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Luke Kelly - The Most Popular Folk Singer

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Luke Kelly - The Early Years. His life in England before joining The Dubliners with quotes from Christy Moore, Ronnie Drew, Bono and many more.

Luke Kelly

Luke Kelly is regarded by most Irish people as the most popular Irish folk singer of all time. Judging by the amount of musicians who come to this site to learn Luke's songs I can assure you there's nobody that comes close to The Red Haired Minstrel Boy. There's even a campaign going on over at Facebook to have a statue of Luke Kelly erected in Dublin to honour Ireland's favourite folkie.
It's not only the sheer power in Luke's voice that attracts people to him but it was also his personality on stage . Luke always used a bit of humour while introducing his songs, if you have a listen to the live version of Hand Me Down My Bible you'll understand what I'm talking about.

One day the Dubliners done a rehearsal, as Ronnie
explains, was a very strange thing for The Dubliners to
do because the rehearsal was done when we were singing
the song on stage. One of the group said ''Well The
Ronnie Drew Group Is This, That And We Should Call It
Something Else'', so Luke Kelly happen to be reading a
copy of James Joyce's ''Dubliners'', So Luke said ''Why
Not Call It The Dubliners''. And that was it says
The group were Ireland's first urban folk group and
were central to the Irish folk scene. They sang [
Recorded ] with Transatlantic Records and began
recording and preforming in pubs like The Abbey, The
Embankment [ Tallagh ] and O'Donoghue's Pub.
It was in O'Donoghue's than Luke Kelly started his
relationship with American actress Deirdre O'Connell.
The Dubliners signed up with Major Minor and started to
tour and record more extensively. Deirdre and Luke got
married in Dublin. In 1967 the groups first single
record was banned which caused a major controversy that
helped make them stars. Bono from U2 '' I seem to
remember not liking anything that was called folk,
especially Irish folk music, I thought it was crap and
so did everyone on our street. Because we came from
Ballymun, nowhere's-ville, outer space, where there was
no sense of culture at all, and I remember people who
laid it on thick were to be avoided at all cost. They
were the enemy when I was a kid, then there were the
Dubliners who were the complete exception to that. They
were more like The Rolling Stones or The Clash says

