Turtle Bunbury

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LUKE KELLY (1940 - 1984)

In July 1914, Erskine and Mary Childers sailed the Asgard into Howth with a cargo of German guns for Irish Volunteers. The King’s Own Scottish Borderers were called in to intercept the weapons. As they returned from a modestly successful arms seizure, an angry crowd of civilians followed the troop up the Liffey, pelting them with insults and stones. A series of unfortunate events ensued which concluded when 21 soldiers discharged their weapons into the crowd at Bachelor’s Walk. Three people died and a further 38 were wounded. Among those 38 injured was a young boy called Luke Kelly. His son, also Luke, was one of the founding members of The Dubliners.

Indeed, when it comes to gravelly-voiced balladeers that can silence a thousand mouths with a solitary rasp, few could hold a match to Luke Kelly. He was born on Sheriff Street in 1940, at a time when the ‘flats’ were fully under construction. By then his father was working in Jacobs Biscuit Factory, where he worked all his life. Young Luke attended the Laurence O’Toole School where he achieved fine grades in most subjects. In 1953, the Kelly’s flat was destroyed in a fire and Dublin Corporation shifted the family out to Whitehall. For a while Luke continued to attend O'Toole's, taking a bus in every day, but he quit aged 13 to ride a messenger boy's bicycle. A year later he started work in Jacobs alongside his father, his mother and the rest of the family. Always restless, he subsequently found casual work as a docker, a builder, a drain digger and a furniture remover. In 1957, like so many of his generation, the 17-year-old redhead took a ship from North Wall to England.

He worked as a builder in Wolverhampton until he was sacked after asking for a raise. He later sold vacuum cleaners in Newcastle, although ‘the town was no cleaner for all the vacuum cleaners I sold’. It was during his time in Newcastle, circa 1960, that he walked into his first ever first folk club and was bitten by the bug. He perfected the banjo (which he’d been playing since he was 5) and started memorising songs. With Ewan MacColl at the helm, the folk revival was under way all across England. By the early 1960s, his network was rapidly expanding as he attended Fleadh Cheoils in Ireland, folk clubs in Leeds and Birmingham, Irish pubs and Communist halls in London and Glasgow.

Returning to Dublin in 1962, he began singing in O'Donoghue's Pub on Baggot Street with, among others, Ronnie Drew and Barney McKenna. In 1964, Luke had made his way, via the Ronnie Drew Ballad Group, into a new band called The Dubliners. The following year, the red-bearded balladeer married Deirdre O'Connell, founder of the Focus Theatre. The Dubliners became a huge sensation both sides of the Atlantic. For many, the greatest songs produced during those years were Luke’s haunting interpretations of ‘Raglan Road’ and ‘Scorn Not His Simplicity’. His father’s memories of the Bachelor’s Walk Massacre must have echoed through his mind to sing with such staggering conviction.

A heavy drinker all his life, Luke collapsed on stage during a concert in the Cork Opera House in 1980. This was the first indication of the brain tumor that ultimately carried him away on 30th January 1984 at the age of 44. His legacy is recalled in the name of the bridge across the River Tolka at Ballybough.

My late aunt Rose Rathdonnell, a sculptor who worked in marble and bronze, was close pals with Luke Kelly in the 70s. She sculpted his bronze bust, which John Sheahan of The Dubliners now has. He said it is the most accurate rendition of Luke he’s ever seen and I gather the Kelly family agree. As of 2018, Vera Klute is doing a work on Luke Kelly that has been commissioned by Dublin City Council; John Coll was commissioned to do a portrait by the Kelly family.



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