The Dubliners

TrackAlbum
Rocky Road To DublinThe Dubliners
The NightingaleThe Dubliners
McAlpine's FusiliersFinnegan Wakes
Will You Come To The BowerFinnegan Wakes
Finnegan's WakeFinnegan Wakes
Dirty Old TownDrinkin' & Courtin'
The Auld TriangleMore Of The Hard Stuff
(The Bonny) Shoals of HerringMore Of The Hard Stuff
Whiskey In The JarLive At The Albert Hall
The Battle Of The Somme/Freedom Come All YeRevolution
Raglan RoadLuke's Legacy
The Irish Rover25 Years Celebration

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The Dubliners photo

The Dubliners (l to r): Ciarán Bourke, Barney McKenna, Luke Kelly, Ronnie Drew, John Sheahan

 

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

With the editor’s approval, this is a Topper 12. For people like me who grew up in Ireland in the late 1960s/early 1970s the music of The Dubliners was not so much a backdrop to our lives but was, instead, part of the air that we breathed. At that time, their better known songs (such as Whiskey In The Jar, The Wild Rover, Black Velvet Band, Dirty Old Town) could be heard everywhere – on Radio, TV, and, perhaps, even more importantly, in pub sing-songs right across the country. A side effect of this very ubiquity was, however, that we tended to take the band for granted. As a result, it was not until the members of the early incarnations of the band began to pass away (starting with the great Luke Kelly, who died in 1984) that the towering contribution which the group had made to the history of Irish folk music began to become clear. Along with The Clancy Brothers, they played a vital role in reviving popular interest in Irish traditional music from the early 1960s onwards. Unlike the latter group, however, they did so from a base within Ireland itself and, as a result, their influence on the domestic music scene was much more direct and probably more long-lasting.

In one sense, the image that The Dubliners portrayed throughout the band’s career of being a hard-living, hard-drinking and rebellious group of Irishmen was largely a true one. On the other hand, however, at times this image meant that their musical merits were not sufficiently appreciated. For example in John Sheahan and Barney McKenna, they had two of the best musicians (on fiddle and banjo respectively) to emerge from the Irish folk music revival. Indeed, from the outset, Barney’s banjo playing provided the engine room on which the group’s sound was based. Over time, this sound was supplemented by Sheahan’s skilful fiddle work and the fine tin whistle playing of Ciarán Bourke.

Generally speaking, the band kept their musical arrangements relatively spare and simple and this gave the two excellent vocalists in the group, Ronnie Drew and Luke Kelly, an effective backdrop against which to display their superb talents. Ronnie’s vocal style has often been described as ‘unique’ and his voice had a gravelly and lived-in quality which made it very different from the usual run of folk singer. The most accurate description I have seen of it, perhaps, was the one that appeared in the Irish newspaper, Waterford Today, which described him as sounding “like Tom Waits’ grandfather”. Drew’s particular gift was for singing ‘Dublinese’ songs (to use Barney McKenna’s term for them) and his mastery in this regard is particularly well displayed in the superb version of The Auld Triangle, which I have included here.

In Luke Kelly, The Dubliners had maybe the best male folk singer to have come out of Ireland in the last fifty years. His voice was one which combined extraordinary power with enormous sensitivity. There was also a passionate intensity to his singing which gave it an extraordinary force and sense of conviction. He also had a rare skill as an interpreter of other people’s songs. This ability was to find its finest expression in his renditions of some of Ewan MacColl’s finest songs, including those I have selected for this list, Dirty Old Town and (The Bonny) Shoals Of Herring. In my opinion, these are the definitive versions of both songs and a clear example of the rare fusion which Luke achieved in combining the expression of his own deep-seated political convictions with maintaining the highest standards of artistic excellence.

One of the factors which made The Dubliners stand out in their early days on the Irish folk music scene was the fact that they were emphatically an urban band. Before their arrival on that scene, traditional music had generally been associated with the more rural parts of the country. By contrast, all of the members of The Dubliners had been (as the name suggested) either born in Dublin itself or its environs. Throughout their career, the band regularly drew on the rich store of street songs and music hall ballads which formed a large part of that city’s musical tradition. In this sense, from early in its career, the band showed that it had little time for the kind of rigid rules which some folk music purists attempted to apply to the music. From the outset, there was also an anti-establishment edge to the band which owed a good deal to the left-wing political convictions of Luke Kelly. Indeed, many of the songs which both he and Ronnie sang clearly demonstrated their sympathy with the struggles of working class people, both in Ireland and elsewhere.

