- 30 Jan 23
To mark the 39th anniversary of Luke Kelly's death, we're revisiting some special tributes to the Irish music icon...
I first became aware of Luke Kelly in 1964 – I heard him in O'Donoghues, The Embankment, The Coffee Kitchen and The Universal. I was starting out, and Luke was very, very impressive.
My starting point was The Clancy Brothers. They lit the flame in many of us. Luke was one of a few singers who brought it on to the next level. I listened to and watched Luke like a young lad gazing up at the stars.
His voice, his repertoire, his passion, his politics, his generosity, his crankiness, his laugh, his clothes, and even the way he’d walk into a pub – that's what made him special.
I first connected with Luke at The Two Brewer’s Pub in Salford, Manchester. The Dubliners were making a TV special with a live audience. I was standing in the queue with my big green guitar case, and Luke stopped to chat with me. Then he took me into the gig as his guest. Later we had drink and he let me stay in his hotel room. When I woke the next morning, Luke was gone, but there was an English £5 note on my guitar case. We stayed in touch from then on, and Planxty and The Dubliners played together a few times. Luke was at our wedding. I loved that wild mad, wonderful ballad singer.
(Hot Press, 2020)
Around 1961, I was a very keen amateur guitar player, and a mate of mine told me about a folk club up in London. So I went to go and listen to some obscure guitar player – but then this red-headed Irishman got up with a banjo, and pinned us all to the wall with his voice, and the passion of his singing. It was a bit scary, really, because I hadn’t thought anyone was taking music that seriously – it was a diversion for me, at that time. It was Luke, of course.
Later, around ‘65, I became aware of him in The Dubliners. They were doing extremely well – getting blanket radio play. I didn’t know him at this time – I just knew of him. But in 1973, I had my first trip to Dublin in my own right. There was a gig on O’Connell Street, in a cinema. And Luke turned up. He knew my work by then, and liked some of my songs, so he stayed with us all evening. He took the bass player, Danny Thompson, and I around Dublin. It was just the most perfect thing. And from that point on, we were friends. We met again in Australia in 1975, where The Dubliners were on tour at the same time as me.
Every time I ever played in Dublin, Luke was always there. And I knew where to find him – at this bar where he used to go, and we’d sit and have a pint. We never sat down and had a meal together, but we had plenty of pints of stout, and we chatted about everything and nothing.
The most memorable occasion for me was when we both played a big folk festival over in Brittany. The day had gone quite well, and later that night, I’d been slightly over-refreshed, and we gatecrashed a local wedding. The people made us very welcome. And I was nearly asleep when there was a tap on the door. It was Luke, with a bottle of vodka and two plastic cups. We sat there all night – smoking his Majors and drinking, and talking about things I don’t even remember.
Luke was the first person I sent ‘From Clare To Here’ to. I wrote it, and sent it to him on a little tape. He said to me afterwards, “I didn’t know you sent me the tape! I never listen to those things!” Because people sent him a lot of crap to listen to! So he missed out there, and it was picked up by other people, including some of my best pals, like Jim McCann and The Furey Brothers.
We had a long-distance friendship, and we were always glad to share each other’s company. One of the saddest moments for me was after he had been diagnosed with the tumour and everything, and he rang me up and said, "I gather we were in Australia together?" I thought he was joking at first. He had no recollection of the entire tour. As far as I understand it, when they found the tumours, he thought he was okay to carry on the lifestyle he had been living – which was probably not the best.
The last time we were together, was after I had recorded ‘Song For Ireland’ – and Luke said he had never heard it. He took us down to the Dublin Arts Club, and we got a guitar from somewhere, and I played it to him. And when I turned around, he had tears rolling down his cheeks. I said, "It wasn’t that bad, was it, Luke?" And he just smiled, and said, "I’m going to do that one day."
I was later talking to Bill Whelan, and I said, "You know, the last time I saw Luke, I played him ‘Song For Ireland’. He said he was going to record it, but sadly he never did." And Bill said to me, "Oh yes he did – and I produced it!" It was lovely, because I didn’t even know about it.
What made Luke special was his passion, and his commitment to good songs. It’s quite an awesome thing. Some people attempt to fake it – but you know when you were sitting in Luke’s company, and when he performed, that this was a deeply held passion. It was where his politics and his music coincided that he was at his strongest. Sometimes he could be a bit impatient with people – but there was an authenticity about Luke. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, and he was a highly intelligent person.
In a little poem I wrote, which I will do something with one of these days, I describe him as having a pint in one hand and a book in the other. He was always reading, and occupying his mind when he wasn’t performing. He had that sense of purpose, and an incredibly strong personality.
And then, of course, there was the look – you wouldn’t mistake him for anyone else, would you?
