The Dubliners were an Irish folk band founded in Dublin in 1962. The band started off as The Ronnie Drew Ballad Group, named in honour of its founding member; they subsequently renamed themselves as The Dubliners. The group line-up saw many changes over their fifty-year career. However meat tenderizing methods, the group’s success was centred on lead singers Luke Kelly and Ronnie Drew. The band garnered international success with their lively Irish folk songs, traditional street ballads and instrumentals. The band were regulars on the folk scenes in both Dublin and London in the early 1960s, and were signed to the Major Minor label in 1965 after backing from Dominic Behan. They went on to receive extensive airplay on Radio Caroline, and eventually appeared on Top of the Pops in 1967 with hits “Seven Drunken Nights” (which sold over 250,000 copies in the UK) and “Black Velvet Band”. Often performing political songs considered controversial at the time, they drew criticism from some folk purists and Ireland’s national broadcaster RTÉ had placed an unofficial ban on their music from 1967–71. During this time the band’s popularity began to spread across mainland Europe and they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in the United States. The group’s success remained steady right through the 1970s and a number of collaborations with The Pogues in 1987 saw them enter the UK Singles Chart on another two occasions.
The Dubliners were instrumental in popularising Irish folk music in Europe, though they did not quite attain the popularity of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem in the United States. They influenced many generations of Irish bands, and their legacy can to this day be heard in the music of artists such as The Pogues, Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. Much adored in their native country, covers of Irish ballads by Ronnie Drew and Luke Kelly tend to be regarded as definitive versions. One of the most influential Irish acts of the 20th century, they celebrated 50 years together in 2012, making them Ireland’s longest surviving musical act. Also in 2012, the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards bestowed them with a Lifetime Achievement Award. The Dubliners announced their retirement in the autumn of 2012, after 50 years of playing, following the death of the last of the founding members, Barney McKenna. However, the surviving members of the group, with the exception of John Sheahan, continued touring under the name of “The Dublin Legends”. As of 2016, there are two of the former members still in this group, Seán Cannon and Eamonn Campbell.
The Dubliners, initially known as “The Ronnie Drew Ballad Group”, formed in 1962 and made a name for themselves playing regularly in O’Donoghue’s Pub in Dublin. The change of name came about because of Ronnie Drew’s unhappiness with it, together with the fact that Luke Kelly was reading Dubliners by James Joyce at the time. Founding members were Drew, Kelly, Ciarán Bourke and Barney McKenna.
Drew, McKenna and Thomas Whelan had originally teamed up for a fundraising concert and then went on to work in a revue with the Irish comedian John Molloy at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. They used to sing songs between acts.
Before joining the Dubliners full-time, Kelly had spent some time playing at English folk clubs such as the Jug o’Punch in Birmingham, run by the folk singer Ian Campbell.
The group played at the Edinburgh Festival in 1963 and that led to them being featured on a BBC programme called Hootenanny. The extra exposure helped them to win a contract with Transatlantic Records, with whom they recorded their first album, called simply The Dubliners. They also recorded their first single featuring Rocky Road to Dublin and The Wild Rover.
Drew spent some time in Spain in his younger years where he learned to play Flamenco guitar, and he accompanied his songs on a Spanish guitar. Drew left the band in 1974 to spend more time with his family, and was replaced by Jim McCann. He returned to The Dubliners five years later, but left the group again in 1995. Ronnie Drew died at St Vincent’s Private Hospital in Dublin on 16 August 2008 after a long illness. Paddy Reilly took Drew’s place in 1995. Some of Drew’s most significant contributions to the band are the hit single “Seven Drunken Nights”, his rendition of “Finnegan’s Wake”, and “McAlpine’s Fusiliers”.
Luke Kelly was more of a balladeer than Drew, and he played chords on the five-string banjo. Kelly sang many defining versions of traditional songs like “The Black Velvet Band”, “Whiskey in the Jar”, “Home Boys Home”; but also Phil Coulter’s “The Town I Loved So Well”, Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town”, “The Wild Rover”, and “Raglan Road”, written by the famous Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh. In 1980, Luke Kelly was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Occasionally Kelly was too ill to sing though he was sometimes able to join the band for a few songs. While on tour in Germany he collapsed on stage. When Kelly was too ill to play, he was replaced by Seán Cannon. He continued to tour with the band until two months before his death. Kelly died on 30 January 1984. One of the last concerts in which he took part was recorded and released: Live in Carré, recorded in Amsterdam, Netherlands, released in 1983. In November 2004, the Dublin city council voted unanimously to erect a bronze statue of Luke Kelly. Kelly is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.
Ciarán Bourke was a singer, but he also played the guitar, tin whistle and harmonica. He sang many songs in Irish (“Peggy Lettermore”, “Preab san Ól”). In 1974 he collapsed on stage after suffering a brain haemorrhage. A second haemorrhage left him paralysed on his left side. Bourke died in 1988. The band did not officially replace him until his death.
John Sheahan and Bobby Lynch joined the band in 1964. They had been playing during the interval at concerts, and usually stayed on for the second half of the show. When Luke Kelly moved to England in 1964, Lynch was taken on as his temporary replacement. When Kelly returned in 1965, Lynch left the band and Sheahan stayed. According to Sheahan, he was never (and still has not been) ever officially asked to join the band. Sheahan is the only member to have had a musical education. Lynch committed suicide in Dublin in 1982.
In 1996 Ronnie Drew quit the band, and Paddy Reilly came on to replace him. Reilly, a long-time friend of the group, toured with them before on several occasions; he was already a successful solo artist in Ireland, scoring hits with “The Fields of Athenry” and “The Town I Loved So Well”.
