Luke Kelly was born on November 17, 1940, into a working class family
in Sheriff Street, a quarter of a mile from Dublin's O'Connell Street.
His grandmother, who was a McDonald from Scotland, lived with the
family until her death in 1953. His father worked all his life in
Jacobs biscuit factory and enjoyed playing soccer. Both Luke and his
brother Paddy played club GAA football and soccer as kids. In 1953 the
Corporation moved the family to Whitehall, then a north city suburb.
Luke left school at 13 and after four years of
went to England in 1958. Working at steel fixing with his brother Paddy
on a building site in Wolverhampton, he was sacked after asking for
more money. He worked odd jobs from oil barrel cleaning to vacuum
The first folk club he came across was in Newcastle in early 1960.
Having already acquired the use of a banjo, he started memorising
songs. In Leeds he brought his banjo to sessions in McReady's pub and
was often to be seen at Communist Party headquarters. The folk revival
was under way in England: at the centre of it was Ewan McColl who
scripted a radio programme called Ballads and Blues. The skiffle craze
had also injected a certain energy into folk singing.
Luke started busking. On a trip home he went a fleadh ceoil in Miltown
Malbay on the advice of Johnny
Moynihan. He listened to recordings of
Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger. As he sought out the musician in
himself, he also developed his political convictions which, as Ronnie
Drew pointed out after his death, he stuck to throughout his life. As
Ronnie also pointed out, he learned to sing with perfect diction.
He befriended Sean Mulready in Birmingham and lived in his home for a
period. A teacher who was run out of his job in Dublin after a Catholic
witchunt over his communist beliefs, he also had strong music links. A
sister, Kathleen Moynihan was a founder member of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri
Eireann. He was related by marriage to Festy Conlon, the Co Galway
whistle player. His wife's brother, Ned Stapleton, taught Luke The
Rocky Road to Dublin.
Luke bought his first banjo, a five-string, started a lifelong habit of
consummate reading and even took up golf - on one of Birmingham's
municipal courses. He got involved in the Jug O'Punch folk club run by
Ian Campbell. He befriended Dominick Behan and they performed folk
clubs and Irish pubs from London to Glasgow. In London pubs like The
Favourite he would hear street singer Margaret
Barry and musicians in
exile like Roger Sherlock, Seamus
Ennis, Bobby Casey
Luke Kelly was by now active in the Connolly Asssociation, a left-wing
grouping strongest among the exiles in England. His political
development was significant. It gave edge and conviction to his
performance and lent weight to The
Dubliners' repertoire at a time when
the youth in Ireland were breaking away from Civil War 'Tweedledum'
politics. He was also to start frequenting Ewan McColl and Peggy
Seeger's Singer Club in London.
In 1961 there was a ballad boom in waiting in Ireland. The Abbey Tavern
sessions in Howth was the forerunner to sessions in the Hollybrook,
Clontarf, the International Bar and the Grafton cinema. Luke Kelly
returned to Dublin in 1962. O'Donoghues was already established as a
session house and soon Luke was singing with among others Ronnie Drew
and Barney McKenna. Other early people playing at O'Donoghues included
the Fureys, father and sons, John Keenan and Sean Og McKenna, Johnny
Moynihan and Mairtin Byrnes.
A concert John Molloy organised in the Hibernian Hotel led to his
Ballad Tour of Ireland with the Ronnie Drew Ballad Group. (Billed in
one town as the Ronnie Drew Ballet Group). The success trail led to the
Abbey Tavern and the Royal Marine and then to jam-packed sessions in
the Embankment, Tallaght. Ciaran Bourke joined the group, followed
later by John Sheehan. The called themselves The Dubliners.
In 1964 Luke Kelly left the group for nearly two years and was replaced
by Bobby Lynch. With the late Deirdre O'Connell, founder of the Focus Theatre,
whom he was to marry the following year, he went back to London and
became involved in Ewan McColl's "gathering." The Critics, as it was
called, was formed to explore folk traditions and help young singers.
Luke Kelly greatly admired McColl and saw his time with The Critics as
an apprenticeship. "It functioned as a kind of self-help group to
develop each other's potential," said Peggy Seeger.
Bobby Lynch left The Dubliners and Luke rejoined. They recorded an
album in Cecil Sharpe House, London, played the Cambridge Folk Festival
and recorded Irish Night Out, a live album with, among other, exiles
Margaret Barry, Michael Gorman and Jimmy Powers. They also played a
concert in the National Stadium in Dublin with, to Luke's delight, Pete
Seeger as special guest.
They were on the road to success: Top Twenty hits with Seven
Nights and Black Velvet Band, the Ed
Sullivan Show in 1968 and a tour
of New Zealand and Australia. The ballad boom in Ireland was becoming
increasingly commercialised with publicans building even larger venues
for pay-in performances.
Christy Moore became
a friend after they met in 1967. During his
Planxty days he got to know Luke particularly well. "Mind you at that
time I think his best singing days were over. I think Luke ran out of
steam in The Dubliners as a singer. I've heard tapes of him singing as
a younger man and he was wonderful".
Luke took to the stage, surprising many with his performance as King
Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar. In 1972 The Dubliners themselves
performed in Richard's Cork Leg, based on the "incomplete works" of
An unlikely alliance with Derry composer Phil Counter produced two of
Luke's greatest performances: The Town I Loved So Well
and the deeply
moving Scorn Not His Simplicity. The latter was
handicapped son and showed Luke as passionate in caring for the
individual's plight as he was about the good of society. He had such
respect for the song that he only performed it once for a television
recording and rarely, if ever, sang it at The Dubliners' often
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 tumor 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. He died in hospital on January 30,
He united Dubliners in their appreciation of their own music and street
songs and, years later, when the City Council was divided along Civil
War lines over the naming of a new Tolka River bridge, the councillors
quickly united as Tony Gregory proposed that it be named after Luke
Kelly. . ©Ronan Nolan, 2008.
See also: Luke Kelly, A Memoir, by Des Geraghty.
Basement Press. (Copies on sale at Charlie Byrne's Bookshop, Galway).
Luke's Legacy, Luke Kelly and the
Songs of the Workers, Luke Kelly
The Collection, Luke Kelly
The Luke Kelly Album (with The Dubliners)
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