- 04 Feb 19
Luke Kelly of The Dubliners, whose life and work was commemorated last week in Dublin with the unveiling of two statues, died in 1984. Dermot Stokes paid tribute to him in Hot Press at the time…
Last week, in the capital city of Dublin, two statues were unveiled, of the great Luke Kelly, who was a founder member of The Dubliners, and was one of the group’s two brilliant featured vocalists, alongside Ronnie Drew.
The ceremonials in Sheriff Street on the North side and South King Street on the South side, were carried out by the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins – who, as it happens, was an old friend of Luke’s, from the days when the man from Sheriff Street, in the heart of the city, bestrode Dublin like a colossus.
In 1984, when Luke Kelly died, Dermot Stokes wrote a powerful tribute to Luke. It is notable that President Higgins received a mention in the obituary, in what one might call the vernacular version of his name: it was enough just to say Michael D – who was himself writing a column for Hot Press by then. So, amusingly, does a certain ‘singing priest’ by the name of Fr. Michael Cleary, who had featured strongly at the ‘youff Mass’ during the visit by Pope John Paul II in 1979, and ended up on ‘stage’ at Luke’s funeral as well. He would later, like many other clergymen from that era, be disgraced, when revelations about his hidden family emerged after he died in 1993.
But these are just colourful details. What Dermot Stokes wrote in the immediate aftermath of the loss of one of our most iconic musicians feels as resonant and profoundly true today as it did back at the sad start of 1984. Luke Kelly, we salute you.
– The Editor
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 McColl 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.
– Dermot Stokes, January 1984