In 2005, Paddy Reilly moved to the United States, and Patsy Watchorn joined the group. Watchorn made a name for himself with The Dublin City Ramblers; like Kelly, he accompanies his songs on the five-string banjo.
The band toured Europe every year. A planned tour of Denmark two weeks after the death of McKenna on 5 April 2012 went ahead as planned. From the first show in Copenhagen on 18 April onwards he was replaced by the Irish banjo player Gerry O’Connor. In the fall of 2012 the band announced their retirement, effective after their 50th anniversary shows at the end of the year. The Dubliners played their final shows at Vicar Street in Dublin on 28/29/30 December 2012, and made their final TV appearance in the UK on a pre-recorded New Year’s Eve edition of Jools Holland Annual Hootenanny’ on 31 December. Their last public appearance as the Dubliners was on 27 January 2013 in memory of Barney McKenna.
After the departure of John Sheahan and the official retirement under the name of “The Dubliners” in late 2012, the remaining members of the group – Seán Cannon, Eamonn Campbell, Patsy Watchorn and guest musician Gerry O’Connor – formed a folk band called “The Dublin Legends” to keep The Dubliners’ legacy alive. In February 2013 they planned a UK Tour but it had to be rescheduled to June due to Eamonn Campbell having an operation. In November 2013 banjo player Gerry O’Connor joined Joe Bonamassa on his United States Tour, so Paul Kelly stood in for him on The Dublin Legends’ concerts in Germany.
The band released their first live album entitled An Evening With The Dublin Legends: Live In Vienna in January 2014. It features 18 songs, which were recorded in September 2013 at the ‘Metropol’ in Vienna.
On 28 April 2014 Patsy Watchorn posted a message on his website, stating that he “decided to take a break from the music business for a while” and won’t be touring the rest of 2014 with “The Dublin Legends”. However, he did not officially leave the band and plans to return to stage some day in the future. Patsy was replaced by his brother Paul Watchorn. Paul Kelly is still filling in for Gerry O’Connor as long as he is on tour with Joe Bonamassa.
In 1987, The Dubliners celebrated their 25th anniversary. They recorded a double CD, produced by Eamonn Campbell, long-time friend and guest musician. He introduced them to The Pogues, and their collaboration resulted in a hit with “The Irish Rover”. It reached number 8 in the UK singles charts and number 1 in Ireland. In 1990 their final hit single was “Jack’s Heroes/Whiskey in the Jar” where to buy a water bottle, again with The Pogues, which reached number 63 in the UK and number 4 in Ireland. Campbell, who plays the guitar on stage, has been touring with the band ever since. Christy Moore, Paddy Reilly and Jim McCann also featured on the CD; Moore sings a tribute to Luke Kelly, and McCann sings the song “I Loved the Ground She Walked Upon”, written by Phil Coulter and Ralph McTell. The following year, to coincide with Dublin’s millennial celebrations, Radio Telefís Éireann produced an hour-long special on the band and the city’s influence on their music, titled The Dubliner’s Dublin.
In 2002, they temporarily reunited with Ronnie Drew and Jim McCann, for their 40th anniversary tour. They made a string of appearances on Irish television throughout this time, including a memorable appearance with Phil Coulter and George Murphy on RTÉ 1.
After the tour, Jim McCann was diagnosed with throat cancer and, though he fully recovered, his voice was severely damaged, and he was unable to sing since his illness. Despite this, he regularly acted as MC at folk gigs, notably at The Dubliners reunion shows, and at the 2006 ‘Legends of Irish Folk’ shows (where he also played guitar in the finale).
The band celebrated their 50th anniversary with an extensive year-long European tour and the release of a live DVD recorded live at Dublin’s Vicar Street featuring Chris Kavanagh from the Band “The Legend of Luke Kelly” as a special guest. The tour continued in the wake of the death of the final founding member Barney McKenna, although the band announced that the final shows of the tour, to be held 28–30 December also at Vicar Street would be the band’s final shows in which the band were joined by former band member Jim McCann.
The Dubliners became well known, not just in Ireland but also as pioneers for Irish folk in Europe and also (though less successful) in the United States. Their 1967 recordings of “Seven Drunken Nights” and “The Black Velvet Band” were released on the fledgling Major Minor label, and were heavily promoted on pirate radio station Radio Caroline. The result was that both records reached the top 20 in the UK pop charts. A third single, “Maids, When You’re Young Never Wed an Old Man” reached number 43 in December 1967. It was their last UK hit single till they recorded with The Pogues in 1987.
In 1974, Ronnie Drew decided to quit the band, to spend more time with his family. He was replaced with Jim McCann. Before joining the band McCann had a TV show in the early seventies called The McCann man. He is best known for his incarnations of “Carrickfergus”, Makem’s “Four Green Fields”, and “Lord of the Dance”. He stayed with the band until 1979 to start a solo career; then Ronnie Drew rejoined the band. First Ronnie went to Norway to record two songs in the Norwegian language with the Norwegian band Bergeners.
The Dubliners also gained popularity amongst famous musicians such as Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd’s drummer Nick Mason, who were all self-proclaimed Dubliners fans.
In the 1960s, The Dubliners sang rebel songs such as “The Old Alarm Clock”, “The Foggy Dew” and “Off to Dublin in the Green”. However, the conflict in Northern Ireland from 1969 onwards led them to drop most of these from their repertoire. They resumed performing such songs occasionally towards the end of their career.
On 8 February 2012, The Dubliners received a “Lifetime Achievement Award” at the 2012 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.