Monday 25 March 2019

The Dubliners: Legends in their own happy hour

Barry Egan

Barry Egan

There as are as many anecdotes about the Dubliners as there are songs in their repertoire. And nearly all involve oceans of drink and beautiful women. On their 40th...

Legends in their own happy hour

There as are as many anecdotes about the Dubliners as there are songs in their repertoire. And nearly all involve oceans of drink and beautiful women. On their 40th anniversary Barry Egan met the greatest band Ireland has ever produced

RONNIE DREW knew Patrick Kavanagh from meeting him in pubs around Dublin. The poet interviewed him for the RTE Guide in the mid-Sixties. It was the occasion of the famous misquote. "I said to him that I wasn't a great guitar player and that I wasn't really a singer either," Ronnie recalls. And Paddy went off and wrote: Ronnie Drew, by his own admission, can't play the guitar nor can he sing.

"I think it was Paddy's idea of a bit of divilment," Ronnie say now, smiling. But at that time, he was incensed and wouldn't talk to Paddy. Drew and the poet from County Monaghan would pass each other by in the street and, like sulking children, look away. One day Kavanagh stopped Drew on Baggot Street.

"Paddy's way of making it up," says Ronnie, "was rather than say sorry, to ask: 'Would you have a drink?' But this is in itself presented a problem. 'Grand. We'll go to Mooney's,' I said. "'I can't,' says Kavanagh, 'I'm barred. What about the Waterloo House?'

"'Well, I'm barred out of the Waterloo House. We'll go to the Crookit Bawbee,' says I.

"'I can't go in there. I'm barred. I know, we'll go to Searson's,' Paddy replies.

"'For f**k's sake, Paddy. I'm barred there."'

What would you get barred for in 1965? "Shouting. Generally being abusive. Being a f***ing nuisance," Ronnie says. "Get too much gargle and start misbehaving and you'd get f***ed out. This was the Sixties when people wanted to 'talk' in pubs. They didn't want heads like Patrick Kavanagh and Luke Kelly going around roaring."

Drew traces the exact decline of Irish pubs to when they started serving drinks they couldn't pronounce. "Furstenberg? Now it's fashionable to drink quare drinks." But none so quare as the bicarbonate of soda with Jameson (large) that Kavanagh drank for medicinal reasons. One day a rather aloof gentleman approached the poet in a bar God knows which and told him that what he was drinking "would ruin his tummy".

Drew can still recall the look of anger on Kavanagh's face. "I don't mind a man stealing when he has to feed his family," he roared across the bar at him. "I don't mind many things. But I hate vulgarity. The word is 'belly' or 'stomach'." "The vulgarity," says Drew, "was the tweeness of 'tummy'."

The delights of vulgarity awaited The Dubliners. Emboldened by various Hemingway/Behan ideas about the fundamental purity of bad behaviour, they drank up whole breweries. They seemed like Alcoholics Not Very Anonymous. Some of them would live to tell the tale. Others (Luke Kelly, Ciaran Bourke, Bob Lynch) would sadly die along the way. But what a journey! In terms of bacchanalian excess, The Dubliners were The Rolling Stones before The Rolling Stones (and the clean-shaven Clancy Brothers were The Beatles).

They were feted by Keith Moon and Keith Richards for their liver-warping capacity for alcohol. They met and hung out with Jimi Hendrix.

The stories I'd heard about The Dubliners on tour in the late Sixties girls returning home from their shows bow-legged put me in a state of salacious curiosity.

At the bar of the Hyde Park Hilton, late one night in London, Paddy Reilly dispenses incomparable tales from times long gone. He can remember Ciaran Bourke in the late Sixties retiring to his hotel room for several days after a show in Belfast with two bottles of cognac and a buxom lady friend. "He was with a bird!"

"His, er ... wife!" splutters John Sheehan.

"I'll never forget it," says Reilly. "There was all these f***ing empty Hennessy bottles scattered around the room. He defied gravity. The man was in a coma after drinking all these bottles of brandy with this woman."

