Luke Kelly was a singer and folk musician from Dublin, most famous as a member of the band The Dubliners.
Kelly was one of the best-known figures of the Irish folk music movement of the 1960s and 1970s. A Dubliner from the north inner city, he attended O’Connell’s Schools before emigrating to Britain in 1958. There he first became involved in the growing international folk music scene in which Ewan MacColl was a central figure, as well as joining the Communist Party of Great Britain.
In 1962 Luke Kelly returned to Dublin and quickly became a central figure in the city’s burgeoning folk music community, playing in sessions in O’Donoghue’s Pub on Merrion Row with the likes of Ronnie Drew, Barney McKenna and The Fureys. Not long after, he ended up forming a folk group with Drew, McKenna, Ciaran Bourke and John Sheahan, which he named The Dubliners. In 1965, Kelly married the actress Deirdre O’Connell, one of the founders of the Focus Theatre.
In the mid-1960s, Luke moved to England for a while. On returning, he rejoined the Dubliners. His interpretations of ‘Raglan Road’ (a poem by Patrick Kavanagh) and Scorn Not His Simplicity were significant musical achievements and became points of reference in Irish folk music. Luke 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’, ‘When Margaret was Eleven’, ‘Joe Hill’, ‘The Button Pusher’, ‘Alabama 1958’ and ‘God Save Ireland’ all being good examples of his concerns). One of the Dubliners’ seminal albums was titled Revolution. In the socially and politically conservative atmosphere of the Republic of Ireland at the time, this was notable.
Luke Kelly was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1980, and died on 30 January 1984. He remains a Dublin icon and his music is widely regarded as one of the city’s cultural treasures.
The Ballybough Bridge in the north inner city of Dublin has been renamed the The Luke Kelly Bridge and in November 2004, the Dublin city council voted unanimously to erect a bronze statue of Luke Kelly. However, the Dublin Docklands Authority stated that it could not afford to fund the statue. After years of campaigning by Luke Kelly’s family, in July 2017, it was announced two statues to honour Luke Kelly are being planned.
In January 2019, two statues of Luke Kelly were unveiled in Dublin city to mark the 35th anniversary of his death. One is on South King Street, donated by the late Gerry Hunt and sculpted by John Coll. The other is on Sheriff Street, where Kelly was born, and designed by the portrait artist Vera Klute.