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Luke Kelly followed his own star

OVER the three decades since his death on January 30, 1984, Luke Kelly's place at the core of Irish cultural life has been uncontested.

A 30-year conveyor-belt of bustling new talent and eager ambition has failed to unearth a voice with the passion, conviction and sense of purpose that marks Kelly as one of the world's greats.

He was a powerful force. Those lucky enough to have heard him perform sensed he'd live forever. A rock of ages.

Luke would have appreciated the saying, "Those whom the Gods love, die young." Before Lord Byron borrowed the phrase from the Romans, it's said to have originated with the Greek playwrights. Kelly, who died at 43 in 1984, loved theatre in all its forms.

He was best man at his friend Noel V. Ginnity's wedding. "Luke was a great intellect," states Noel. "He devoured books. There was no one in his league. He was a one-off. A thoroughly decent fellow and great fun."

The man who suggested Dubliners, the title of James Joyce's short story collection, as a name for the group, was modest about his talent. Yet his inspiration continues to resonate.

A few years ago I gave a talk on the work of Dublin painter Harry Kernoff at a symposium called Irish Socialist Lives at NUI Galway. At the event, former general president of SIPTU, Des Geraghty spoke about Luke Kelly.

"He was a disciple of big Jim Larkin, the Irish Labour leader whom Sean O'Casey said would put a flower on the table as well as a loaf of bread," he said. "In his lifetime, Luke brought music and song to that table."



A singer who possessed what Johnny Moynihan of Sweeney's Men describes as "a strong, clear, hard note", Luke's commitment to the working-class and the underdog resulted in the introduction to Irish life of songs with a powerful social message.

While it might sound like sacrilege, it's been recently suggested that Luke felt strait-jacketed by The Dubliners. His former partner of eight years, Madeline Seiler, has quietly endorsed Eamon Dunphy's contention that Luke ultimately "felt trapped" by the demands of the ramshackle touring folk group.

While we never had any in-depth philosophical discussions, this was a feeling I'd sensed in Luke for several years before his death.

Luke had always followed his own star. He had a personal artistic agenda and had worked as a solo artist before, and after, teaming up with Ronnie Drew and the others in O'Donoghues on Merrion Row in the early 1960s.

He was the one chosen by Patrick Kavanagh to sing his poem On Raglan Road. He remained connected to the theatre, taking parts in plays and musicals. He also broke ranks and unexpectedly recorded a pop song, The Kinks' Days.

His memorable poem For What Died the Sons of Roisin first appeared in Dublin underground poetry publication Broadsheet in the late 1960s.

Luke had an adventurous, creative spirit but, failing health aside, he was unfortunately based in Dublin at a time when the emerging music business infrastructure was incapable of promoting and sustaining a major career at international level.

Songwriter Pete St John also sensed Luke's frustration. He'd already recorded The Rare Auld Times and the duo were collaborating again before Luke died.

The man who wrote The Fields of Athenry remains full of admiration for Luke's talent and artistic determination.

"Luke sometimes wasn't the easiest person to be with," he says.

"One day he said to me very genuinely, 'You know Pete, you'll be remembered after the rest of us are gone because you were not constrained by what happened in O'Donoghues.' I never forgot that quote. Or the way he used the word constrained."

In a copy of his poem, Luke's Gravestone, given to me by John Sheahan a decade ago, these lines strike home,

'Between the two great mysteries,

Your place, your name.

Luke Kelly




Surely it's time to find the funds for a commemorative statue.