My first selection, Rocky Road To Dublin, comes from the group’s first album, The Dubliners With Luke Kelly, which was recorded before a live audience at Livingston Studios in London and first released in 1964. (The album was originally released under the title, The Dubliners, but was given the longer title on its re-release on CD by Castle Records in 2003). The live setting was one which fully captured the exuberance and vitality which were a key part of their appeal at the outset of their career. The song itself was one of those which were derived from the music hall tradition in Ireland and England. However, the slip-jig on which it is based is probably considerably older than the words which seem to have been written sometime in the mid-nineteenth century. Given its unusual time signature, it is also an extremely difficult song to sing, but Luke surmounts these technical difficulties with consummate ease; his version is one of the best examples of his masterly phrasing.

My next selection, The Nightingale, is also sung by Luke and is one of the best examples of his ability to combine delicacy with power in his singing. The audience participation on this track (particularly on the chorus) is also a testament to The Dubliners’ extraordinary ability to create an atmosphere of easy informality and camaraderie in their live performances. This ability owed a good deal to the band’s origins in the sing-along music sessions scene (which they played a large part in creating) in a number of pubs in Dublin. The most notable of these was O’Donoghue’s pub in Merrion Street near the centre of the city. In the band’s heyday, this was a place where they not only played music themselves but also where they met and shared songs with older musicians like Séamus Ennis and Joe Heaney and with contemporaries like The Clancy Brothers. It was on one of these occasions that Ennis described Barney McKenna as being a man who loved “every note of the music” that he played.

In a sense, this background also helped create the inclusive ethos which was to be a key part of the band’s subsequent widespread appeal across large parts of Europe and the USA. Indeed, as the unsigned sleeve notes to their 1967 album A Drop Of The Hard Stuff put it, the band’s music was designed to be enjoyed “by the worker, the man on the dole, the winners, the losers, the liars, fighters and all of the living.”

This championing of the underdog, which was a key characteristic of the band’s music, is clearly displayed in my next choice, McAlpine’s Fusiliers. It was written by Dominic Behan, the brother of the great Irish writer, Brendan, and deals with the experiences of Irish emigrants working as labourers on the buildings in London. In this, in my opinion, definitive version of the song, Ronnie sings it in his own inimitable way and delivers the lyric with his usual blend of hard-headed realism and empathy. There is an underlying air of restrained anger at injustice in Ronnie’s singing which gives his interpretation of the song a real emotional punch.

I have also selected Ronnie’s similarly brilliant rendition of one of the greatest songs about Dublin ever written – Dominic Behan’s The Auld Triangle (on the album it is credited as The Old Triangle but I refuse to use that title, as no-one in Ireland has ever called it that) – for inclusion. Although the song has been recorded by many other fine artists (including Bob Dylan), in my opinion none of these comes close to the excellence of Drew’s version. Nobody else captures the mixture of belligerence and pathos which is central to the song in the superb way that he does. The track is also a clear demonstration of his masterly phrasing and beautifully controlled diction. This was a characteristic of both his and Luke’s singing and is something which clearly distinguishes them from the myriad inferior ballad groups which followed in their wake.

My next choice, Will You Come To The Bower, is probably my favourite Irish ‘rebel song’ and is delivered with consummate panache by Luke. It also features some characteristically excellent fiddle playing by John Sheahan. Unlike many other such songs, the lyrics have a poetic quality, which raise it above the usual limitations of the genre. Indeed, Shane MacGowan was later to take the title of The Pogues fine song The Broad Majestic Shannon from it. It is also distinctive in concentrating on the attractions which their home country should have for Irish people living overseas rather than on the injustices which the country had suffered under British rule. As mentioned earlier, Ronnie Drew was probably the finest interpreter of ‘Dublin songs’ ever to come out of Ireland and my next selection, Finnegan’s Wake, is another classic example of this skill. The song is also well-known for providing James Joyce (whose brilliant early collection of short stories, “Dubliners”, had given the band its name) with the title for his last and most experimental novel. For anyone not familiar with the Dublin slang which is a key element of the song, a translation (as it were) of these is given here.

