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Wednesday, 08 January 2014 12:01

The Dubliners Biography - Fifty years of Drunken Nights, the Old Triangle and Lovely Lassies.

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"The Dubliners had re-energised and refreshed
Ireland’s unique musical heritage." (President Mary McAleese)

The Dubliners 1984 onwards. Jim McCann, Paddy reilly, Ronnie Drew,  Eamonn Campbell, John Sheahan,  Barney McKenna and Sean CannonThe Dubliners 1984 onwards. Jim McCann, Paddy reilly, Ronnie Drew, Eamonn Campbell, John Sheahan, Barney McKenna and Sean CannonRonnie Drew was an English teacher in 1961 when he returned to Dublin from Spain where he had been learning the guitar.  He used to sing, play guitar and tell stories at parties. His voice was described “like coke being crushed under a door”. Comedian John Molloy asked him to warm up the audience at his Gaiety Theatre show. Ronnie brought Barney McKenna, a superb tenor banjo player, with him. The lads then met every Friday night in Dublin’s O’Donoghue’s Pub on Merrion Row. Luke Kelly had just returned from England and student Ciaran Bourke joined them. The rest, as they say, is history, and to this day, the music has never stopped in O’Donoghue’s.


I’m talking about the Dubliners, who else?

In the beginning, they earned a few quid from a few gigs. They had to have a name, so they called themselves the Ronnie Drew Group because Ronnie knew all the journalists in Dublin.

Through the years, various people joined them briefly. Mary Jordan on the spoons for instance and Anne Mulqueen, a singer from Limerick. Peggy Gordon (you know the song), Mary’s mother, set them up in the Abbey Tavern in Howth. Ronnie moved it to the Royal Hotel across the road – for more money. The Royal gig turned into a kind of mecca, attracting people from all over.

Ronnie felt too much responsibility when the group was named after him. Luke was reading James Joyce’s The Dubliners at the time. Now you know how they got their name and John Sheridan became their manager.

They got a few more gigs, like the Embankment in Tallaght every Monday and through Luke’s contact in England they played the Edinburgh Festival in 1963. In 1964, they released their first album, The Dubliners with Luke Kelly. Luke got tired of the group and went back to England. Fiddler John Sheahan and singer/guitarist Bobby Lynch joined and two more albums emerged: The Dubliners in Concert and O’Donoghue’s Opera. Around 1965, Luke grew weary of England and returned. Bobby Lynch left. The group then was Ronnie Drew, Luke Kelly, Barney McKenna, Ciarán Bourke and John Sheahan. That line-up, considered the quintessential Dubliners, continued until 1974.

Throughout those years they released five albums. One single caused mayhem – Seven Drunken Nights. Radio Telefis Eireann (the Irish National TV station) refused to play it because of its “questionable” content. This wasn’t the last time RTE misjudged artistic content – remember Father Ted! Radio Caroline and BBC played it. Radio Caroline was a pirate radio station and they played the song a lot.  As a result, The Dubliners became a major band, playing all over the world, getting into the charts, and receiving gold discs. The band sold 250,000 copies and appeared on BBC’s Top of the Pops. As Colin Irwin said in the reissue of “Live at the Albert Hall” they “looked like they’d just been dragged out of a seedy bar via a hedge (backwards) and dropped on London from a very great height”.  Ronnie commented on the TOTP "If nothing else, it opened us up to a very wide audience".  He went on "It's a nice little song. A business machine went into operation and the public was told to buy it and they bought it. There'd be none of these things unless business machines went into operation."

In 1968, they appeared in the US on The Ed Sullivan Show for St Patricks Day. They also played on David Frost with Bob Hope. In America, Ronnie wore a suit with long hair and a beard. The Americans didn’t know what to make of them.

On 1st May 1969, they gave six-month's notice to their management (Scott Solomon Management and The Dorothy Solomon Agency) and Major Minor that they wished to terminate their agreements with them.  Because The Dubliners were a cash machine at the time due to their popularity, Major Minor and the Solomons were unhappy by their decision.  This started rumours that they were splitting.  But they weren’t.

In 1969 they toured Canada, the US and Britain, moving to EMI and releasing several more albums.

People compared the Clancys to The Dubliners and it was written "Whereas the Clancys were well-scrubbed returned Yanks from rural Tipperary, decked out in matching white Aran sweaters, the Dubliners were hard-drinking backstreet Dublin scrappers with unkempt hair and bushy beards, whose gigs seemed to happen by accident".

The 1970’s started like the 60’s ended; wild touring, drinking and playing. They started doing regular tours, and they were still recording, of course.

In 1972, they hit Belgium, Scandinavia and Germany. In that year, enter Jim McCann and exit Jim McCann.

