January 29, 1983 – Luke Kelly was born in Dublin on either the 16th of November or 16th of December 1940. The confusion arises because his mother says November and his birth certificate December. In the main Luke has always taken his mother’s word for it, for he reasons that she was there at the time. The family was a large close one. Luke’s father, another Luke, worked for Jacobs the biscuit people and had a great love of soccer – a love he passed on to his son.
Luke was educated at St. Lawrence O’Toole’s (the patron saint of Dublin) School in the North Strand area. He left school when he was thirteen and did a variety of jobs before coming, via the Isle of Man, to work in England.
The first folk club he came across was in Newcastle upon Tyne in early 1960. He started memorizing songs and brought a banjo to play sessions in McReady’s pub. The folk revival was under way in England, at the centre of it was Ewan MacColl who scripted a radio program called Ballads and Blues. The skiffle craze had also injected a certain energy into folk singing. Luke started busking and returned to Dublin in 1962.
That same year Luke along with Ronnie Drew, Ciaran Bourke and Barney McKenna formed “The Ronnie Drew Group”, playing regularly in O’Donoghue’s Pub. They changed their name due to Drew’s unhappiness with the name, coinciding with the fact that Kelly was reading Dubliners by James Joyce at the time.
In 1964 Luke Kelly left the group for nearly two years, he went back to London and became involved in Ewan MacColl’s “gathering”. The Critics, as it was called, was formed to explore folk traditions and help young singers. He greatly admired MacColl and saw his time with The Critics as an apprenticeship. Back with The Dubliners, Luke was more of the balladeer in the band, and he played chords on the five-string banjo and sang many defining versions of traditional songs like “The Black Velvet Band”, “Whiskey in the Jar”, “Home Boys Home”.
Kelly was keenly political, a member of the Communist Party and a fundraiser for Amnesty International. Sheahan points to his generosity as one of his defining characteristics. He remembers an occasion when Kelly’s wife, the actress Deirdre O’Connell, had returned from a furniture auction with a table. By coincidence, Sheahan’s wife had picked up a set of chairs at auction similar to the table, and he joked about the coincidence to Kelly. “Before I could say anything, he had the table out the door and strapped to the roof of my car. He had no great commitment to material possessions.”
On June 30th 1980 during a concert in the Cork Opera House, Luke collapsed on the stage, a brain tumor was diagnosed. He continued to tour with the Dubliners after enduring an operation, but his health sadly deteriorated further.
The Ballybough Bridge in the north inner city of Dublin has been renamed the “Luke Kelly Bridge” and in November 2004, the Dublin city council voted unanimously to erect a bronze statue of Luke (On his autumn tour in 1983 he came off the stage, ill, in Traun, Austria and again in Mannheim, Germany. He had to cancel the tour of southern Germany and after a short stay in hospital in Heidelberg was flown back to Dublin. After an operation he spent Christmas with his family but was taken into hospital in the New Year, where this time he sadly died on January 29, 1983 at age 43.
The Dubliners were less a group than a meitheal. In the old peasant pattern the meitheal came together to do a job — and that was it. The Dubliners were all individualists — Luke and Ronnie and Ciaran and John and Barney were leaves from different trees blown together by the wind that changed the world of music a generation ago. What they had most in common was artistic honesty. Luke’s ambition was to express ‘the song of his loneliness1. He succeeded as much as a mortal can -and in doing so he became an immortal.