Ronnie Drew first heard about the song Seven Drunken
Nights being in the charts when the group were in
London and someone from an Irish showband who had just
arrived from Ireland told Ronnie that the song was in
the charts and Ronnie's reaction was ''It That Good Or
Bad''. None of us were under any delusions that we were
now stars says Ronnie, we were just going to get more
''readies'' [ money ] for gigs, which ment more money
for Porter.
Christy Moore : ''The way the music was done and the
way the songs were sung suggested a lifestyle we
embraced, a kind of madness, plenty of craic and porter,
plenty of singing and plenty of women, all that kind of
Ronnie Drew : Ever time you done a gig the natural
thing to do was go drinking and we could all manage to
preform the next day, don't ask me how but we seemed to
be able to. We'd be going into places and meeting
people like Keith Moon [ Drummer With The Who] I
remember one night we went to our hotel and Keith was
playing the drums in the lobby. A drink at that time to
us was a bottle of Champagne and we'd drink it like we
were drinking a bottle of stout. I remember going over
to London to a speak-easy with Luke Kelly and we met
Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney and it was like
backstage at some pantomime the was everybody was
dressed up says Ronnie.
Luke's political thinking was as keen as ever. He used
The Dubliners success to bring international attention
to the struggle of the dispossessed. Mary Maher
Journalist Irish Times :There was a very strong
commitment going on about the need for justice - a
protest about all forms of injustice from the anti
apartheid movement, the war in Vietnam, the Civil
Rights movement across America.
Des Geraghty S.I.P.T.U. Former President. I think Luke
Kelly and The Dubliners were a fusion of the struggles
of the Blacks in America and the liberal civil rights
supporters, and Luke linked the struggles of these
civil rights movements in America with the same
struggles as the civil rights in Northern Ireland.
John Hume Former leader of S.D.L.P. : Well I think
there's no doubt at all that the 1960's that the civil
rights movement in America and their leadership and the
impact of Martin Luther King had enormous influence
right across the world and had a big impact in Northern
Ireland. We were looking for equality of treatment for
both sections of our people and when it was boiled down
we were really talking about was one person one vote.
Luke Kelly was very much in tune with the struggles of
the people in Northern Ireland.
Ian Campbell Folk Singer: Luke was always interested in
developing a list of good songs to sing. This was very
important to him, he absorbed songs. What happened to
Luke in England was a massive educational process.
Being passionate about singing Luke joined the
socialist Clarion Choir where he met the Irish
Communist Sean Mulready and his Republican wife Maud.
Maud adopted him and civilist him. She made him get his
hair cut and buy a suit of clothes and he found himself
a job, a year later he was quiet a presentable young
fellow. Luke joined the folk song clubs and was trying
hard to learn the folk songs as it was what he lived
The same year Luke Kelly was going to night school
where he was learning literature and left wing politics
where he became fully articulate in anti establishment
politics and was an active member of C.N.D. and the
young communist league. Luke became known in England as
''Luke The Sun Is Burning Kelly'' after the song of the
same name which was later recorded by The Dubliners and
was written by Ian Campbell and became an anthem for
those opposed to Nuclear bombs. At the time George
Thompson who had great influence in Eastern Europe
offered Luke a place at Prague  university, this was
1962, Luke had two choices. He could go to Prague 
university or he could come home to Ireland to try his
luck at ballad singing, and he chose to come back to
Before returning home Luke finished his apprenticeship
with the singer / songwriter Ewan McColl and his London
based folk group The Critics. Although he alway said
that Ewan McColl was his greatest musical influence,
their relationship was never an easy one. Luke saw that
McColl was a great song writer but not a great singer
and he was guilty of an awful lot of intellectually
dishonesty but with the songs he was very influential,
and Luke Kelly took that back to Ireland with him. But
when Luke left Ireland in 1959 he said he never
intended to come back. But as he was coming back and
forth during the early 60's he could see this enormous
change taking place in Dublin and it was clearly the
right time and place for him to be.
The Ireland Luke returned to was seeing a great social
change. The way the Church and state were running the
show since the civil war in Ireland was starting to
break down. The composer Sean O'Riada was a major
influence in the new popularity of Irish traditional
music. Luke said he was thunder struck with his first
experience of a fleadh cheoil in miltown malbay.
Ronnie Drew :Luke started coming into O'Donoghue pub to
meet Barney McKenna and myself. It was one Christmas
Eve we said to Paddy O'Donoghue ''Can We Play A Few
Tunes Paddy'' , ah ye says Paddy, but keep it quiet,
don't be making too much noise. And the rest as they
say is history.
Quote from Ronnie :I think I was a bit jealous of him, you know, but it didn't last very long. He was very generous. It took a little while to get to know him. There was no rivalry. I was close to him, but he'd be shouting, you know, 'Fuck Off' and all that. Luke was a communist, but I didn't quiet agree. For instance I used to ask him why, if communism was so great, why so many people wanted to get out of it ? He used to get very annoyed.
Luke liked to talk about left wing politics. I suppose he was a bit of a rebel socialist in a sense that he couldn't abide the party line. Sometimes I remember days would go by on tour and we wouldn't talk to each other. Then he would start talking and our conversation would go on for a long long time. At times he could be introspective, even a loner. If anything was bothering him I think he found it hard to confide in someone in the group. He couldn't tolerate sham or conceit, for example. He enjoyed the craic, The Dubliner's always enjoyed the craic.

There's not a single ballad session that I ever attended that I didn't here a Dubliners song being played. Luke Kelly had a massive influence on folk music in Ireland. It wasn't just his singing that people latched on to, it was also his personality. Most ballad groups in Ireland use a set lest of songs that they play on a regular basis, I too fall back on the set list and of the 50 or so songs that I play regularly there are over 20 that were Dubliners songs and of them half were Luke Kelly songs.
Folkies often debate what Luke would have being doing if he was still alive, if he'd still be playing with The Dubliners or have gone solo. Judging by the type of song that he embraced I'd say he'd be singing songs abour Ireland's present economic difficulties and how emigration and austerity has crippled our country. These kind of songs seemed have vanished from Irish life. Christy Moore kept that tradition alive after Luke's departure but Christy seemes to have stopped writing songs about injustice that effect people on a daily basis.

Inspiration comes from many places in life and I remember when I was going to record the song Luke Kelly's Land by Pete St. John as a tribute to Luke I learned to play a new instrument just for the song. I remember laying down a few tracks such as voice, guitar and tin whistle but found the the outcome lacking something. So I learned how to play the piano keyboard, well just the basic lead notes to have in the background. So without Luke I would never had learned how to play the keyboard. When I was 30 I first picked up the guitar as I'd being singing in pubs for years and thought it was time to back myself up while singing and one of the very first songs I learned was Monto by The Dubliners. It wasn't because it was my favorite song, it was the fact that I was looking for easy stuff to get me started and Monto only had three chords, G Em and D. So I practised singing and playing at the same time and had Monto off by heart within an hour or so. So I suppose you could say Luke had an influece on me taking up the guitar also. Martin Dardis November 2013


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