Described by American writer Steve Winnick as "the spiritual godfathers" of today's Irish music groups, The Dubliners were to the fore of the Irish ballad boom of the Sixties. They maintained a huge popularity at home and abroad for as long as health and physical endurance allowed. Initially known as The Ronnie Drew Group, comprising Ronnie Drew (vocals and guitar), Luke Kelly (vocals, banjo), Barney McKenna (tenor banjo), they were later joined by John Sheehan (fiddle) and Ciaran Bourke (vocals and tin whistle).
They began to achieve fame and notoriety as singers of street ballads and bawdy songs, interspersed with fine instrumental Irish traditional music. In fact they were the first ballad boom group to introduce Irish dance tunes into the repertoire, something musicians can be been sniffy about. In the Fifties the McPeakes of Belfast also mixed songs and tunes, as did the duo of Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman.
Their beards and gruff Dublin accents and humour endeared them to diverse audiences. They became popular in Britain during the folk revival and recorded their first album, before an invited audience in London in late 1963. But the turning point came when when the singles Seven Drunken Nights and Black Velvet Band went into the British pop charts.
The first song, which they got from the sean-nós singer Seosamh O hEanaigh, was originally recorded for their 1967 Seven Drunken Nights album. When it was released as a single, it was banned in Ireland (O hEanaigh's Irish version wasn't). However, after Ronan O'Rahilly's pirate station Radio Caroline gave it a lot of airplay, it shot to number five in the British charts, launching the Dubliners to stardom. They followed the Clancys and appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1968 and toured New Zealand and Australia.
The Dubliners were diverse in talent. Ronnie Drew's gravel voice and deadpan humour endeared him to all age groups. He lent an endearing quality to the working class Dublin accent, so often despised as "Jakeen" by the rest of the country. His voice also was that of the street: Dublin has a long tradition of street balladeers. In the decades before the Sixties, the singer and the street musician might perform outside a pub before going in to make a collection, or get paid by the publican to move on.
Luke Kelly was an even better example of the street singer. He had served his time in the English folk clubs and Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger's Singers Club in London. He tended to be overshadowed by Ronnie Drew's singing, until his version of Patrick Kavanagh's Raglan Road caught the attention. But it was the controlled passion in his delivery of Phil Coulter's Scorn not His Simplicity which forced the Irish public to take him serious as a singer. Many have since sang and recorded Raglan Road only to face angry comparison with Kelly. Only the foolhardy follow his lead on Scorn not His Simplicity. Kelly recorded that song only once, and only performed in once for video recording, never singing it in concert.
Luke Kelly also sang humorous songs, but best of all were the ballads which drew on his strong political conviction stemming from his working class background and his involvement in the socialist Connolly Association. This added depth to the group's repertoire and participation in the annual Mayday Connolly concert in Liberty Hall.
In 1964 Luke Kelly left the Dubliners for nearly two years, his place being filled by Bob Lynch. Ronnie Drew left to pursue a solo career and the group was joined by Jim McCann, who also left to go solo. Ronnie Drew then returned.
In 1974 Ciaran Bourke suffered a brain haemorrhage and had to leave the group. Tragedy struck again when Luke Kelly collapsed on stage in Cork in 1980 with a brain tumor. He returned to the stage intermittently, but died in 1984. His place in the group was filled by Sean Cannon.
In 1987 they celebrated their 25th anniversary with a special Late Late Show tribute on RTE. They were joined in the studio by Jim McCann, Christy Moore, who sang Micheal O Caoimh's Luke - A Tribute, The Pogues, U2, the Fureys and Davy Arthur and Stocktons Wing. They teamed up with Shane McGowan and the Pogues for a lively version of The Irish Rover, a song which put extra life into the salty old dogs when they first recorded together it about a year earlier. The video of the show was a huge seller.
They continued to pull the crowds in Ireland until the late Eighties and still maintain their popularity on the Continent, particularly in Germany. Ronnie Drew left for a solo career in 1995 and was replaced by Paddy Reilly.
Ronnie Drew. A Dubliner by birth, started out as a boy soprano until his voice broke. He picked up a guitar and became interested in folk music at the age of 19. He would sing and play as a hobby between odd-jobbing before going to teach English in Spain where he learned Flamenco guitar. After a few years he returned to Ireland and began singing in John Molloy's stage shows. His voice has been compared to a cement mixer and the sound of coke bottles being crushed under a door. "I'm not sure whether it is a blessing or a curse, but at the moment I'm making a living with it," he once quipped. He left The Dubliners for a successful solo career in 1996.
In 2006 he underwent treatment for throat cancer. He suffered a further blow when his wife Deirdre died after a short battle with cancer in June 2007. In early December 2007 Ronnie guested on RTE's Late Late Show, minus trademark beard and hair but in fine spirits. A few days later he was reunited with Barney McKenna and John Sheehan in Dublin for the belated launch of the 1965 film O'Donoghue's Opera.
Barney McKenna. Born in 1939 he became interested in music at a young age. It's said he was turned down by the Number One Army Band because he didn't have 6/6 vision. By this time, he had mastered the banjo so well that he embarrassed most musicians who had ever attempted to play it. He left school at 14 to become a glass blower, kitchen porter and builder's labourer. During this time, he played banjo at concerts, cabarets, and a stint in a quartet with Martin Fay and Paddy Moloney. He once remarked "I should have been a Chieftain but instead I grew a beard and became a Dubliner". Caused a stir when, after a stint working in England, he turned up at the door of the Pipers Club, not yet with beard, banjo case in hand, wearing a red shirt, black lace tie and winklepickers. He met Ronnie Drew following a Gate Theatre show with John Molloy. An innovative performer of Irish dance music on the banjo, his 14-minute duet with Belfast fiddler Sean Maguire on The Mason's Apron is breath-taking.
Ciaran Bourke. Born in Dublin in 1935. Tin whistle player and singer, he learned to speak Irish at an early age. Dropped out of college to do odd-jobs. A regular at the O'Donoghue sessions he was invited by Ronnie and Barney to join them. Luke Kelly, who had been singing around the clubs in England, came back about this time and made up the foursome. Taken ill during a concert in Eastbourne in April 1974, he was rushed to hospital where the doctors diagnosed a brain aneurysm. Suffered partial paralysis and never fully recovered. He died in 1988.
John Sheehan. Born in Dublin in 1939, he studied the violin for five years at the Municipal School of Music in Dublin. He won a number of awards in Feiseanna. He served his apprenticeship with the Electricity Supply Board. Played with a number of ceili bands before joining the Dubliners. Duets with Barney McKenna on dance tunes and does backing on many songs. Composes, his Marino Waltz has been recorded by a number of musicians . A non-drinker, he has looked after the group's business affairs. ©Ramblinghouse. 2000-7.
The Dubliners with Luke Kelly, 1964
Seven Drunken Nights, 1967
Live at the Albert Hall, 1969
Parcel of Rogues, 1967
Dubliners Now, 1975
Together Again, 1979