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The Dubliners


Freeborn Men of the common people.
PLUS History (So Far...) (Courtesy of Geocities site).

For British TV viewers, they were, arguably, the unlikeliest participants in Top of the Pops' long history of documenting the hits of the day. Others, such as Clive Dunn singing Grandad for example, might run them close for novelty. But these would be mostly Yuletide one-hit wonders. The Dubliners? Jeez, in 1967 they were regulars.

They hit our screens, with Ronnie Drew, in a voice famously and aptly described as "like coke being crushed under a door", singing Seven Drunken Nights' tale of cuckoldry and the perils of neglecting home and hearth, looking like they might have staggered in from a nearby pub. In fact, there was no "might have" about it.

"A raggle taggle, disorganised bunch of very talented musicians and good entertainers," was fiddler John Sheahan's first impression of the band he has
played with for all but two years of a career now into its fifth decade. On the night he was asked to "fill in at the porter break" during the band's Saturday residency, Sheahan lifted his Guinness in time to rescue it as Drew and Barney McKenna continued a discussion by grappling under the table.

It was this rough and ready approach, allied to considerable savoir faire and genuine feeling for Irish music, that made them so exciting. It may seem bizarre to say so to younger readers, as the famous beards turn from grey to
white, but in their heyday, the Dubliners were a happening band.

To a music fan barely in his teens, their sound had the same effect as The Kinks' You Really Got Me. I was down to the nearest record shop as fast as my pocket money could take me. I still have the result, It's the Dubliners, somewhere. It cost 12/6 [about 62 pence] and its live atmosphere turned a mundane council house bedroom into the rowdiest bar anywhere. The Dubliners didn't so much perform on records as barge out of them, and in doing so they prepared the way, and a good proportion of the audience, for the more streamlined virtuosity of the Planxty and Bothy Band-led explosion of the 1970s that continues to this day.

By the time Sheahan joined the Dubliners' story, the group was well-established on the Dublin scene, having graduated from their spiritual home, O'Donoghue's Pub in Merrion Row, to hotels and late night cinema gigs.

A trained musician who'd played tin whistle in his school band with Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains and two of legendary uilleann piper Leo Rowsome's sons before switching to fiddle, Sheahan had a duo with a singer-guitarist, Bob Lynch, and was approached by the band when singer Luke Kelly left for England to follow and learn more of his craft from Ewan MacColl.

"Bob and I went along to their Saturday gig and did a twenty-minute spot," recalls Sheahan. "And afterwards, we'd just stay around and busk along with
them. After a while, people started saying, These two new lads are fitting in
well. Ronnie would phone up and ask if we could make the next gig and we became Dubliners by habit and repute, I suppose."

When Kelly returned, bearing songs learned from MacColl such as Freeborn Man
of the Travelling People, Shoals of Herring and Dirty Old Town, the Dubliners
raised the stakes. They fell in with a London-based manager, Phil Solomon, who owned Major Minor Records and - crucially - a controlling share in the unspeakably influential Radio Caroline, the pirate station moored off the
English coast.

Solomon sent the band into a recording studio where, with the minimum of fuss
and sound checking, they stood round a microphone and committed their live set to tape. When Solomon came in to monitor their progress he took one listen to Seven Drunken Nights and declared, "That'll be your hit." At which there was much muttering along the lines of "that'll be right" from his charges.

He was right. Radio Caroline played the record round the clock. On one day alone it sold 40,000 copies and, as Sheahan says, "whether people were brainwashed or genuinely liked it", they had a hit on their hands.

Seven Drunken Nights reached Number 5 in the UK charts. Sheahan can't remember who appeared on Top of the Pops with them ("I wonder if they'd remember us," he says), but he does remember the follow-up appearances with Black Velvet Band and All For Me Grog.

"These songs, Seven Drunken Nights particularly, transformed things for us. Before we knew it, we were playing in concert halls - the Royal Albert Hall in London, no less - and filling them. Then there were the tours."

