In 1969 my friend Patrick Kearney introduced me to the music of the Dubliners and I’ve been listening to them ever since. I can still recall the thrill of finding a rare live recording, Finnegan Wakes, in a shop in Fitzroy in 1970, and listening to it with my girlfriend Sue. I liked Ronnie, she preferred Luke. And when a discerning thief made off with my entire record collection in 1973 it was with some amazement I discovered my friends John and Sue had a copy of A Drop of the Hard Stuff, and Kaye, my boss at Nepean CAE, had a copy of More of the Hard Stuff. These three people were not Irish folk music fans by any stretch of the imagination, the LPs had been left behind by previous partners. Listening to the Dubliners’ music brings back quite a few passages from my past, as music that means something to you does.
This group the Dubliners was founded in 1962 (the year that introduced the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan) by Ronnie Drew, and was called initially the Ronnie Drew Group. They performed first at O’Donoghue’s Pub in Dublin, and have been performing ever since, though their personnel has changed over the years. The original Dubliners, the group I’ve been such a constant listener to, consisted of two lead vocalists, Ronnie Drew and Luke Kelly, each with an absolutely unique voice, Drew also a flamenco guitarist and Kelly a virtuoso on the banjo. Also featured in their early work was vocalist and guitarist Ciaran Bourke and a rhythm section consisting of Barney McKenna, considered one of the greatest performers on banjo and mandolin of his day and classically trained violinist John Sheahan.
The UK music scene is less compartmentalised than in the USA, and in 1967 the Dubliners had two singles in the top 20 pop charts and another in the top 40. They were back in 1987, recording The Irish Rover with the Pogues which reached number 8 on the charts. This was the extent of their contribution to pop music. Virtually an entire generation of people in Britain learned a dozen folk songs from them and their versions are the ones that have lasted, eclipsing the previous versions of songs made popular by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.
The Dubliners have been one of the most influential, if not the most influential, of folk groups in Britain. Singers associated with the group include Paddy Reilly, Jim McCann, Christy Moore and the Pogues. The group introduced songs by Dominic Behan, Ewan McColl, Phil Coulter and Ralph McTell.
Songs that made and make a deep impression on me are Dominic Behan’s Dicey Riley and Old Triangle, sung by Drew, who also performed Finnegan’s Wake, McAlpine’s Fusiliers, the Partin’ Glass, the Old Alarm Clock and the Pub With No Beer. Kelly did fine versions of two Burns songs, Peggy Gordon and Tibby Dunbar, as well as Ewen McColl’s Travelling People, Shoals of Herring and Dirty Old Town. Kelly also made defining versions of Black Velvet Band, Rising of the Moon and Whisky in the Jar. So far this is just a few of the songs from three early recordings.
Luke Kelly died in 1984 from a brain tumor; Ciaran Burke in 1988 from the effects of a brain hemorrhage. They, and the other band members, preserved many Irish and Scottish songs that might have otherwise been lost. They did so by making them entertaining.
The Dubliners were a great live band. They had sex appeal, did novelty turns in which they played each other’s instruments and always got enthusiastic audience participation. The 1966 live album Finnegan Wakes which I discovered in 1970 and lost tragically in 1973 and which turned up recently on one of ‘those’ mp3 sites, is as defining a moment as anything they did and sums up what the Dubliners were all about.
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