Luke Kelly

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Luke Kelly
Luke Kelly Dubliners.jpg
Kelly in 1967
Background information
Born (1940-11-17)17 November 1940
Sheriff Street, Dublin, Ireland
Died 30 January 1984( 1984-01-30) (aged 43)
Dublin, Ireland
Genres Irish folk
Occupation(s) Singer, folk musician, banjoist, actor
Instruments Vocals, banjo
Years active 1960–1984
Associated acts The Dubliners

Luke Kelly (17 November 1940 – 30 January 1984) was an Irish singer, folk musician and actor from Dublin, Ireland. Born into a working-class household in Dublin city, Kelly moved to England in his late teens and by his early 20s had become involved in a folk music revival. Returning to Dublin in the 1960s, he is noted as a founding member of the band The Dubliners. Becoming known for his distinctive singing style, and sometimes political messages, the Irish Post and other commentators have regarded Kelly as one of Ireland's greatest folk singers.[1]

Early life[edit]

Luke Kelly was born into a working-class family in Lattimore Cottages at 1 Sheriff Street,[2] a quarter of a mile from Dublin's main thoroughfare, O'Connell Street. His grandmother, who was a MacDonald from Scotland, lived with the family until her death in 1953. His father worked all his life in Jacob's biscuit factory and enjoyed playing football. Both Luke and his brother Paddy played club Gaelic football and soccer as children.[3]

Kelly left school at thirteen and after a number of years of odd-jobbing, he went to England in 1958.[4] Working at steel fixing with his brother Paddy on a building site in Wolverhampton, he was apparently sacked after asking for higher pay.[5] He worked odd jobs from oil barrel cleaning to vacuum salesman.[citation needed]

Musical beginnings[edit]

The first folk club he came across was in the Bridge Hotel, Newcastle upon Tyne in early 1960.[6] Having already acquired the use of a banjo, he started memorising songs. In Leeds he brought his banjo to 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 programme called Ballads and Blues. A revival in the skiffle genre also injected a certain energy into folk singing at the time.

Kelly started busking. On a trip home he went to a fleadh cheoil in Milltown Malbay on the advice of Johnny Moynihan. He listened to recordings of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. He also developed his political convictions which, as Ronnie Drew pointed out after his death, he stuck to throughout his life. As Drew also pointed out, he "learned to sing with perfect diction".[7]

Kelly befriended Sean Mulready in Birmingham and lived in his home for a period.[8] Mulready was a teacher who was forced from his job in Dublin because of his communist beliefs.[5] Mulready had strong music links; a sister, Kathleen Moynihan was a founder member of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, and he was related by marriage to Festy Conlon, the County Galway whistle player. Mulready's brother-in-law, Ned Stapleton, taught Kelly "The Rocky Road to Dublin".[5]

Kelly bought his first banjo, which had five strings and a long neck, and played it in the style of Pete Seeger and Tommy Makem. At the same time, Kelly began a habit of reading, and also began playing golf on one of Birmingham's municipal courses.[5] He got involved in the Jug O'Punch folk club run by Ian Campbell. He befriended Dominic Behan and they performed in folk clubs and Irish pubs from London to Glasgow. In London pubs, like "The Favourite", he would hear street singer Margaret Barry and musicians in exile like Roger Sherlock, Seamus Ennis, Bobby Casey and Mairtín Byrnes.

Luke Kelly was by now active in the Connolly Association, a left-wing grouping strongest among the emigres in England. His political beliefs gave edge and conviction to his performance and lent weight to The Dubliners' repertoire at a time when the youth in Ireland were breaking away from Civil War politics.[original research?] He was also to start frequenting Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger's Singer Club in London.

The Dubliners[edit]

In 1961 there was a folk music revival or "ballad boom", as it was later termed, in waiting in Ireland.[9] The Abbey Tavern sessions in Howth were the forerunner to sessions in the Hollybrook, Clontarf, the International Bar and the Grafton Cinema. Luke Kelly returned to Dublin in 1962. O'Donoghue's Pub was already established as a session house and soon Kelly was singing with, among others, Ronnie Drew and Barney McKenna. Other early people playing at O'Donoghues included The Fureys, father and sons, John Keenan and Sean Og McKenna, Johnny Moynihan, Andy Irvine, Seamus Ennis, Willy Clancy and Mairtin Byrnes.

