The five of us entered a posh German restaurant one night in the 1960s… all conversation stopped and a sudden hush fell upon the place. All eyes were on us. The arrival of a group of Martians could hardly have created a more startling reaction. The head waiter rushed over to us and assured us that they were totally booked out for the night."
I tell John that Barney once told me that at a charity gig The Dubliners played for The Irish Wheelchair Association in the mid-1970s, "a huge row broke out. There were coshes in socks and everything flying around, and by the end of the fighting, there was more going out in wheelchairs than came in." Does John remember this infamous Dublin gig?
"I've a vague recollection of this gig. It was arranged by Liam Maguire, an Aer Lingus employee, himself a wheelchair person. I can't remember the nature of the row, but I like the description of the outcome, that more people went home in wheelchairs than came in," John recalls, adding his own tale of Mr Drew nearly ending up in a wheelchair.
"Ronnie left the group a few times to pursue a solo career. During one of those periods, he was driving home on a cold frosty night. Somewhere in the midlands, on a bad bend, he skidded and lost control of the car. He crashed through a hedge, somersaulted and tumbled to a halt in the middle of a field. He was taken to hospital with a broken hip. Next morning he was visited by the local police sergeant to complete an accident report form. He asked Ronnie if there was drink involved, to which he replied: 'Of course there was drink involved. What do you think I am? A fuckin' stunt man or something!'"
John Sheahan will be 81 next month. He is about to release his first solo album, Flirting Fiddles. What took him this long?
"For years I've intended recording an album of my own compositions, but I procrastinated and justified the delay by saying things like, 'This new tune I've just written would be missing from the album if I had recorded last year!' In the meantime I continued to record a number of my own pieces on Dubliners albums. On reaching my 80th birthday, my son Fiachra coaxed me into the recording studio, and I thought, 'Ok it's now or never.'"
The title Flirting Fiddles, he says, reflects the fact that over the years he has been flirting with different fiddle styles in his compositions. "Elements of swing, bluegrass and baroque have crept in over the years. It's an eclectic mix of tunes with a variety of musical arrangements ranging from fiddle duets, to string quartets to full orchestral backing, and I've been blessed to be joined on the album with a host of gifted musicians," John says referring to the likes of Eamonn Campbell, Anto Drennan, Richie Buckley, Kenneth Rice, Una O'Kane and Katie O'Connor.
I ask John what was the first moment as a kid when he heard music and he realised that music was special for him.
He says there was a weekly traditional music programme on Radio Eireann in the 1950s and his family were avid listeners.
"I think it was called Ceili House. The programme consisted of renditions of jigs, reels and hornpipe played by traditional players on fiddles, flutes, pipes, tin whistles, accordions etc. One night I heard fiddle music the like of which I never heard before. It stirred something deep within me. There was a certain magic in the air and I was spellbound. From that moment I resolved to pursue this sound and learn how to recreate it.
"The fiddler was Sean Maguire from Belfast. He was way ahead of his time. He had a unique style, blending classical and traditional techniques. His playing was full of energy and imaginative improvisation. He was full of surprises. He lifted your spirits skywards and when you least expected it he lowered you gently back to earth with a volley of dazzling double stops. I soon started collecting his LPs and emulating his style. He remains a major influence on my playing to this day."
Born in Holles Street hospital in Dublin on May 19, 1939, John says one of his earliest childhood memories is a conversation with his mother.
"Mammy, what age am I now?"
"You are four, John"
"Does that mean I was three last year, Mammy?"
"So the year before that I must have been two"
"That's right, John"
"Then I must have been only one the year before that?"
"So then, I must have been nothing the year before that."
She stopped her knitting. John thinks she sensed the inevitable question: "Mammy, where did I come from?"
John can ask his mother that question when he sees her again. Assuming he gets a moment with all the pints he'll be catching up on, with Ronnie, Luke, Barney and Ciaran.
Flirting Fiddles is released on April 17 and available from www.goldendiscs.ie and iTunes. For more info go to www.johnsheahan.ie