He considers the word "tours" for a beat before adding: "I still have diaries from that period, the late 1960s into the early 1970s, and I wonder how we survived. Of course, we were young and foolish then, real devil may care, and our managers had cash registers before their eyes, so we just went for it. We hardly stopped to draw breath."

Not all of them did survive, unfortunately. The pace of touring and its rambunctious accompaniments took their toll. There have been three early deaths along the way, including the hugely influential Kelly, whose interpretations of ballads were a guiding light to singers including Christy Moore, who used to busk to the queues outside Dubliners concerts around the Manchester area in his early days in England.

Success didn't change the Dubliners' game plan, though, because there was no game plan.

"We never rehearsed, at least not in the way people nowadays would rehearse," says Sheahan. "Because we never needed to. In the early days Ronnie or Luke would bring in a new song and we'd just fall in with it and have the feel of it by the second verse. Sometimes we might have a quick run-through in the dressing room but mostly it was live rehearsal, even when we graduated to the bigger venues. And recording was the same. We just went into the studio and played as if we were on stage."

This same approach made them possibly even more unlikely Top of the Pops participants than the first time around when, during the plastic pop 1980s, they teamed up with The Pogues for a rumbustious batter through The Irish Rover that took them into the top ten once again.

Since then, there have been changes. In line-up: Drew has left but returns from time to time to give them the classic sound. And in workload. Having celebrated their fortieth anniversary in 2002, they now take life at a more sedate pace. "Well, relatively," says Sheahan in a tone that could be the start of a song. The tours are less hectic, although the apres-gig can be quite celebrational for at east one member whom Sheahan, a budding poet and haiku writer, describes colourfully as "a hoor for staying up till all hours".

The essential spirit remains intact and playing the music and putting on a performance remains their driving force, however.

"We seldom socialise together when we're not working," says Sheahan. "And I think that keeps the relationship between us all fresh. We don't get tired of each other so when we do get together, we're up for it. That's one reason for our longevity. The other is, and I've always felt this is very important, when people see us on stage they think, That could be me up there singing."

c. Liz More March 2002

The Story So Far

The Dubliners, now one of the most legendary bands in the world, started off in O'Donoghue's pub in Dublin in 1962 under the name of "the Ronnie Drew Folk Group". Then they were four, Ronnie Drew (vocals and guitar), Luke Kelly (vocals and 5-string banjo), Barney McKenna (tenor banjo, mandolin, melodeon and vocals) and Ciar�n Bourke (vocals, guitar, tin whistle and harmonica). In 1963, they played at the Edinburgh festival where they met the head of Transatlantic Records, Nathan Joseph, for whom they started recording. In 1964, Luke Kelly left, and Bobby Lynch (vocals and guitar) and John Sheahan (fiddle, tin whistle, mandolin, concertina, guitar and vocals) were added. When Luke Kelly returned and Bobby Lynch left in 1965, we have what is considered as the original Dubliners, five individualists, five men whose talents were mixed together in a superb blend and just wanted to play and have a good craic. If they only knew what was awaiting them!

In 1967 their major breakthrough came as a result of a coincidence. Their song, "Seven Drunken Nights" which was recorded in one take, was snapped up by a pirate radio station which started playing it along with the Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas, the Who, Kinks and Jimi Hendrix. Suddenly, The Dubliners was a major band, playing all over the world, getting into the charts, and receiving gold discs. Not what you expected from a bunch of hairy people who "looked like they'd just been dragged out of a seedy bar via a hedge (backwards) and dropped on London from a very great height". (Colin Irwin in the reissue of "Live at the Albert Hall")
The seventies started like the sixties ended - wilder touring, drinking and playing. They started doing regular tours, and they were still recording, of course. Then, in 1974, Ciaran Bourke collapsed on stage with a brain hemorrhage, which eventually led to his death. He first, though, recovered remarkably and was back on stage with The Dubliners, but collapsed again. At the same time, Ronnie decided to take a break, and Jim McCann took his and Ciar�n's place in the group.