(Hot Press, 2020)
He was always good with a funny quip. One night on stage during a solo spot, a guy in the audience let a bag of drinks fall with an almighty crash. Luke stopped singing and just said, ‘If there’s one thing I hate it’s a person who can’t hold his drink!’ During another gig, in Galway, I think, a drunk kept interrupting Luke and calling him ‘woolly-head’ to which Luke responded, ‘at least my head’s only woolly on the outside!’
He was an active socialist and a very generous man too, often happily sharing his good fortune with those who were less fortunate. I remember a family who were burnt out of their house in the north. When Luke met them in Mullingar where they were being temporarily housed, he invited them to stay in his own house in Dartmouth Square.
(Hot Press, 2004)
The first time I met Luke Kelly, I was a schoolboy clutching a belt of books and hoping my downy fuzz would continue to underwrite my presence in The Bailey, on Duke Street, with my bus fare spent on a glass of stout.
Luke was enthralling a bunch of Joyce-hunting Americans, who were entertaining him like a real Irish King. A train of gin and tonics were placed on the table before him, as he declaimed poetry and song in a rich and vaguely nasal Dub shout that – fuck-the-all-comers – filled the whole pub, blow-dried the blue-rinses and filled their oh-my-gaads with kulcher.
Time passes – things change. If you stood in The Bailey today and sang out a MacColl ballad, or even declaimed a poem, they’d have you on your arse in the Duke Street gutther in short sharp, and no mistake: you’re-fuckin’-barred-here-pal. And the same goes for every other misbegotten excuse for a licensed good time in the rare oul’ town.
Of course, if you stood in The Bailey today and sang or bespoke, the thread-merchant and blowdried class that currently occupy the joint would give you their own short shrift, bouncers or no. Like I said, times change. And that’s a lament for us all, just as much as for Luke Kelly.
And all in a town that used to seem full of characters like Luke. He was a man of his time, when Dublin wasn’t yet a sprawling behemoth, full of violence stupidity and bad planners. Larger than life with a capital V (for vengeance. Or victory. Or vice…).
Funny enough, for a music that prides itself on its popular roots (etc)(etc)(etc) rock’n’roll has produced only two Dubs to even come close to Luke as larger-than-lifers: Phil Lynott and the Brush. Mannix Flynn is of the same stock. But nowadays, and here’s the point, they lock you up for disturbing the peace when you bellow out a song in the wrong ears.
Anyway, the second time I met Luke (this is metaphorical, as he often said himself) was at a gig we both played in the North Star Hotel for, let’s see… was it Bernadette McAliskey, or the Socialist Worker’s Party Prison Fund, or Chile. It hardly matters – that was another part of his being. A lifelong communist, he liberally gave his time to all manner of worthy causes, often as at a pro-Chilean meeting in the Mansion House, with an incredible dramatic effect, red beret rammed down on his enormous red head, voice as rich as bejasus bellowing out the rallying cry.
Spine-chilling stuff. And a rare talent – capable of giving that Martin Luther King chill-down-the-back. Theatrical? Sure, but true as well.
But what struck me most that night was the head: the incredible medusa-tangle-ginger-curls massiveness of it, and the amazing rocks, wrinkles, crevices, canyons, that were sculpted, no, hewn into it. Jesus Christ, said one of my companions, there’s a face that’s been really lived in.
Which was part of the man too. A large capacity, as he said himself.
The last time I met Luke was in The Viking in Dame St., after a Planxty reunion reception or something, and a (very) riotous time was being had. So riotous that we all got barred. Into this maelstrom walked Luke and Madeleine.
Well, it was after the first tumour. And there was something tragic about it – he was the same man alright, but a bit slower, and a lot more subdued. And with the bottle of soda water, the pathos was complete. My heart was broken.
He was on his way to the Olympia that night, to see the Brazilian belly-dancers in the Dublin Theatre Festival. He always was a great man for the theatre – wasn’t he one of the founding fathers and patrons of the Focus Theatre, where his wife Deirdre O’Connell had put some of the best theatre in Dublin ever? And he played in (Jesus Christ) Jesus Christ Superstar for Noel Pearson. Er…Herod, was it?
A very total and committed person, was Luke, someone who summed up the spirit of Dub at its best. And who was at his funeral, remembered by his own? Just Joe and Mary Soap for the most part, although Charlie Haughey made it too.
Apart from the thousands of ordinary people, and musicians, it seemed right to have the Worker’s Party, the Communist Party and Michael D. on hand. And nobody from Fine Gael.
Luke would have seen the rightness of that. And he’d have pissed himself laughing at the Gadarene rush among the trendy clergy to get up on the block to wave the bread. “He had no time for religion,” said Fr Michael Cleary “but he had great faith.”
My arse. What Luke had was a great voice. And soul.
(Hot Press, 1984)