Luke Kelly (born 17 November 1940 in Dublin – died 30 January 1984) was an Irish singer and folk musician from Dublin notable as a founding member of the band The Dubliners.
Luke Kelly was born into a working class family in Sheriff Street, a quarter of a mile from Dublin’s main thoroughfare, 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 Jacob’s biscuit factory and enjoyed playing soccer. Both Luke and his brother Paddy played club GAA football and soccer as kids.
He attended the Laurence O’Toole School as a child, and achieved very good grades in most subjects. In 1953 the Dublin Corporation moved the family to Whitehall when their flat was destroyed in a fire, but he continued to attend O’Toole’s by taking a bus there every day. Luke left school at thirteen and after four years of odd-jobbing, he 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 salesman.
The first folk club he came across was in Newcastle upon Tyne 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 MacColl 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 to a fleadh cheoil in Miltown Malbay on the advice of Johnny Moynihan. He listened to recordings of Woody 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 over his communist beliefs, he also had strong music links. A sister, Kathleen Moynihan was a founder member of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. 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 Dominic Behan and they performed in 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 and Mairtín Byrnes.
Luke Kelly was by now active in the Connolly Association, 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 politics. He was also to start frequenting Ewan MacColl 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 were the forerunner to sessions in the Hollybrook, Clontarf, the International Bar and the Grafton Cinema. Luke Kelly returned to Dublin in 1962. O’Donoghue’s Pub 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 Hotel and then to jam-packed sessions in the Embankment, Tallaght. Ciaran Bourke joined the group, followed later by John Sheahan. They called themselves The Dubliners.
In 1964 Luke Kelly left the group for nearly two years and was replaced by Bobby Lynch. With 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 MacColl’s “gathering”. The Critics, as it was called, was formed to explore folk traditions and help young singers. Luke Kelly greatly admired MacColl 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 Drunken Nights” and “The 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. Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger on a visit to Dublin expressed concern to Luke about his drinking.
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 Brendan Behan.
The arrival of a new manager for The Dubliners, Derry composer Phil Coulter, resulted in a collaboration that produced two of Luke’s most notable performances: “The Town I Loved So Well” and “Scorn Not His Simplicity” ,a song about Phil’s son who was diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome. Luke 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 boisterous concerts.
His interpretations of “Raglan Road” and “Scorn Not His Simplicity” were significant musical achievements and became points of reference in Irish folk music. His version of “Raglan Road” came about when the poem’s author, Patrick Kavanagh, heard him singing in a pub in Dublin city then called the Bailey, and approached him to say that he should sing the poem (which is set to the tune of “Dawning Of The Day”). Kelly remained a politically engaged musician, and many of the songs he recorded dealt with social issues, the arms race and war, workers’ rights and Irish nationalism, (“The Springhill Disaster”, “Second World Song”, “Joe Hill”, “The Button Pusher”, “Alabama 1958” and “God Save Ireland” all being examples of his concerns). In the socially and politically conservative atmosphere of the Republic of Ireland at the time, this was notable.
On 30 June 1980 during a concert in the Cork Opera House Luke Kelly collapsed on the stage. He had already suffered for some time from headaches and forgetfulness, which however had been ascribed to his alcohol consumption. A brain tumour was diagnosed. Although Kelly toured with the Dubliners after enduring an operation, his health deteriorated further. He forgot lyrics and had to take longer breaks in concerts as he felt weak. On his European tour in autumn 1983 he came off the stage in Traun, Austria and again in Mannheim, Germany. Shortly after he had to cancel the tour of southern Germany and after a short stay in hospital in Heidelberg was flown back to Dublin. After another operation he spent Christmas with his family but was taken into hospital again in the New Year, where he died on 30 January 1984. His gravestone in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, bears the inscription: Luke Kelly – Dubliner .
Luke Kelly remains a Dublin icon and his music is widely regarded as one of the city’s cultural treasures. 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 bridge over the River Tolka, the councillors quickly united as Tony Gregory proposed that it be named after Luke Kelly.
The Ballybough Bridge in the north inner city of Dublin has been renamed the “Luke Kelly Bridge” and in November 2004, the Dublin city council voted unanimously to erect a bronze statue of Luke Kelly. The location for the statue had not yet been decided upon.
A moving song has been written by O’Donoghue in memory of Kelly. It is called “The Dublin Minstrel”
Photo credit: Old Dublin Town @OldDublinTown
Photo credit: Watercolour portrait by Penny Lame. Please visit this brilliant artists’ (Tuulia Tamminen) website at https://www.facebook.com/TuuliArt
Photo credit: Brian Dwyer