In 1979, Ronnie decided to make a comeback as a member of the group, although he probably never really left it. In the five years, he had recorded two solo albums, and The Dubliners three albums. With Ronnie returning, Jim left, and The Dubs were almost back where they started. Then Luke Kelly became ill, he collapsed on stage with a brain tumor, for which he received surgery several times. He too, made remarkable recoveries, and went on touring with the Dubliners, at the same time continuing his wild and unhealthy lifestyle. Se�n Cannon, a long time friend, stepped in for Luke, when he couldn't be on stage. Se�n's appearance wasn't that well received by the audiences at the beginning, but he has later turned out to be an important addition to The Dubliners, and their repertoire. In 1984, Luke Kelly died, but The Dubliners, now with Se�n Cannon as a member, decided to keep on.

1987 turned out to be one of the best - and busiest - years for the Dubliners. Their long time friend, and guest musician, Eamonn Campbell, brought the group together with the Pogues on the hit single the Irish Rover. This single took the Dubliners back to the charts, and also gave them a completely new audience; people who weren't even born when The Dubliners started off. And with Dublin celebrating its millennium in 1988, The Dubliners also received more attention than for years. Eamonn Campbell joined them on regular basis, a move that has turned out to be one of the most important in their history. In 1988 Ciar�n Bourke died, after years of pain and difficulties. He always was, and still is very much remembered by The Dubliners, just like Luke Kelly is.

The eighties finished off with rumours that The Dubliners were to retire, probably something that's always been following the group. However, they didn't, and celebrated their 30th anniversary in 1992, with a double CD and extensive tour. The nineties have later brought a tour video from the German tour 1995, and the "shock" news that Ronnie Drew was leaving. He left in December 1995, after releasing a superb album, "Dirty Rotten Shame" a few months earlier.

Now, even the most optimistic Dubliners fans thought it was the end, but the remainders decided to convince Paddy Reilly to join them, and they continued their busy touring and recording schedule. This move has also turned out to be excellent. Paddy, not very well known in Europe, had never been touring there, so he too enjoyed the experience, as well as being part of a band. He still, though, does tours in the USA in the winter and summer months.

As we reach the start of a new millennium, we might as well prepare ourselves for the Dubliners 5th decennium, and although we know that they won't go on very much longer, and that they no longer are the best band in the world, they are still a very high class act. People probably don't recognize what The Dubliners have meant to the world of music. By the way, not only the world of music, but the world as a whole. They have first of all paved the way for dozens of bands from Ireland and Scotland, like the Chieftains, the Pogues, U2, Ossian, the Fureys and so on. The number of artists that list The Dubliners as one of their major influences and idols is endless. They have brought folk music to millions of people all over the world, people who never would have been interested at all. That isn't only because of the folk music, the instrumentals alone, it's because of The Dubliners, their astonishing voices, their indescribable instrumentals, the wild life style and drinking, late sessions, their enormous beards, their extensive touring, their charisma and characters. It was, and still is to a certain extent, a blend the world will never see again.

The Dubliners have brought Ireland to the world in a way that no emigration has, they have brought the world to Ireland, and they have brought people all over the world closer together. Whenever it ends, the world will never be the same again.

The Dubliners 1962-1999
Ronnie Drew Born Sept.16th 1934 1962-1974 & 1979-1995
Luke Kelly Born Nov.17th 1940 Died Jan 30th 1984 1962-1964 & 1965-1984
Barney McKenna Born Dec 16th 1939 1962-
Ciar�n Bourke Born Feb 18th 1935 Died May 10th 1988 1962-1974
John Sheahan Born May 19th 1939 1964-
Bobby Lynch Born May 18th 1935 Died Oct 2nd 1982 1964-1965
Jim McCann Born Oct 26th 1944 1974-1979
Se�n Cannon Born Nov 29th 1940 1982-
Eamonn Campbell Born Nov 29th 1946 1987-
Paddy Reilly Born Oct 18th 1939 1996-

Last update: October 3rd 1998

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