Luke Kelly 25th Anniversary

Luke – the legacy
Reflections on the 25th anniversary of Luke Kelly
(17th November 1940 – 30th January 1984)

By Dr. Gerhard Braas - Germany (Archivist of The Dubliners)

Many fans of Irish and other folk music had not yet been born when in 1962 the Dubliners started their world career in what was, at that time, a niche segment of popular music. Arguably, the most well-known and important Irish folk group, the Dubliners are synonymous with the world wide popularity of traditional Irish music which they initiated and have constantly maintained. The beginning and early years of this track record are inseparably linked with one particular name: Luke Kelly. 
It is hoped that this article will not be yet another addition to the proliferation of Luke Kelly biographies, but will be prove to be both informative and entertaining. Stories and anecdotes about the outwardly unmistakable minstrel boy with the read curly hair are well documented and widely known: the beginning in O'Donoghue's pub; the English years as an apprentice of Ewan MacColl, the ascent to world fame with the “Original Five“ line-up (together with Ronnie Drew, Barney McKenna, Ciarán Bourke and John Sheahan) and finally the sad end drawn out by illness. 
His early death was certainly a contributory factor in elevating Luke Kelly to legen-dary status whose popularity since his death has increased still further. And Ireland does not forget its heroes. Many poems and songs have been written about “the best folk singer of all time“, as Karsten Jahnke, the Dubliners German tour manager from the outset, stated in a recent newspaper interview. The most well-known of these “tribute” songs are “Tribute to Luke“ written by Mícheál Ó'Caoimh and sung by Christy Moore at the 25th anniversary of the Dubliners and “The Dublin Minstrel “ written by Paddy Reilly (The Dubliners 1995-2005) and sang live by Patsy Watchorn at all Dubliners shows. His hometown also honours Dublin’s “favourite son“: a Luke Kelly Bridge already exists and some years ago, the Dublin city council announced that a statue is to be erected. At the time of writing, this has not been yet happened, however, such accolades invariably take a long time to come to fruition. The Luke Kelly Memorial Fund does a great job in raising funds for brain tumour research. There is no dispute amongst fans of the “value” of Chris Kavanagh’s show: “The Legend of Luke Kelly” which frequently tours around the countryside. In November 2006, a commemorative postage stamp was issued by the An Post which depicts Luke Kelly with the Dubliners on a 48 cent stamp which honours the Dubliners for bringing Irish music to a worldwide audience over the past four decades. 

Many of their songs are instantly recognisable and inseparably linked with Luke Kelly. There have been numerous cover versions aimed at a wider audience of popular music, but they never reached the freshness and intensity of the original interpretations. Who didn't sing the well known and memorial “Whiskey in The Jar“? The Irish rock band Thin Lizzy achieved international success in 1973 with a rock version, as did Metallica in 1999 with a heavy metal version. “Dirty old Town“ also became world famous. Versions have been recorded by many artists, most notably the Pogues, Rod Stewart, U2 and Simple Minds. A German version, by Esther Ofarim disappeared into oblivion! “The Wild Rover“ is the opening song of the very first Dubliners album, released in 1964. It was presented to the band by Luke Kelly who had brought it over from England. Over the years, it has become the very epitome of the Irish drinking song. Probably the most popular piece of Irish folk music was made famous in Germany by the duo „Klaus & Klaus“ who used the tune for their carnival hit and beer tent song “At the North Sea Coast“. In an internet vote, the Dubliners original surprisingly received a full two-thirds majority over the German version! 

Those who do not possess the original vinyl records can still listen to Luke Kelly on CD through the countless “best of” or “collections”. However, these new compilations have been haphazardly thrown together with no thought being given to the running order. Live performances are sanitised to remove spoken introductions and applause. Therefore, the time has come to make a fresh start and give the public at large a glimpse of the group’s unique and irresistible live performances. In recent years, the Dubliners have, with energetic assistance of numerous fans, created an archive of world wide television programmes, radio broadcasts and unpublished material from private collections. 2005 saw the issue of the DVD “Luke Kelly - The Performer “ – a selection of 19 previously unreleased songs from TV programmes. With an enormous archive pool, the selection of the songs for inclusion was a huge challenge. It is possible that further delicacies will be made available over time. 

There are many hidden treasures - songs that the public would not normally associate with Luke Kelly, such as “Blackwaterside “, “The Deserter “and “Dark Is The Colour Of My True Love's Hair “. The Dubliners have toured Germany each year since 1972 and many complete live recordings exist which display the “Performer” - warts and all - in direct contact with his audience. These uncut recordings provide wonderful insight into the group’s live performances. It is fascinating to hear the spontaneous banter and song introductions which create a singular and unmistakable live atmosphere. “Ladies and Gentleman” - Luke introduces each song this way – “you ain't seen nothing yet“. Thus the “Octopus Jig” is announced to which all Dubliners become entangled with one another and each plays two instruments at the same time! Local colour is always a feature: Munich was named the “biggest drinking town in the world”, whilst the street ballad “The Monto” mutated into the “Reeperbahn Song” when performed in Hamburg! Also, the affectionate side comments, such as: “The Leaving of Liverpool - Kevin Keegan will never forget” (he transferred to the German football league to play for HSV Hamburg) and Barney McKenna is introduced as the “second best banjo player in the Dubliners “. 

The Dubliners’ concerts of the 60's and 70's were clearly more politically shaped according to the climate of the time. Expressive and moving live recordings exist of emotive songs such as “Joe Hill“ and “The Town I Loved So Well”. Sometimes a song is dedicated the IRA prisoners held in the H-blocks of Long Kesh prison to the frenetic applause of the German audience. My personal highlight remains the song “Peat Bog Soldiers“. “Die Moorsoldaten” arrived from Ernst Busch via Pete Seeger to Luke Kelly. I had the good fortune to see it performed live at Hamburg Music Hall in 1973. Watching Luke Kelly marching with his banjo over his shoulder like a peat cutter’s spade sent goose bumps down my spine. 

As Luke’s fellow combatant, John Sheahan, declared in a poem dedicated to Luke at his 21st anniversary: “we have a legacy of songs to savour”. We treasure each and every one of them. 

Last summer Ronnie Drew, a founder member of the Dubliners, died. The following day, a cartoon appeared in an Irish newspaper, in which Ronnie is stood before his creator. God offers Ronnie a harp but he rejects this saying: “I’ll hang to me guitar”. On a nearby cloud are his fellow deceased Dubliners, Luke Kelly and Ciarán Bourke with their instruments at the ready. May the party continue for eternity?

(English version of an article for the German folk music magazine “Folker!”, trans-lated by Ron Comley)

DVD and CD: Luke Kelly - The Performer (Celtic Airs 2005)

Many thanks to Johann Kollmannsberger, who took photograhs at the Dubliners gig on 19 November 1978 in Munich and kindly supplied a series of unreleased photographs for this article.

© 2000-2014 Rare Auld Times Entertainment, Dublin, Ireland