Following the release of The Dubliners’ first album, Luke Kelly had taken a brief break from the group and moved to England. While there, he had come to the attention of Ewan MacColl and had performed on a number of occasions in the latter’s club, The Singers Club, in London. Through his friendship with MacColl, who Kelly later described as the greatest influence on his musical life, he acquired a substantial new repertoire. This new cache of songs was made up both of folk ballads which the older man had collected or performed and of MacColl’s own compositions. Over time, Kelly was to become, perhaps, the finest interpreter of his work there has been to date. My next selection, Dirty Old Town, may be the finest example of Luke’s skill in this respect. A striking evidence of the classic nature of this great version is that most of the covers of the song which have been released subsequently stick far closer to it than they do to the arrangement used in the original recording by MacColl and his wife, Peggy Seeger.

Luke Kelly’s later version of another of MacColl’s best songs, (The Bonny) Shoals Of Herring, is again, in my opinion, the finest version of the song. There is an intensity and a restrained passion to Luke’s versions of both songs which raises them above even MacColl’s own renditions of them. At times, indeed, these sound rather forced and strained in comparison.

As much of this piece has already been taken up in praising the greatness of Luke Kelly’s singing, it is appropriate that my next three choices – Whiskey In The Jar (chosen especially for Keith Shackleton), Freedom Come All Ye (Hamish Henderson’s brilliant song of internationalism, which is especially topical at the moment) and Raglan Road – are all superb examples of the master at his best. Freedom Come All Ye is also combined to brilliant effect in The Dubliners’ version with John Sheahan’s superb solo rendition on the fiddle of the great tune, The Battle Of The Somme, which was originally written by William Lawrie. For those interested in learning more about the superb lyric, a translation of the Scots dialect used in it can be found here.

As for Raglan Road, its combination of a fine lyric (written by the great Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh) and superbly sensitive singing by Luke make it, for me ar least, one of the greatest Irish records ever made. Along with an equally brilliant version of the Phil Colclough song, Song For Ireland, it was one of the very last recordings which he was to make before his untimely death in January 1984. As such, it stood as a fitting testament to one of the very best folk singers ever to have come from Ireland. It is probably the case that most of The Dubliners’ best work was done in the years between their formation in 1962 and the mid-1970s. After that a series of personnel changes and the creative exhaustion brought about by constant touring meant that the quality of their work began to fall away in relation to the remarkably high standard set by their earlier work. From the early 1970s onwards, a new generation of Irish folk bands also began to emerge whose approach towards the music went in different and innovative directions.

As a result, The Dubliners’ approach began to seem rather old-fashioned and it became increasingly difficult for them to differentiate themselves from the myriad, generally inferior, ‘ballad groups’ who had sprung up in the wake of their success. Nevertheless, even in this period of relative decline, the band continued to make some fine new music and their back catalogue continued to attract some occasionally unexpected disciples. Perhaps the most important of these new fans was The Pogues frontman, Shane MacGowan, for whom the members of the earlier band acted as a kind of spiritual godfathers. He drew connections between their anti-Establishment stance in relation to both church and state in Ireland and the punk attitude which had drawn him to The Sex Pistols. Indeed, The Pogues themselves represented, in a sense, Shane’s attempt to develop a fusion of these disparate influences.

In consequence, it was largely unsurprising when the two bands decided to collaborate together during the celebrations for The Dubliners 25th anniversary in 1987. What was surprising, was how refreshing that collaboration would be and the reinvigorating effect it would have on the older band’s career. Having made a brilliantly ramshackle or ramshackley (if there is such a word) brilliant appearance together on Irish television in that year (which I remember watching at the time) …

… they later released a version of The Irish Rover as a single which got to the lower levels of the British charts. What was striking about it was how it seemed to roll back the years and displayed the same levels of exuberance, vitality and sheer joy in making music which had characterised the band in its best days.

It also seemed to give the long-standing members of the band like Ronnie Drew, Barney McKenna and John Sheahan (now sadly the last surviving member of the early line-ups of the band) a new lease of life. Fittingly, at long last, they also began to be viewed as national treasures and Irish icons, a status to which their great contribution to Irish folk music had long entitled them. It also marked, perhaps, a recognition that they had never quite received the critical accolades which they deserved in their earlier days. Their musical legacy, however, is immense and they remain one of the very best groups to have emerged from the Irish folk revival. In Luke and Ronnie, they also had two larger than life characters that will surely enter Dublin folklore in the same way that many of the characters in their songs have done.