"Ciaran was a serious gargler," says John. "He had an amazing constitution. He could drink all night." And eat all day. Upon rising, Bourke could be counted on to have three breakfasts. After four eggs and a dozen rashers he'd "be right as rain", says Sheehan, laughing.

"We used to do an early evening gig in the Royal Hotel in Howth on a Sunday," says John, "and then head in for a midnight show in the Grafton cinema. There was no bar but people would smuggle in carry-outs. I remember one night Luke Kelly was doing an unaccompanied version of Blackwaterside and there was an almighty crash of bottles. He stopped singing and said: 'I've absolutely no time for anyone who can't hold their drink!"'

The Dubliners are in London to talk up their 40th anniversary as a band. Things have changed a little since they started, but not that much. "We still look like the guys who told the boss to f*** off. To stick his job!" beams Eamon Campbell.

The first time Paddy Reilly ever sang with The Dubliners on stage came about after Luke Kelly had a row with a guard in Duke Street. He was arrested. The guard's watch fell off during the course of the scuffle and Kelly stamped on it: "F*** you and your f***ing watch." Reilly wound up standing in for Luke.

"There was no malice in us," says Campbell. "The only harm we did was to ourselves." Try telling that to a certain hotel manager in Germany. One night in Munich, during the early Seventies, Barney had had his fill at the bar and went up to his room.

He hadn't got his key but soon persuaded a porter to let him in. Once inside, the banjo player became suddenly ill he fell on to the toilet, breaking it and then in an a wayward attempt to get up, he grabbed on to the sink, managing to pull it off the wall too. And with that a pipe burst and a giant rush of water came gushing up out of the floor. The water propelled McKenna on to the broken plaster, severely cutting his foot. The room was destroyed.

Within minutes, the noise, and the water seeping through the floor, had roused the hotel manager, who was far from sympathetic. It transpired that Barney McKenna wasn't staying in that hotel at all; he was in the one next door. The police were called.

There are, it seems, a thousand such stories about Barney. In 1987, a prominent band manager ended up sharing a double bed with Barney in Bloom's Hotel in Dublin after a heavy drinking session. He moved to the bath when Barney, in a manner of speaking, warmed the bed.

"Barney doesn't believe in washing in the winter," one band member said. "Animals piss on themselves to keep warm. So did Barney."

After a show in Northern Ireland with The Pogues at around that time, McKenna offered to drive Ronnie's car back to Dublin because the singer was in no fit state to drive. Barney had never driven an automatic car before. He was going for a clutch which wasn't there and the car was jumping all over the road as they approached an army checkpoint in Derry at 70 miles an hour, says Eamon Campbell. There is a big sign signalling drivers to stop and switch their lights off. Barney can't find the switch.

The car is barrelling towards the army checkpoint when just as the officers were about to shoot dead these hirsute madmen on-the-run Barney finds the brakes. "The car stops, Barney can't find the lever to wind down the window," Eamon remembers. "They end up being put in cells and being interrogated. Ronnie fell asleep during the interrogation. Because Barney was over the limit they had to be put in the cells for the night."

A bleary-eyed Ronnie woke up in the middle of night and, noticing his surroundings, said to Barney: "Who booked us into this kip?"

Barney looked back at him: "Sing The Ould Triangle now, you bo**ix! You're in jail."

"The RUC were great," says Drew. "They just f***ing laughed at us. I woke up with this terrible hangover. 'Lovin' Jesus. Where am I?' I vaguely remember Barney saying he'd look after us as I slept in the back of the car. And then hours later saying: 'Who booked us into this effing kip?"'

"I was the one who was driving the car!" Barney says, a little grumpily, later. "Ronnie is only going on what he was told!"

Behind the mellow mists of paranoia which Barney so entertainingly exudes you can glimpse a bearded genius enjoying himself. He has suffered a mild stroke, walks awkwardly and can only see out of one eye. Backstage in the Mean Fiddler nibbling on a cheese sambo Barney wears a smile of beatific repose. Like a Care Bear on acid.