On 5th April 1974, Ciaran Bourke got headaches on stage and was rushed to St Georges Hospital in London where he was diagnosed with a brain haemorrhage. He rejoined the group in Germany, collapsed onstage and was left partially paralysed. Ronnie left the group to spend more time at home with his kids.  "That year my children were growing up and I felt I was being away from home too long. We'd be away for a period of six weeks, then we'd be home for two and away for another six weeks." Ronnie continues, "I didn't want my family to be suffering for lack of contact. My children were growing up and I wanted to be there. So I decided I'd pack it up and do something on my own. So I packed up in June or July of 1974."  During the next four years, Ronnie recorded two solo albums and the Dubliners recorded three.

1975, Jim McCann was asked to rejoin and he left in again 1978 to return to his solo career. Ronnie, who had been in a car accident, was asked to rejoin. He did and performed onstage on crutches. As Ronnie said, "I was in bad car accident in November 1978. I broke my hip and I was in the hospital. Jim McCann decided to leave the group. So John Sheahan asked me to come back to the group. I said, 'I might as well.' I've had a rest now and I'd had 4-4 ½ years at home and things were okay. So I joined the group again. I did the first gig in England on crutches."   They released another album in 1979.

On 30th June 1980, Luke Kelly collapsed on stage in Cork. He was operated on for a brain tumour a few times. Ronnie said "When I left the group in 1974, he was okay. Then when I went back to the group, about a year or two after I returned to the group, which was 1979, Luke used to drink a fair bit. He was forgetting words on stage. We all thought he was drinking too much. But it was happening when he wasn't drunk that he would forget. I said a lot of times he wasn't drinking that much that he couldn't remember. But it turned out anyway that he had a brain tumour. One night we were in Cork". "We were on the stage of the Opera House in Cork. Luke had started singing a song. I noticed his hand shaking, but I didn't mind that because it sometimes happens from too much adrenaline. It's happened to me a couple of times. I was watching and in case he got it too bad, I was ready to take over the song so the people wouldn't know. The next thing he started slurring his words. The next thing he just collapsed and was rushed to straight into the hospital and they did an operation on his head that night.Sean Cannon filled his place and Luke returned part time.

In October 1982, Bobby Lynch committed suicide.

1980-83 they brought out many more albums including the CD Live in Carré, which was Luke Kelly’s last recording.

In 1983, Luke collapsed on stage again, this time in Germany. He was rushed to a clinic near Heidleberg and on one of their days off Ronnie went to see him.  He returned to Dublin where he had another operation. He made it home for Christmas, but on 30th January 1984, he died in hospital.  As Ronnie said “I went into the hospital about nine o'clock and I stayed all night and he died that night".

This is part of the 25th Anniversary tribute on The Late Late Show. Just look at the number of people on stage

In Ronnie’s words; "He had a huge funeral in Dublin – television, radio, all the papers were there. In fact, there were so many there they had to get police on motorbikes. Here in Ireland when you die you go to the church – the Catholic Church. His church – I mean his family's church – Luke didn’t go to mass – Catholicism dies very hard in Ireland. So he was brought over to the church. But they had to go right through the city at half-past five. There were a good six guys on the motorbikes – policemen – driving the whole way in front to get through the traffic. Luke would have had a laugh because Luke used to have run-ins with the police. They were all there – politicians from both sides of the divide. It was a terrible loss.”

During 1984-87, the remaining Dubliners toured Germany, Scandinavia and Australia. They produced an album The Celebration for their 25th anniversary and appeared on the Late Late Show. The show tribute included appearances by Jim McCann, Christy Moore, U2, The Pogues, Stockton’s Wing, Charles Haughey and a moving recitation by Ciarán Bourke. Their collaboration with The Pogues of The Irish Rover blew the roof off and the Dubliners, once again, experienced popularity on a par with their heyday in the 1960s.

This single took the Dubliners back to the charts, and gave them a completely new audience - people who weren’t even born when The Dubliners started off. And with Dublin celebrating its millennium in 1988, The Dubliners also received more attention than for years. Eamonn Campbell joined them on regular basis, a move that turned out to be one of the most important in their history.

They were reborn with numerous television appearances and sold-out concerts.

In 1988, tragedy struck again. When they were on tour in England, they got word that Ciaran Bourke was rushed to hospital in Dublin and was very serious.  They immediately flew home and within hours Ciaran died. Illness had prevented Ciaran from playing for 10 years. During that time the group paid him in full. They took on no new full-time fifth member during his lifetime.

In 1988, Eamon Campbell signed up and the line-up was Ronnie, Barney, John, Seán and Eamonn. They released two more albums.

The 1990’s started with rumours that The Dubliners were to retire, probably something that had been said for a few years. However, they didn’t, and they celebrated their 30th anniversary in 1992, with a double cd and extensive tour. The nineties produced a tour video from the 1995 German tour, and the “shock” news that Ronnie Drew was leaving.

