- 16 Aug 23
15 years ago today, legendary Irish singer Ronnie Drew died, aged 73. To mark his anniversary, we're revisiting our tribute to The Dubliner...
Originally published in Hot Press in 2008...
That voice. There wasn’t any like it before, and there won’t be any like it again. If David Bowie once eulogised Bob Dylan’s rasp as sounding like sand and glue, then Ronnie Drew’s was Jameson’s and rusty nails. It was a voice as familiar as your da’s, one that evokes the pub, the bookies and the fishmarket, dog-rough and unpretentious and smelling of fags and malt.
It’s the first recorded voice this writer remembers hearing, at the age of four or five. The song was ‘Weila Weila Waile’, a murder ballad as brutal and blackly comic as anything by Johnny Cash or Nick Cave.
“Theeeeere was an ould woman who lived in the woods…”
Three minutes of Irish southern gothic gangsta ballad, with a dash of Brothers Grimm thrown in for good luck – a nasty little infanticidal number laced with slapstick and horror. It was also, bizarrely, but somehow fittingly, the last song sung at Ronnie Drew’s funeral in Greystones last week – at the conclusion of a service that seemed more New Orleansian than Irish in atmosphere, Dubliner Barney McKenna “got a rush of blood to the head” and felt compelled to break into the song.
But then, Ronnie Drew never stood on ceremony, nor dealt in mawkish sentimentality. He was many things: a singer, storyteller, actor and public figure, but could never have been accused of having aspirations towards bourgeois respectability.
Born in Glasthule in 1934, the eldest of five children, Drew left Ireland for Spain to dodge the 1950s version of the draft: a civil service job. He learned to speak fluent Spanish and flamenco guitar, playing the bars and restaurants for three years before returning to Ireland to seek work as an actor, performing in The Gate, amongst other venues.
In 1962 he formed the Ronnie Drew Group with Luke Kelly, Barney McKenna and Ciarán Bourke, and the ensemble honed their chops at sessions in O’Donoghue’s pub on Baggot Street. Dissatisfied with the name, Drew rechristened the group The Dubliners, at Kelly’s suggestion, after James Joyce’s 1914 book of short stories. The group recorded their debut album The Dubliners With Luke Kelly in 1964. Shortly after, the mercurial Kelly departed for a solo career, and was replaced by Bobby Lynch and John Sheahan for their 1965 live album, but he rejoined for the classic third album Finnegan Wakes in 1966.
It was about this time that Ronnie Drew learned the song ‘Seven Drunken Nights’ from Connemaran sean nós master Joe Heaney, at a session in Donoghue’s. A variation on the old Scots-English-Irish-Appalachian narrative ballad about a drunken cuckold who repeatedly has the wool pulled by his missus on returning from the pub over seven consecutive nights, the group recorded it as a single in 1967. The bawdy nature of the lyric caused something of a ruckus – RTE prohibited airplay of the tune, and the Bishop of Cork tried to ban the group’s concert in his city – but the controversy only worked in the song’s favour.
The pirate station Radio Caroline picked up on the single and granted it heavy airplay, and it became a huge hit, nestling in the UK Top 5 alongside The Kinks and The Who, resulting in the incongruous sight of these bearded reprobates appearing on Top Of The Pops, blasting out their fluke missive from the old weird Hibernia.
This was the band’s heyday. They boasted considerable musical firepower in the form of McKenna and Sheahan, while Kelly’s passionate, declamatory style on standards like ‘Muirsheen Durkin’ and Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Raglan Road’ contrasted beautifully with Drew’s wry, ironic delivery of tunes like ‘The Pub With No Beer’. (Mind you, Ronnie could play it straight too, most notably on the Mountjoy crie de couer, ‘The Ault Triangle’).
If The Clancy Brothers were the folk boom’s Beatles, then The Dubliners were the Stones. Their approach to the music was gruff, rough and ready, an antidote to the snobs who viewed these songs as museum pieces. The group’s approach to the music was akin to compatriots like Behan and Kavanagh’s attitude to storytelling and poetry – artful yes, but also heartfelt, the stuff of commonality and community rather than elitism and exclusion. For a traditional group, The Dubliners’ approach was progressive, prophetic even, anticipating Tom Waits and The Pogues (it was hardly any great surprise when, to commemorate The Dubliners’ 20th anniversary, Shane and co joined the group for a seditious, mob-handed version of ‘The Irish Rover’, a top ten hit in 1987).
Meanwhile, The Dubliners recorded an astonishing 12 albums and embarked on countless tours between ’67 and ’74. However, the work rate took its toll. Weary of the road, Ronnie Drew took a five-year sabbatical, during which time he released two solo albums, before rejoining in 1979 for what would be a 16-year tenure.
Following his final departure in 1995, he stayed busy over the next decade, recording and releasing a further seven solo records, including two collaborations with Eleanor Shanley. Ever eclectic, he put together his one-man raconteur show The Humour Is On Me Now, and also worked with Christy Moore, Antonio Breschi and Paddy-punks the Dropkick Murphys, not to mention fronting DART campaigns, the My Dublin series for 98FM, and narrating the stories of Oscar Wilde for a News Of The World CD.
In August 2006, Drew’s handprints were added to the walk of fame outside Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre. The following month he was admitted to St. Vincent’s hospital to undergo tests, and was diagnosed with throat cancer. Still he kept working, one of his more intriguing projects being a series of recordings with Jah Wobble for the Niall Austin produced Pearls album, featuring adaptations of poems by Shane MacGowan, Brendan Kennelly and Louis MacNeice set to ambient soundscapes. Then, in June 2007, Deirdre, his wife of 40 years, died, and Ronnie appeared on Ryan Confidential that October, shorn of hair and famous beard, to speak about the loss, and of his ongoing battle with cancer.
In February of this year, friends and comrades rallied to record ‘The Ballad Of Ronnie Drew’, written by Bono, The Edge, Simon Carmody and Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead, and featuring a cast of musicians that included U2, Kila, Sinead O’Connor, Glen Hansard, Andrea Corr, Shane MacGowan, Gavin Friday and Bob Geldof.
The single reached Number 2 in Ireland, with proceeds going to the Irish Cancer Society. Last May, RTE’s Arts Lives series broadcast a Drew documentary entitled September Song, produced by former Dubliners manager Noel Pearson and featuring interviews with the Drew family, Bono, Billy Connolly and Damien Dempsey, one of The Dubliners’ most conspicuous young heirs and advocates.
On August 16, Ronnie Drew passed away at the age of 73. He was survived by his two children and five grandchildren. Thousands attended the memorial service in Greystones, including musicians Keith Donald, Mary Coughlan, Eleanor Shanley, Phil Coulter, Mike Hanrahan, Don Baker, and Paddy Moloney, plus representatives of the President, Taoiseach and Lord Mayor’s offices. A motley crew, united in honour of the Irish rover.
Days after his death, U2’s Bono posted the following tribute on the band’s website.
“Weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs... that’s what I loved about Ronnie Drew’s voice and spirit. Music to inspire, to console... an optimism that was contagious... that’s what U2 took from The Dubliners.
“Ronnie has left his earthly tour for one of the heavens... they need him up there... it’s a little too quiet and pious. God is lonely for a voice louder than His own... then the bad weather will break...”
- 08 Dec 23