London, 13 March 2012

The Big Five-O: A Birthday Party At The Royal Albert Hall

April 2012

When we wrote the following report, we were simply two happy people who had had the pleasure and honour of experiencing a landmark in the history of The Dubliners – a brilliant concert to celebrate 50 wonderful years, and that in one of the most beautiful venues in the world. Correction – two very happy people. Little did we know then that our written memories would be in retrospect so poignant.
Before our words could be published, something happened that we all knew deep in our hearts to be inevitable, but which came in the end as a shock. Only three weeks after that unforgettable concert, life's final curtain fell for Barney McKenna.
We are very sad now. But we would like to share with you our memories of that wonderful night in London just the same, because we feel we want to remember Barney at a happy time, and we hope these will bring a smile to your face in spite of the tears. We have altered nothing. Some of our comments and quotes have perhaps lost their validity in the meantime, some words may appear almost ironical now, and undoubtedly some of our lines written then have a bittersweet tone read today. But our sadness now makes it impossible for us to rewrite our memories, without losing some of the magic and joy and happiness that were present in the Royal Albert Hall that night in March.

London, 13th March 2012

The road from O'Donoghue's has been a rocky one at times. They haven't been spared blows of fate and setbacks over the past five decades – on the contrary, they've had more than their share of tragedies and hurdles to overcome since those beginnings way back in 1962. But challenges have been met, problems mastered, tragic losses never forgotten – indeed, upholding the legacy of those lost has been regarded virtually as a commitment.

And now The Dubliners have reached this incredible milestone – 50 years! A time to celebrate, a time to be thankful, but also a time to look back upon this half century, remembering above all the three founder members who are no longer among us. Consequently, the anniversary tour follows the familiar pattern of the A Time To Remember concerts a couple of years ago – on a screen above the stage photos of earlier times and former line-ups appear, and old video footage brings about a unique and fascinating interaction between the performers on screen and those on stage.
And as the highlight of the UK 50th celebration tour, what worthier venue than London's Royal Albert Hall, “that big roundy place near the park” as Barney once described it. Not the first time The Dubliners had played in this impressive, history-charged building of course, but those earlier concerts were in the 60's and 70's, and “it looks good on the CV for the next 50 years”, as John Sheahan commented jokingly!

As the day of the concert unfolded, dozens of people converged on London from different places – the travelling people were on the road again. They finally met in one of the bars of the RAH, fans from Ireland, Scotland, England, France, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Germany, Italy, even Canada. It was a meeting of the waters, a gathering of friends who had promised to be there to celebrate this special anniversary with The Dubliners.
The Royal Albert Hall was overwhelming in its magnificence. 

We couldn't help remembering Barney's reaction back then, when he found himself in the concert hall the first time – “Ah Jaysus!” The sheer size of it, as Ronnie put it, “frightened the living daylights out of him”. And it was packed.
This time none of the lads looked frightened, though they must have been a little nervous. But they struck up the “Fermoy Lassies” – by now the recognised greeting to their audiences – with the usual liveliness and self-confidence.

Old photographs and footage accompanied The Dubliners all through the concert, providing a running commentary to it. Barney, John, Seán, Patsy and Eamonn sang songs with Luke Kelly (“Kelly, The Boy From Killane”, “The Monto”), with Ronnie Drew (“Seven Drunken Nights”, “McAlpine's Fusiliers”), with Ciarán Bourke (“The Juice Of The Barley”); ex-members Bobby Lynch, Jim McCann and Paddy Reilly appeared in photographs; each Dubliner was mirrored by pictures and videos of his younger self. Because the Royal Albert Hall is much larger than many concert halls, the show was particularly impressive: the videos filled the space and the poignancy of memories could be felt more strongly.

Difficult to pick out highlights from a concert that was from start to finish a highlight in itself. Certainly the videos already mentioned, but also John Sheahan's wonderful tributes in poetry were extremely emotive: “Sonnet For Luke”, “Remembering Ciarán” and “Sketch Of A Dubliner”. As was his beautiful composition “Farewell To Harstad”, which he dedicated to those who lost their lives last year on Norway's blackest day.

Seán and Patsy, quite obviously feeling perfectly at home on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall, and in excellent vocal form, sang of emigration in the moving “Shores Of Americay” and evoked nostalgic memories of “Dublin In The Rare Auld Times” – just to name two of many wonderful songs. Before rendering his very fine version of “Dirty Old Town”, Ewan MacColl's evocative portrait of his birthplace Salford, Patsy recalled that it was in this very same town that only a few weeks before, The Dubliners had had the honour of being presented with the BBC Lifetime Achievement Award. Sean’s deadpan humour introduced “Eileen Óg” (We’re going to sing a song from Percy French … He was Irish although his name was French … He wrote many famous songs, including “The Mountains Of Mourne” … but we don’t know that one, so we'll sing another one!)

The “star” of the evening and the darling of the audience was undoubtedly Barney McKenna, the only surviving founder member (the always correct and very modest John Sheahan makes a point of reminding that he has only been with the group for 48 years!) Barney was in brilliant form, and how fitting that he should sing “The Comical Genius” – the title could be his middle name! His Irish solo on squeeze box and banjo – accompanied by an equally virtuoso Eamonn Campbell on guitar – had once again that international touch. 

How delighted we were that it included what is well-known in the English speaking world as the music of “Poppa Piccolino”, but which actually has its origin in Italy, and of which there is also a very popular German version. And you could have heard a pin drop in the Royal Albert Hall during his beautiful, moving rendition of “Ar Éireann Ni Neosainn Cé Hí”, the audience bursting into thunderous applause on the final chords.

