Saturday 15 December 2018

When Deirdre met Luke

Dublin's famous Focus Theatre is celebrating its 40th anniversary next week. SOPHIE GORMAN reports on the great love story between Focus founder Deirdre O'Connell and Luke Kelly of the Dubliners, an unlikely pair who became an icon of the times.

WITH her flowing red mane and her flowing black capes, Deirdre O'Connell could certainly stop traffic. A unique character who didn't care what anybody thought, she created an unforgettable impression wherever she went.

But there was only one person's eye she was interested in catching, legendary folk singer Luke Kelly. She was widely regarded as the eccentric intellectual; he the renegade troubadour; all it seemed they had in common was their wild golden hair. However, there was a lot more to this pair than surface appearances.

Born and raised in South Bronx in a traditional emigrated Irish family, Deirdre was only 24 when she abandoned a prosperous acting career in New York and arrived in her natural home, Dublin in 1963.

Determined to put her theatrical training to its most efficient use, she wasted no time and established the Stanislavsky Studio at the Pocket Theatre in Ely Place, dedicated to practising the techniques of actor-training developed by the great Russian actor and director who co-founded the Moscow Art Theatre.

And this was the beginning of a lifetime of service to Irish theatre that extended over the following four decades and has left a significant and profound resonance.

From the moment she arrived until the moment she died in June 2001, she was a familiar figure on the Dublin 2 streets, dressed from head to foot in layers of black.

Garnering something of an enigmatic reputation in her adopted home, she was forced to travel to England by financial necessity; her personal requirements were negligible but her treasured theatre was on the brink of closure and she was desperate to stave the wolf from the door.

Resurrecting an almost forgotten career as a folk singer, she headed to London, singing the songs of the protest generation in the workingmen's clubs of London. When she was staying in an Irish rooming house on Seven Sisters' Road in Finsbury Park, she first met the man who was to change both her life and the face of Irish music forever - Luke Kelly.

The attraction was magnetic and enduring. She was the ethereal aesthete. He was the rough diamond. An unlikely pair, perhaps, but together there was a magic about them. Despite his labourer's appearance, Luke possessed the acumen of a sage and was only matched in story and song by his new love. Together, Luke and Deirdre tramped around the smoggy streets of industrial Britain, always planning their own rebellion.

Deirdre kept sending the money packets back to Dublin, sustaining her theatre and studio, and she and Luke returned in '64 for a more permanent visit. When regular singing sessions in the back room of O'Donoghue's on Baggot Street with Ronnie Drew and his street songs created a quintet of balladeers, Luke looked to James Joyce for inspiration and gave his new band their new name, The Dubliners.

Whilst the band were honing their craft and garnering an international reputation, Deirdre was devoted to finding a permanent home for her struggling theatre, a home she finally found in an abandoned clothing labels factory at the end of a quiet lane near Fitzwilliam Square.

And so the Focus Theatre on Pembroke Place, off Upper Pembroke Street, was born and it's still there and functioning today.

It cost Deirdre her life savings but that only covered a third of the £3,000 lease and conversion fee. The remainder was donated by an anonymous benefactor - an anonymous benefactor that everyone knew to be Luke.

It was everything the pair had in the world. Their life was an eternal poverty trap where food was considered an unaffordable luxury.

Mind you, economics were always a moot point with Deirdre and Luke. Demonstrating an unfortunately rare strain of altruism, Deirdre refused to charge more than £3 for her classes.

Believing she was serving a higher good with these marathon five and six-hour sessions, she flatly refused to inflate the prices over the decades, regardless of how ruinous this was for her. Instead, she preferred to raise funds by returning to New York to perform in a season on stage there before coming back with her pockets filled, ready to spend every nickel and dime on her precious theatre. As Deirdre herself said later: "I felt I had something to give to people in a place that I loved."

She gave it all to Dublin's aspiring actors and the list of acclaimed graduates pays testament to this commitment - Gabriel Byrne, Tom Hickey, Ronan Wilmot, Olwen Foure, Donal O'Kelly - the list is as long as it is impressive, and they all owed their foundation in the business to Deirdre.

On June 30, 1980, during a concert in the Cork Opera House, Luke Kelly collapsed on stage. He was rushed to hospital and a brain tumour was diagnosed. Following a lengthy operation, there was every hope of a full recovery.

He performed again with the group but became ill on a tour of Switzerland and had to pull out. Years of intensive touring with The Dubliners finally exacted the ultimate toll. He died in hospital that January.

Deirdre was inconsolable but characteristically believed that the show must go on and, one week later, she was back on stage "which is the way Luke would have it."

To divert herself from the huge void Luke's death had created in her life, she became even more focussed on the Focus; teaching, acting, directing and running the theatre to the point of exhaustion. On June 10, 2001, Deirdre died suddenly.

Deirdre and Luke - they were a charismatic, colourful, striking pair, who together became an iconic image of the Dublin of the 60s. Their spirits are still with us - but the city is a poorer place without them.

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