A concert John Molloy organised in the Hibernian Hotel led to his "Ballad Tour of Ireland" with the Ronnie Drew Ballad Group (billed in one town as the Ronnie Drew Ballet Group).[citation needed] This tour led to the Abbey Tavern and the Royal Marine Hotel and then to jam-packed sessions in the Embankment, Tallaght. Ciarán Bourke joined the group, followed later by John Sheahan. They renamed themselves The Dubliners at Kelly's suggestion, as he was reading James Joyce's book of short stories, entitled Dubliners, at the time.[10]

In 1964 Luke Kelly left the group for nearly two years and was replaced by Bobby Lynch and John Sheahan.[11] Kelly went with Deirdre O'Connell, founder of the Focus Theatre, whom he was to marry the following year, 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. Luke Kelly admired MacColl and saw his time with The Critics as an apprenticeship.[citation needed] "It functioned as a kind of self-help group to develop each other's potential," said Peggy Seeger.[citation needed] In 1965, he sang 'The Rocky Road to Dublin' with Liam Clancy on his first, self-titled solo album.

Bobby Lynch left The Dubliners, John Sheahan and Kelly rejoined. They recorded an album in the Gate Theatre, Dublin, played the Cambridge Folk Festival and recorded Irish Night Out, a live album with, among others, exiles Margaret Barry, Michael Gorman and Jimmy Powers. They also played a concert in the National Stadium in Dublin with Pete Seeger as special guest.[3] They were on the road to success: Top Twenty hits with "Seven Drunken Nights" and "The Black Velvet Band", The Ed Sullivan Show in 1968 and a tour of New Zealand and Australia. The ballad boom in Ireland was becoming increasingly commercialised with bar and pub owners building ever larger venues for pay-in performances. Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger on a visit to Dublin expressed concern to Kelly about his drinking.[citation needed]

Christy Moore and Kelly became acquainted in the 1960s.[12] During his Planxty days, Moore got to know Kelly well.[citation needed] In 1972 The Dubliners themselves performed in Richard's Corkstone Leg, based on the "incomplete works" of Brendan Behan. In 1973, Kelly took to the stage performing as King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar.[13]

The arrival of a new manager for The Dubliners, Derry composer Phil Coulter, resulted in a collaboration that produced three of Kelly's most notable performances: “The Town I Loved So Well”, "Hand me Down my Bible", and “Scorn Not His Simplicity”, a song about Phil's son who had Down's Syndrome.[14][15] Kelly had such respect for the latter song that he only performed it once for a television recording and rarely, if ever, sang it at the Dubliners' often boisterous events.[16]

His interpretations of “On Raglan Road” and "Scorn Not His Simplicity" became significant points of reference in Irish folk music.[original research?] His version of "Raglan Road" came about when the poem's author, Patrick Kavanagh, heard him singing in a Dublin pub, and approached Kelly to say that he should sing the poem (which is set to the tune of “The Dawning of the Day”).[17] Kelly remained a politically engaged musician,[18] and many of the songs he recorded dealt with social issues, the arms race and war, workers' rights and Irish nationalism, ("The Springhill Disaster", "Joe Hill", "The Button Pusher", "Alabama 1958" and "God Save Ireland" all being examples of his concerns).