Eamonn, as always, showed his exceptional skill – he made his guitar sound in turn like a mandolin or a harpsichord, he provided faultless accompaniment, and – last but not least – he did so with the usual good humour and apparent nonchalance, as only a first-rate musician can do.
Impossible to experience a Dubliners' gig without being infected by the music – the clapping and singing and foot-stamping is virtually contagious. And how often have we found it almost impossible to control our feet and have wished that Barney hadn't warned us against dancing? Well, warning or no warning, the Royal Albert Hall has its own rules! The atmosphere that night was phenomenal – and twice in the course of the second set a couple of dancers took to the floor and ventured a very lively pas de deux around the arena.

Smiling faces everywhere at the end of a wonderful evening, and needless to say, we did not regret for one second having made the trip to London especially for this very special occasion. The concert was followed by a crowded party in the artists' bar. The Dubliners’ families, fans and fellow travellers were there, along with colleagues like Imelda May and Damien Dempsey. Many familiar faces, many old and new friends, many smiles, hugs and tales, many memories, some very sad, some very pleasant. We kept our promise – we were there – and it was a joy and an honour.

They've come a long way since that backroom in O'Donoghue's – 50 exceptional years, countless concert tours, innumerable fans gained worldwide. And the road didn't end at the Royal Albert Hall in London – thousands of fans all over Europe will be celebrating this milestone with The Dubliners in the months to come. And after 2012? Seán was surely putting into words the feelings and wishes of all fans worldwide as he told us what a wonderful time they had had “in this magnificent building” and thanked us for being such a great audience: “See you again to start the next 50 years!”

Words From The Witnesses

Home again, we asked a handful of friends if they would share with us their thoughts and impressions on looking back on the gig. The result was a potpourri of comments, each one of them a unique sign of appreciation, but together a veritable song of praise not only to a memorable event but to all Dubliners past and present:

“The Royal Albert Hall – many of us will have known it from BBC's “Last Night of the Proms” being performed and broadcasted live traditionally every first Saturday in September. What a breathtaking moment to step inside this amazing concert hall and get caught by its magic. The perfect place to celebrate the 50 years milestone of The Dubliners with more than 4000 friends and fans.
Walking back to my hotel through London at night there was time for a first reflection on this unique and unforgettable event. The picture that came into my mind was that of a masterly distilled and blended very old whiskey I had just had the honour to taste. The finest single cask treasures aged in excellent conditions (not always smooth but leaving their special traces behind), each with its specific character. All arranged so well together to honour the art of a perfect performance and prove the values of constancy and tradition – not as something old fashioned but as a reliable challenge with every sip you take.”
(Barbara, Germany)

“When the Dubliners walked on the stage that magical night in March, at the magnificent Royal Albert Hall, it was like seeing old friends perform. We had travelled all the way from Canada to see them, and my excitement was palpable. First of all meeting dear friends, and then seeing this amazing band of Irish legends. And they did not disappoint. I never expected that they would, elderly gentlemen all of them, but they produced such rousing good music, it was like we were all 19 again. I fell in love with each of them all over again. The respect and love and appreciation they showed for their friends and band mates long gone simply endeared them to me even more. I smile every time I think of that night, and I am so grateful we made the decision to go to London and see the amazing Dubliners.”
(June, Canada)

“I have followed the Dubliners over the years from the very first time I saw them perform in a tent in a muddy field in Cambridge back in 1968 and to see them now on stage in a crowded Royal Albert Hall was so amazing. These gentlemen are still, after all these years of success, so down to earth and they always treat their fans with the greatest respect. On top of that, meeting up with a lot of lovely friends was a great experience.”
(Kirsten, Sweden)

“Twenty-two years ago, I picked a record at random in a music shop and immediately fell in love with the strange, rough mixture of virtuoso music, voices ranging from Rolls Royce engine to tenor, and rich repertoire. I had just discovered the Dubliners. Little did I know then that twenty-two years later I would be sitting in the magnificent Royal Albert Hall, impatiently waiting to welcome the same (or nearly same) Dubliners travelling Europe on their 50th anniversary tour. The test of really good music is that you don't get tired of it and, as the full house testified, the music is still breath-taking, the voices exceptional, the jokes hilariously bad and the atmosphere so friendly and unpretentious we might have been in our local pub – the largest, happiest pub in London that evening!”
(Marie, England)

“Thanks to The Dubliners past and present for 50 glorious years of music. Thanks also to the lads for bringing together a group of special people from all around the world who have been united together in the love of the music and craic to become life-long friends. We all met, some for the first time, at The Royal Albert Hall on 13th March to join in celebrating the Golden Anniversary of a group of ordinary men with an extra-ordinary talent. Up the Dubs!”
(Paula, England)


That rocky road took a sudden turn on the morning of 5th April. Plans and promises and pleasant anticipation of gigs to come – all rendered void with the passing of Barney McKenna. 
Only time will tell what lies beyond that bend in the road, and what the future will hold for The Dubliners.
Barney will be sorely missed. His flying hands on the banjo, his incredible musical dexterity, his Irish solos, his ramblings, his impish humour. His gentleness and charm and absolute indifference to the trappings of celebrity.

Thank you for the music, Barney – and not just for that.

Report by by Enid & Renata

Pictures by Enid & Helmut, and Renata (see gallery for details)


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