In December 1995, Ronnie left the group again after releasing a superb album, “Dirty Rotten Shame” a few months earlier.

Now the rumour machine hit overtime again saying that the Dubliners were definitely going to retire.  But they didn’t.

Enter Paddy Reilly. During 1995-2000, more touring, many albums and in 2000 health problems hit both Barney McKenna and Seán Cannon.  Paddy was not experienced at touring but he learned quickly and enjoyed the experience. 

In 2002, their 40th anniversary, they released two CDs and one DVD with all surviving band members, including Ronnie. They made a string of appearances on RTÉ (Irish TV) throughout this time, including a memorable appearance with Phil Coulter and George Murphy on RTÉ 1.

More tragedy as Jim McCann was diagnosed with throat cancer, which ended his singing career. However, he appeared as compere on stage introducing the band.

In 2005, Paddy Reilly departed because he had been left land in a will, which he sold for €13 million. Patsy Watchorn took his place and three more albums appeared.

Everyone in the audience is dancing to Irish Music

More tragedy. August 16th, 2008, at the age of 73 Ronnie Drew died of cancer. Ireland’s President, Mrs Mary McAleese, led tributes: ”It is with great sadness that I have learned of the death of the great Irish singer Ronnie Drew.” She said he was a champion of traditional Irish music and with The Dubliners had re-energised and refreshed Ireland’s unique musical heritage.

2012 marked the Dubliners 50th anniversary and tour dates were scheduled for the whole year.  However more tragedy struck.  Barney McKenna, the tenor banjo player whom you may remember, warmed up the audience with Ronnie for John Molloy in the Gaiety Theatre in 1961, died on 5th April 2012.

Like all good shows, the tour continued.  A planned tour of Denmark two weeks after the Barney’s death went ahead as planned. From the first show in Copenhagen on 18th April onwards he was replaced by the Irish banjo player Gerry O’Connor.

But the group announced that the final shows of the tour would be held on 28, 29 and 30 December at Vicar Street AND they would be the group’s final shows - ever. They were joined by former band member Jim McCann.

They made their final TV appearance in the UK on the BBC’s New Year’s Eve edition of Jools Holland Annual Hootenanny’ on 31st December. Their last public appearance as the Dubliners was on 27th January 2013 in memory of Barney McKenna.

Over the 50 years there were 12 people in The Dubliners.  Ronnie Drew (’62-2008), Luke Kelly (’62-84) , Barney McKenna (’62-2012), Ciaran Bourke (’62-74), John Sheahan (’64-2012), Bobby Lynch (’62-65), Jim McCann (’74-79), Sean Cannon (’82-2012), Eamonn Campbell (’88-2012), Paddy Reilly (’96-2005), Patsy Watchorn (2005-12) and Gerry O’Connor (2012).

The surviving members of the group – Sean Cannon, Eamonn Campbell, Patsy Watchorn and Gerry O’Connor, except John Sheahan, are still touring in 2014 under the name “The Dublin Legends”.

People probably don’t understand what The Dubliners have brought to the world of music.  They have paved the way for dozens of bands from Ireland and Scotland, e.g. The Chieftains, The Pogues, U2, Ossian, The Fureys, Hothouse Flowers and so on. The number of artists that list The Dubliners as one of their major influences and idols, is endless.  People like Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jimi Hendrix and Nick Mason (Pink Floyd’s drummer).

They brought folk music to millions of people all over the world, people who were converted to their charm. That isn’t only because of the music, the instrumentals or the stories, it’s because of The Dubliners, their astonishing voices, their indescribable instrumentals, the wild life style, the drinking, late sessions, their enormous beards (I even tried to copy them in the 70’s), their extensive touring, their charisma and the enigmatic characters. It was a blend the world will never see again.  It was an entire package that invented the word unique.

Now I know this isn’t The Dubliners. Its Liam Clancy’s tribute to Luke Kelly

Every artist in the world is trying to achieve success by getting their ‘sound’ and being unique.  The Dubliners did it.

How do you top that?

Robert Tallent

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Read 55999 times Last modified on Wednesday, 29 January 2014 16:39
Robert Tallent

Bob is a Management Consultant, Mentor and Trainer. He is also an Entrepreneur from 1983 to the present day. Between 1983 and 1995 he ran four businesses with a turnover in excess of £1m. As well as having an Honours Degree in Business Studies, he is also an Industrial Engineer and managed a large department in a multinational with large budgets and responsibilities.

He studied to become a Management Consultant, Mentor and Trainer and setup The Synergy Group in 1995.

He has a huge range of business and management experience in practically every industry.

Call him privately on +353(0)87 232 6927

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