Saturday 15 December 2018

How Ronnie paved the Rocky Road to Dubliners

Ronnie Drew was instrumental in lifting the Irish traditional music scene out of the doldrums in the early 1960s
Ronnie Drew was instrumental in lifting the Irish traditional music scene out of the doldrums in the early 1960s

IT WOULD hardly be an exaggeration to claim that the history of modern Irish music dates from a series of hard-drinking sessions in the backroom of O'Donoghue's pub in Dublin's Merrion Row, where during the early part of 1962 the two most enduring Irish groups of all time took their first faltering steps.

At the time the Irish music scene was in the doldrums. The clean-cut Clancy Brothers in their trademark Aran sweaters had relocated to New York to become a hit on the burgeoning New York folk scene. But back home in Ireland the decline in rural life had been accompanied by a similar decline in traditional music.

The resurrection, which echoed similar early folk revival movements of the early 1960s in both America and Britain, was spearheaded by two men -- Paddy Moloney and Ronnie Drew.

From among the tipplers and traditionalists who frequented O'Donoghue's, Moloney assembled the Chieftains, the finest instrumental group Ireland has ever produced. Drew rounded up a crew of carousing songsters to create The Dubliners.

Like so many other Irishmen in the 1950s, Drew left his homeland almost as soon as he was grown up and emigrated to Spain, where he spent three years teaching English and learning to play flamenco guitar.

On his return to Dublin, he met up with the actor John Molloy and worked in various theatrical roles. He also spent much of his time in O'Donoghue's, where he met Ciaran Bourke, Barney McKenna and Luke Kelly. The four pooled their musical skills as the Ronnie Drew Group and began playing regular sessions both at O'Donoghue's and at the Abbey Tavern in Howth.

By 1964, Luke Kelly had left and moved to London. But before he went he made a lasting contribution by renaming the group The Dubliners after reading James Joyce's book of the same name. His colleagues followed him across the Irish Sea to record their first album live at Cecil Sharp House in London in December 1964.

The record displayed an earthier feel than other popular Irish acts of the time such as the Clancy Brothers, adding to the often sentimental balladry a robust and boozy irreverence. Much of the earthiness came from Drew's voice -- once described to the singer's own satisfaction as "the sound of coal being crushed underfoot" -- although the record was attributed to The Dubliners with Luke Kelly. By the second album, 'The Dubliners In Concert', released in 1965, Kelly had been replaced by singer Bobby Lynch and multi-instrumentalist John Sheahan, both old friends from the Abbey Tavern days.

Yet when the group turned fully professional in 1966, Kelly returned to the fold, bringing another Joycean literary reference to the title of the group's third album, 'Finnegan Wakes'.

Yet it was 1967 which was the Dubliners' annus mirabilis. Now signed to the Major Minor label, owned by the Irish entrepreneur Phil Solomon, whose other discoveries included the Bachelors and Van Morrison, the group recorded an old ballad, 'Seven Drunken Nights'. With Drew singing the incomparable lead vocal, it was released as a single and banned by RTE for its bawdy content.

The record made the British top 10 in May 1967 and The Dubliners appeared on 'Top Of The Pops' alongside Jimi Hendrix, the Kinks and The Who. When Ronnie Drew was told the record had charted, he reportedly asked whether this was good or bad news.

Whichever it was, mainstream pop success was not going to change The Dubliners' rambunctiousness. Indeed, their bacchanalian approach and capacity to drink prodigious quantities of porter during all-night sessions made them perfectly at home in the rock 'n' roll environment.

'Seven Drunken Nights' was a novelty hit. But the Dubliners were not one-hit wonders and more chart singles followed with 'Black Velvet Band' and 'Never Marry An Old Man'. Album titles also exploited the group's bawdy, hard-drinking image. 'A Drop Of The Hard Stuff' in 1967 was followed that same year by 'More Of The Hard Stuff' and in 1968, 'Drinkin' and Courtin'.'

By now they were an international concert attraction and toured the world with a repertoire which included not only Irish ballads but political songs by songwriters such as Ewan MacColl and Dominic Behan, which lent a more serious edge to their well-developed bonhomie.

In America they appeared on the 'Ed Sullivan Show' and played to sell-out audiences wherever a large Irish immigrant population was to be found. But their upward progress was halted in 1974 when Bourke collapsed on stage during a concert in Bournemouth following a brain haemorrhage.

He was never to perform again and died in 1978. Following the tragedy, a shaken Ronnie Drew left the group to go solo. His plans were thwarted by a serious car accident and he returned to the group in 1979.

No sooner had Drew returned than tragedy struck for a second time when Luke Kelly collapsed on stage in Cork in 1980. He underwent an operation for a brain tumour and remarkably was back singing with the group within three weeks. Yet he never fully recovered, and died in 1984.

With two of the original quartet dead, many suspected The Dubliners had reached the end of the road. But Drew and banjo player Barney McKenna decided to continue with a line-up which by now was augmented not only by John Sheahan but by new recruit Sean Cannon. The group's 25th anniversary in 1987 gave them a new lease of life.

On the birthday album 'Celebration', producer Eamonn Campbell (who joined the group shortly after) had the inspired idea of teaming them with a new generation of Irish hell-raisers, the Pogues. Their collaboration on 'The Irish Rover' saw the Dubliners back on 'Top Of The Pops' for the first time in almost 20 years.

Drew left the group for the second and last time in 1994, picking up the solo career he had abandoned at the end of the 1970s. The solo album 'Dirty Rotten Shame' appeared in 1995 and was followed by The 'Humour Is On Me Now' four years later. He returned temporarily for the group's 40th anniversary in 2002, when he appeared on the celebratory album '40 Years', which comprised the group's greatest hits plus 12 new tracks recorded especially for the occasion.

In 2006 Drew was honoured with a bronze cast of his hands outside the Gaiety Theatre. The following year he recorded an album with Grand Canal, an ensemble of well-known Irish musicians. Earlier this year U2, Christy Moore, Shane MacGowan and Sinead O'Connor released a tribute song, 'The Ballad of Ronnie Drew.

His wife of over 40 years, Deidre, died last year. He is survived by his two children. Ronnie Drew, singer, was born on September 18, 1935. He died of cancer on August 16, 2008, aged seventy-three.

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