Luke Kelly was born on November 17, 1940, into a working class family in Sheriff Street, a quarter of a mile from Dublin’s 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 Jacobs biscuit factory and enjoyed playing soccer. Both Luke and his brother Paddy played club GAA football and soccer as kids. In 1953 the Corporation moved the family to Whitehall, then a north city suburb.
Luke left school at 13 and after four years of odd-jobbing 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 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 McColl 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 a fleadh ceoil in Miltown Malbay on the advice of Johnny Moynihan. He listened to recordings of Woodie 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 after a Catholic witchunt over his communist beliefs, he also had strong music links. A sister, Kathleen Moynihan was a founder member of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann. 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 Dominick Behan and they performed 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 Asssociation, 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 ‘Tweedledum’ politics. He was also to start frequenting Ewan McColl 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 was the forerunner to sessions in the Hollybrook, Clontarf, the International Bar and the Grafton cinema. Luke Kelly returned to Dublin in 1962. O’Donoghues 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 and then to jam-packed sessions in the Embankment, Tallaght. Ciaran Bourke joined the group, followed later by John Sheehan. The called themselves The Dubliners.
In 1964 Luke Kelly left the group for nearly two years and was replaced by Bobby Lynch. With the late 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 McColl’s “gathering.” The Critics, as it was called, was formed to explore folk traditions and help young singers. Luke Kelly greatly admired McColl 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 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.
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.
An unlikely alliance with Derry composer Phil Counter produced two of Luke’s greatest performances: The Town I Loved So Well and the deeply moving Scorn Not His Simplicity. The latter was about Phil’s handicapped son and showed Luke as passionate in caring for the individual’s plight as he was about the good of society. He 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.
On June 30, 1980, during a concert in the Cork Opera House Luke Kelly collapsed on stage. He was rushed to hospital and a brain tumor was diagnosed. Following a lengthy operation there was every hope of a full recovery. He performed again with the group but became ill on a tour of Switzerland and had to pull out. He died in hospital on January 30, 1984.
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 Tolka River bridge, the councillors quickly united as Tony Gregory proposed that it be named after Luke Kelly. . ©Ronan Nolan, 2008.
See also: Luke Kelly, A Memoir, by Des Geraghty. Basement Press. (Copies on sale at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, Galway).
The Best of Luke Kelly (2004 Double CD), Celtic Airs,CACD0201
Luke’s Legacy, Luke Kelly and the Dubliners Songs of the Workers, Luke Kelly
The Collection, Luke Kelly
The Luke Kelly Album (with The Dubliners)