Sunday afternoon in a packed bar opposite Hyde Park. Arsenal fans are screaming blue murder at their team. The Care Bear is sitting directly under the television. Barney denies he was the true wild man of The Dubliners.

"I wasn't that wild." Nor the ladies' man of myth: "I could have been. I was quite a good-looking fella. I can't say I was a womaniser. Do you know that kind of a way?" Barney says. "I'm sure there was girls fancied me but I was more in fights than I was in love affairs."

Others, however, disagree. According to another Dubliner, who doesn't want to be named, Barney had girlfriends in every port. "Cork, Liverpool, everywhere. I asked him how he did it. He said he was faithful to all of them."

In fairness, they all look like slightly worse-for-wear Care Bears. Ronnie as Fidel Castro Bear. Sheahan as Moses Bear. (Eamon Campbell looks like a big mouse.) Standing around the bar, the Dubliners are storytellers supreme their tales laced with sadness and humour. It is hard to imagine that these hairball (lapsed) blackout-merchants who formed in the back room of a pub in Dublin four decades ago have become a national institution. Feted by everyone from Charlie Haughey to Bono, Michael Smurfit to Shane MacGowan, they are legends in their own happy hour. The greatest band these shores have ever produced.

The spiritual godfathers of U2 and The Corrs, The Dubliners were formed in O'Donoghue's pub in Dublin in 1962 under the name of The Ronnie Drew Folk Group. There were four of them: Ronnie (vocals and guitar), Luke Kelly (vocals and five-string banjo), Barney McKenna (tenor banjo, mandolin, melodeon and vocals) and Ciaran Bourke (vocals, guitar, tin whistle and harmonica).

In 1963, as The Dubliners, they were the resounding sucesss of the Edinburgh festival where they met the head of Transatlantic Records, Nathan Joseph, where they started recording.In 1964, Luke departed, and Bobby Lynch (vocals and guitar) and John Sheahan (fiddle, tin whistle, mandolin, concertina, guitar and vocals) joined. When Luke returned and Bobby left in 1965, we were left with the original Dubliners, five inspired debauchees with a raw genius for music seldom matched then or since.

Over two glorious nights in London, Drew et al sang as if their lives depended on making us feel every nuance of the music, every high and low. They gouged emotion from the songs. At its best, The Dubliners' music embodies the mystical hunger for spiritual transcendence the poetic struggle to reconcile the conflicting demands of heart and mind. But there was also a lot of songs about drinking and riding.

The lyrical concerns reflected their anti-establishment views on Irish society. ("Luke was a communist," says Sean Cannon). Much to the chagrin of the Catholic church, The Dubliners sang an awful lot about illicit sex. When, in 1967, Seven Drunken Nights suggested that the archetypal Irishman was coming home every night out of his brains on drink while his wife was committing adultery, RTE banned it. (The song had been previously recorded in Irish by Joe Heaney and played on radio in Ireland with no problems.)

Monto was about the Montgomery Street area in Dublin once notorious for prostitutes.

The Holy Ground, meanwhile, dealt with the sailors in Cork going off to sea saying goodbye to their hooker lovers. The Dicey Reilly of the song of the same name was, of course, on the game.

"She's selling things you don't buy in shops," says Drew. "It was one finger up to the establishment," says Eamon. "They loved Monto in Dublin," says Barney. "We were telling the truth, and that was banned as well." The Banks of the Roses was another bawdy favourite. "That's symbolism as well," says Sean Cannon. "'Out of his knapsack, he drew a fine fiddle.' The songs had been there for donkey's years. Kids sang them at school in all innocence," says Sean. "They were disguised eroticism. It was the way it was couched: you could take it literally or figuratively."

Barney continues, this time in song: "Look at the Dublinese skipping song for kids: 'Down in the lane, there lives a big fat woman/ and if you want to know her name you have to pay a shilling./ Sailors two pound ten/ soldiers three and a penny/ big fat man six pound ten/ little boys a penny."'

