The West's Awake by Cormac MacConnell
Dubliner’s Luke Kelly is still alive, alive oh - there’s never been more ballad singers in Ireland
Posted on Sunday, January 27, 2013 at 07:47 AM
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I have great news for all of you arising from a lovely singing session in the town of Ennis the other night.
The good news is that the mighty balladeer Luke Kelly of The Dubliners is not dead at all. Forget that story.
Luke Kelly is alive and well and singing away as good as ever. He blew me away at one o'clock in the morning with a rousing version of "Dirty Old Town."
Most of the world outside Ireland has swallowed the story that Luke died in Dublin of a brain tumor no less than 29 years ago this month. The story is that the wiry little Dublin balladeer with the bushy red hair and goatee beard died in the presence of his family and longtime musical friends Ronnie Drew and Barney McKenna, both since sadly gone to God.
They are indeed departed, Ronnie and Barney, but Luke Kelly is still truly alive in the pubs and clubs of Ireland and will be, I swear, for longer than you or I are around.
You see, as I discovered the other night, the official report of his death back in 1984 following complications from the tumor operations is statistically true as far as it goes. But there is a wider truth and a deeper frequency relating to Luke and his art which represents the real situation this January and all others to come.
And I am not making the cute point that all recording artistes like the balladeer are alive as long as their recordings can be played. That's not it. There is a far more joyous reality.
Luke has a powerful balladeering voice, as we all know, and that kind of voice and that kind of musical presence will always silence a pub or club not just in the west of Ireland but anywhere in the world. The Dubliners' success proved that conclusively.
It is a fact that, apart from the volume and the charismatic delivery, the voice alone was never exceptional in itself. If you like it has always been an effective vehicle for delivering from our national stock of rousing and heartwarming ballads. It is the strong, hearty voice of a singing people.
It is not a classically trained voice. That kind of voice has never suited our rugged peasant ballads. It subtracts more than it adds.
The ballads are almost all simple stories of love or war or survival or praise and sound best when simply but clearly told in song.
It is then one hears the real Celtic throat, the genuine heart and soul. It is then that the blood is stirred. It is then that either the hush is so total that one can hear a pin drop, or that the rafters are raised by chorus after rousing chorus.
And that is why Luke Kelly is still alive and singing away.
The other night at the singsong I did not know the Christian names of most of those gathered in the pub. They began the evening as relative strangers who loved to sing the old songs and so became a merry company.
At some late stage a bearded young man in the corner, dimly lit, head back for maximum volume, fist striking the table in time, launched himself down along the Banks Of The Royal Canal:
“Hungry feeling came oer me stealin'
And the mice were squealin' in my prison cell,
And the auld triangle went Jingle Jangle,
All along the banks of the Royal Canal...”
It was then I fully realized that, as long as there are plenty of balladeers in Ireland, men with the Celtic throat and the passion and power that goes with it, that Luke Kelly is alive and well and singing away.
And the concurrent beautiful truth is that there were never more ballad singers in Ireland than there are nowadays. One can hear Luke Kelly any and every night of the week if you know how to find the Hidden Ireland.
When I was living in Dublin's gentle Rathmines area in the seventies, in what was then the heart of the flatland for countrymen and women, I went into a late store once in the small hours of the morning to buy a carton of milk and cigarettes.
Before me at the checkout there was a slight little man in a fleece sheepskin paying for a book and a newspaper. It was when he was passing me out that I recognized it was Luke Kelly.
I remember being amazed that a giant of Irish music was so physically small and quietly behaved. The reported death of the legend took place when he was only 44 years old.
But, as I say, the good news is that, like the legendary labor leader Joe Hill he often sang about, Luke never died. And never will.
Let's drink a glass and sing to that. See more: Irish Music , Irish Entertainment Blog , Irish Arts