 

 

 

Ronnie Drew (1934–2008)

Luke Kelly (1940–1984)

Ciarán Bourke (1935—1988)

Barney McKenna (1939–2012)

Bobby Lynch (1935–1982)

 

The Dubliners website

It’s The Dubliners website, includes Discography

Luke: documentary on Luke Kelly, director Sinead O’Brien (in full on YT)

The Dubliners’ Dublin narrated by Ronnie Drew (in full on YT)

John Sheahan Wikipedia page

The Dubliners biography (iTunes)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs …

Read Andrew’s other toppermosts on Irish musicians:
Joe Heaney, Planxty, Johnny Duhan

TopperPost #541

14 Comments

  1. Keith Shackleton
    Aug 6, 2016

    Splendid. Ronnie Drew could sing the telephone directory and make it vital.

  2. David Lewis
    Aug 9, 2016

    Yet another superb Shields entry, with a great list and an interesting story. My only point is that a lot of them died young. Terrible shame, but the Dubliners are deeply important to Irish music, and a fairly big influence in Australia as well.

    • Ilkka Jauramo
      Aug 13, 2016

      … and not only in Australia, David! Finland’s entry in Eurovision Song Contest (a BIG event up here) in 1975 was nothing but a classical Irish style song ‘Old Man Fiddle’. Germany and Switzerland gave us maximum points which tells how popular this style was even in those countries. Thanks to the Dubliners.

  3. Ant Meads
    Aug 9, 2016

    I loved this one. I discovered The Dubliners via Shane MacGowan and have since loved delving into the rich history of not only their songs but the Ireland they sung of. A really good contribution.

  4. Andrew Shields
    Aug 11, 2016

    Keith, David and Ant – thanks for these comments…
    David- There probably isn’t an Irish pub anywhere in the world where some ballad group is not going to sing at least one song associated with The Dubliners tonight… And they were largely responsible for creating an audience for Irish music on the European mainland – they were huge in Germany, for example.

  5. Ilkka Jauramo
    Aug 13, 2016

    I just responded to my banjo brother on the other side of the globe. This T-most deserves a comment, too:
    There were strong songs in the list. Luke Kelly was full of energy whenever I saw them playing. However, I found his style rather aggressive, yet powerful and communicative. As a banjo player (amateur) I still listen to “Banjo Barney’s” Carolan concertos. Although he might have looked like a bear in Arctic woods he played sensitively.

  6. Peter Viney
    Aug 13, 2016

    I had a problem with The Dubliners, an intense loathing of Seven Drunken Nights (a UK #7 hit) which conjured up bad pubs in Kilburn High Road. For years my wife tried to persuade me that theirs was the definitive “Partin’ Glass” while I argued for The Clancy Bros version. I finally succumbed and will now admit that the Clancy Bros version is anodyne in comparison. So my “What no?” is The Partin’ Glass. I still can’t stand Seven Drunken Nights though, and hats off to Andrew for avoiding it!

  7. Andrew Shields
    Aug 14, 2016

    Ilkka and Peter – Thanks for these comments. And I loved the description of Barney as looking like ‘a bear in the artic woods’. Will also have to check out the Finnish Eurovision entry…
    Peter – ‘Seven Drunken Nights’ was one of the songs that Joe Heaney passed on to Ronnie for the band. Joe never much liked it himself and I agree with you that it is one of those songs that becomes a bit wearing after a few hearings. Joe much prefered the original song on which it is based (‘Peigín agus Peadar’) and his excellent version of it can be heard here (only available on YT in some territories… Ed.). Joe also tells the story behind the song here. My favourite version of ‘The Parting Glass’ will appear in a later Toppermost (just to keep you all in suspense)…

  8. Andrew Shields
    Aug 14, 2016

    By way of a curiosity, this is Sonny Boy Williamson’s take on ‘Seven Drunken Nights’.

    • Peter Viney
      Aug 15, 2016

      I treasure “Down & Out Blues” where that first appeared. That version is fine with me! My curiosity grows on The Parting Glass. As Dylan has been done, I assume it won’t be “Restless Farewell” which is The Parting Glass with new lyrics : – )

  9. Dave Stephens
    Aug 14, 2016

    One of your very best, Andrew. The love comes through. That’s what matters.

  10. Andrew Shields
    Aug 16, 2016

    Peter, don’t know if you know this version by Ronnie Drew and Eleanor Shanley which combines the two songs here. And, by the way, my second favourite version of ‘The Parting Glass’ is here.

    • Peter Viney
      Aug 17, 2016

      Fair enough, the Ronnie Drew and Eleanor Shanley on three listenings is now my favourite version.

  11. Andrew Shields
    Aug 18, 2016

    It is good I have to say. And Ronnie was eight years gone only the other day (16th August)…

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