Drew knew Brendan Behan, and got to know his wife Beatrice after Brendan died. About a week after Brendan was caught in England with the bomb in 1939 it didn't go off a woman was killed by an IRA bomb in Coventry with her kid at a post-box while she was posting a letter. Behan's wife Beatrice told him that for years her husband was haunted by the mental picture of the woman and child being blown to bits. He felt guilty by association. Brendan "was very sensitive. He carried a lot around with him."

Last year, Eamon Campbell decided he longer wanted to carry around a terrible event in his past. He went to the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. Coming out after making his statement, he walked around Stephen's Green for an hour in tears. Campbell, now 55, had this bottled up since he made his First Communion, aged seven, at the Christian Brothers in Drogheda. "I felt emotional with hate at what this arsehole had got away with," he says. "He was abusing the whole class. I still haven't heard anything back."

Ordering a round of pints, Eamon remembers the hangover-inducing lock-ins he enjoyed in Sheehan's pub on Chatham Street in the Seventies with Luke, Ronnie and Donal McCann. Did Luke and Ciaran effectively drink themselves to death? "In Ciaran's case, God have mercy on him, yes," says Eamon. "Luke, no. Ciaran had a brain haemorrhage and that was directly attributed to drink. Luke had a brain tumour and a top nob in Beaumont Hospital explained it to us. It was malignant. Drink wouldn't have exacerbated it. Maybe in the late stages at which stage Luke knew he was f***ed anyway."

"I never saw anyone drink as much as Ciaran," says Ronnie. "He'd say to me on tour: 'We'll go out for a drink when we get home.' I'd say: 'You start on Monday and I'll see you on Wednesday."'

Born in Dun Laoghaire in 1934, Ronnie Drew has had his share of torments. It is said that he first tried to give up the drink when Luke died. I ask him was the excessive drinking a compensation for anything in their lives.

"Oh I don't know about that," says Drew. "I never got into that with Ciaran or Luke. I never got into why they drank. We never asked why."

So you could spend a small lifetime drinking and talking with someone and never get to the core issue ... ?

"You would never get to the core," answers Drew emphatically. "I stopped drinking because I realised that I wasn't seeing things through." Kelly and Bourke played their part in the incredible, tragic story of The Dubliners. That the good we do lives after us is evident in the timeless music they left behind. In the ballads that will drift through eternity.

You hear it when Ciaran sings Peggy Lettermore and in every note Kelly held. And what are the good times without the bad? Pointed nearer the truth is Kelly singing Kavanagh's words in On Raglan Road: "Let grief be a fallen leaf".

In 1974, during a concert in Eastbourne on April 5, Ciaran was having desperate headaches. Unable to go back on stage, he was taken to a hospital immediately where the doctors diagnosed a brain aneurysm. Ciaran died on May 10, 1988. Luke was already four years dead. The others in the group have shown a fierce talent for self-preservation. Sean is separated. Barney is a widower. Paddy, too: his wife died three years ago. Ronnie, Jim McCann, John and Eamon are all happily married. John Sheehan's wife Mary comes over to say goodnight. It was onetime member Bob Lynch who introduced them. It was also through Bob that Sheehan joined the Dubliners in 1964. Sadly, in a state of deep depression, Bob took his own life in November 1988.

"His suicide was a shock," says Sheehan, "because he was always a very happy fella. Always cracking jokes. We drifted apart; I had lost contact with him for the previous five or six years before he died."

Like a dying star, The Dubliners for years seem to hover on the point of catastrophic collapse, then to appear, once again, like a supernova: the 25th anniversary on The Late Late Show, The Irish Rover with The Pogues on Top of the Pops. They decline to make high claims for their life's work. They never pined for social acceptance. "We don't often realise what our music has meant to other people's lives. Our music obviously touched people in some way and became an important part of their lives."

"The 40 years has flown so fast, drifted by. Luke has died. Ciaran has died. Various other things, and we're still playing. And no plans to stop."

It's too late to stop now.

The Dubliners play at the Gaiety, Dublin, from June 24 to 29 as part of a nationwide tour starting in Belfast (13th) and ending in Cork (30th)

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