Luke Kelly on stage in 1980

Personal life[edit]

Luke Kelly married Deirdre O'Connell in 1965, but they separated in the early 1970s.[4] Kelly spent the last eight years of his life living with his partner Madeleine Seiler, who was from Germany.[4]

Final years[edit]

On 30 June 1980 during a concert in the Cork Opera House Luke Kelly collapsed on the stage.[13] He had already suffered for some time from headaches and forgetfulness, which had been ascribed to his alcohol consumption. A brain tumour was diagnosed.[7] Although Kelly toured with the Dubliners after enduring an operation, his health deteriorated further. He forgot lyrics and had to take longer breaks in concerts as he felt weak. On his European tour he managed to perform with the band for most of the show in Carre for their Live in Carre album. However, in autumn 1983 he had to leave the stage in Traun, Austria and again in Mannheim, Germany. Shortly after this, he had to cancel the tour of southern Germany, and after a short stay in hospital in Heidelberg he was flown back to Dublin.[19]

After another operation he spent Christmas with his family but was taken into hospital again in the New Year, where he died on 30 January 1984.[7] His gravestone in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, bears the inscription: Luke Kelly – Dubliner.[1][20]

Sean Cannon took Kelly's place in The Dubliners. He had been performing with the Dubliners since 1982,[19] due to the deterioration of Kelly's health.


Luke Kelly's legacy and contributions to Irish music and culture have been described as "iconic" and have been captured in a number of documentaries and anthologies.[21]

The influence of his Scottish grandmother was influential in Kelly's help in preserving important traditional Scottish songs such as "Mormond Braes", the Canadian folk song "Peggy Gordon", "Robert Burns", "Parcel of Rogues", "Tibbie Dunbar", Hamish Henderson's "Freedom Come All Ye", and Thurso Berwick's "Scottish Breakaway".[citation needed]

The Ballybough Bridge in the north inner city of Dublin was renamed the Luke Kelly Bridge,[2] and in November 2004 and Dublin City Council voted unanimously to erect a bronze statue of Luke Kelly.[22][23] However, the Dublin Docklands Authority subsequently stated that it could no longer afford to fund the statue. In 2010, councillor Christy Burke of Dublin City Council appealed to members of the music community including Bono, Phil Coulter and Enya to help build it.[24]

Paddy Reilly recorded a tribute to Kelly[25] entitled The Dublin Minstrel. It featured on his Gold And Silver Years, Celtic Collections and the Essential Paddy Reilly CD's. The Dubliners recorded the song on their Live at Vicar Street DVD/CD. The song was composed by Declan O'Donoghue, the Racing Correspondent of The Irish Sun.[26]

At Christmas 2005 writer-director Michael Feeney Callan's documentary, Luke Kelly: The Performer, was released and outsold U2's latest DVD during the festive season and into 2006, acquiring platinum sales status. The documentary told Kelly's story through the words of the Dubliners, Donovan, Ralph McTell and others and featured full versions of rarely seen performances such as the early sixties' Ed Sullivan Show. A later documentary, Luke Kelly: Prince of the City, was also well received.[27]


Compilation albums[edit]

Year Album details Irish Album Chart
1994 The Collection
  • Label:
  • Formats: CD
1999 Working Class Hero
  • Label:
  • Formats: CD
2004 The Best Of
  • Label:
  • Formats: CD
2005 The Performer
  • Label:
  • Formats: CD
2007 Working Class Hero
  • Label:
  • Formats: CD
2010 The Definitive Collection
  • Label:
  • Formats: CD


Year Single details Irish Singles Chart
2013 The Auld Triangle with The Dubliners
  • Label:
  • Formats: Digital


Year Album details Irish DVD Chart
2005 The Performer
  • Label:
  • Formats: DVD



  1. ^ a b Senan James Fox (30 January 2014). "Remembering Luke Kelly 30 years on". The Irish Post. Archived from the original on 12 October 2014. Retrieved 13 August 2014. 
  2. ^ a b John Cowell (1996). Dublin's Famous People and where They Lived. O'Brien Press. p. 101. ISBN 9780862784683. 
  3. ^ a b Geraghty, Des (1994). Luke Kelly: A Memoir. Dublin, Ireland the best place in the world: Basement Press. pp. 18–20. 
  4. ^ a b c "RTÉ Archives - Profiles - Luke Kelly". RTÉ. Retrieved 16 August 2016. Though Luke left school at thirteen, he worked a variety of jobs before moving to England in 1958 
  5. ^ a b c d Angela Moran (2012). Irish Music Abroad: Diasporic Sounds in Birmingham. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. pp. 99–105. ISBN 9781443843805. 
  6. ^ "Folk: Jez Lowe on Newcastle's legendary Bridge Hotel". BBC. Retrieved 2014-08-13. 
  7. ^ a b c "Flashback 1984: Dubliner's frontman Luke Kelly passes away". Irish Independent. 31 January 2016. Retrieved 4 October 2016. 
  8. ^ Paul Long (2008). Only in the Common People: The Aesthetics of Class in Post-War Britain. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. p. 92. ISBN 9781847184177. 
  9. ^ "The Irish Ballad Boom of the 1960s". Retrieved 26 November 2016. 
  10. ^ Nick Guida. "The Dubliners 1962–1966: It's the Dubliners". Retrieved 4 February 2013. 
  11. ^ "The Story so far... The Dubliners' History". Retrieved 2014-08-13. 
  12. ^ "Christy Moore Biography". Retrieved 26 November 2016. Across the ‘60’s I'd heard [...] Luke Kelly solo, and then I began to be influenced by the British folk revival 
  13. ^ a b "Luke Kelly remembered: A force of nature on stage". Irish Examiner. 24 January 2014. 
  14. ^ "Phil Coulter reveals his anguish at son's Down's syndrome". Belfast Telegraph. 2 October 2015. Retrieved 4 July 2016. 
  15. ^ "With Luke Kelly badgering me, I had to write grown-up songs". Irish Independent. 31 March 2013. Retrieved 5 July 2016. 
  16. ^ "Luke Kelly remembered: A force of nature on stage". Irish Examiner. 24 January 2014. Retrieved 5 July 2016. Kelly [...] rarely performed ‘Scorn Not His Simplicity’ — one of his most famous songs, penned by Phil Coulter about his Down syndrome son — on stage 
  17. ^ "On Raglan Road exhibition - Luke Kelly Sings". RTÉ Archives. RTÉ. 1979. Retrieved 26 November 2016. Luke Kelly explains how he met Patrick Kavanagh in The Bailey pub in Dublin. During this encounter Kavanagh told him he had a song for him. 
  18. ^ "The left-wing firebrand who gave us some of our most popular tunes". Independent News & Media. 1 February 2015. Luke Kelly of The Dubliners was the most accomplished vehicle for MacColl's [political] material 
  19. ^ a b Ronnie Drew (2009). Ronnie. Penguin UK. ISBN 9780141930039. 
  20. ^ "Luke Kelly". Find a Grave. Retrieved 26 November 2016. 
  21. ^ "People were full of praise for RTE's documentary on Luke Kelly". Irish Independent. 5 July 2016. 
  22. ^ "Council votes to erect Luke Kelly statue - RTÉ News". RTÉ.ie. 2004-11-02. Retrieved 2014-08-13. 
  23. ^ "Ahern lends support to Kelly memorial". 31 December 2004. 
  24. ^ "Luke Kelly statue falls victim to recession". 1 December 2010. Archived from the original on 1 February 2012. 
  25. ^ Paddy Reilly "The Ultimate Songs Experience" 1999 rmg CTCCD 006
  26. ^ "Tune Req: Dublin Minstrel Boy (Paddy Reilly)". Retrieved 2014-08-13. 
  27. ^ "Luke Kelly documentary on RTÉ heavily praised". Irish Mirror. 4 July 2016. 
  28. ^ Nick Guida. "The Dubliners: The Luke Kelly Discography". Retrieved 2014-08-13. 
  29. ^ "Luke Kelly - Music Charts". Retrieved 2014-08-13. 
  30. ^ "GFK Chart-Track". Retrieved 2014-08-13. 


  • Luke Kelly: a Memoir, Des Geraghty, ISBN 1-85594-090-6
  • Ar Bhruacha na Life, Des Geraghty, – 23-5-07 135585 – En sub.wmv (Déanann Des Geraghty, fear amhrán agus feadóige, ceiliúradh ar an lucht ceoil i mBaile Átha Cliath).