‘Luke Kelly said a folk club in Foxrock was a contradiction in terms’

Set up by teenagers in the 1960s, Foxrock Folk Club drew big names to its parish-hall gigs. A new album features club recordings of Kelly, Ronnie Drew and Dónal Lunny

Dublin in the 1960s had many folk clubs and sessions, but Foxrock Folk Club was different. For a start it wasn’t in a city-centre basement. And it was the only club organised, booked and promoted by a group of teenagers.

Almost half a century later it turns out that there was a further reason why Foxrock Folk Club stood out. Most weeks a youngster called Kevin McCann would arrive at the club, in the local parish hall, with his reel-to-reel recorder and two microphones. You'll hear his recordings of performances by Luke Kelly – who died 32 years ago today, on January 30th, 1984, at the age of 43 – Andy Irvine, Dónal Lunny, Ronnie Drew, Sonny Condell and many more on a new album called Live at Foxrock Folk Club.

Jeremy Kearney is the man behind the release. Recently retired from the University of Sunderland, Kearney grew up in south Co Dublin, and as a teenager in the late 1960s he found himself acting as cotreasurer of the nascent folk club.

“The local priest Fr Dermot O’Neill had organised all kinds of activities, like debates, tennis clubs and youth clubs, so there was a very good big group of us involved in various things,” Kearney says. “Someone came up with the idea for a music club, and the only slight problem was that none of the group had ever been in an actual folk club.

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"Fr O'Neill spoke to the head teacher of the local school, who knew that one ex-pupil, Ray Magee, was interested in folk music and had been to the Universal and the Coffee Kitchen, in the city centre. Ray was co-opted on to the group, and he remembers everyone going to have a look at the parish hall as a possible venue. It was pretty run down, and the only piece of furniture was a battered piano."

Teenagers

The tyro promoters set to work with help from Magee. The first night, in April 1969, featured Currach Folk, Julie & Tom,

Ed Dean

and

Dermot Stokes

, as well as local artists. For the next four years the teenagers would put on regular events on Sunday nights in the hall. “What makes it unique is the age of the people involved,” says Kearney. “While Fr O’Neill encouraged us, he just let us get on with it.”

The club featured an eclectic range of acts. "Ray was bringing in people from the folk clubs. Lar Cassidy, who was incredibly knowledgeable about music at a young age, knew the jazz and blues scene. Clodagh O'Reilly knew a lot of the poets from college, and Peter Fallon brought in poets from Liverpool, such as Roger McGough. That meant nothing to us, because we'd never heard of him as a poet. We just knew him as a member of The Scaffold who had been on Top of the Pops."

That they were teenagers didn’t stop them. “We didn’t give it a second thought. Anything was possible, and we just went for it, and it happened. We had the audience, we were used to organising events and we had the ambition to invite people along. In Dublin in those days you could go up to someone in the street and ask them to come out to Foxrock to play.”

That’s how Luke Kelly ended up playing the club in December 1972. “Someone saw him in the street and asked him to play, and he said yes, though he also said a folk club in Foxrock was a contradiction in terms.

“He was well known at the time, because of The Dubliners, but there was also this fast shift taking place in Dublin at the time. Young people were getting more into music; they had access to more music via radio, TV, magazines and records. People were hearing all these musicians, but the musicians were in Dublin and they were accessible.

“We knew Luke was a wonderful singer, but we were teenagers, so everyone is wonderful. It’s only later on, when you listen to the tapes, that you realise this was something very special. I remember we had money for Luke, but he didn’t take it.”

Payment

As one of those in charge of the cash, Kearney notes that paying acts was another thing that made the club stand out. “The folk clubs in town didn’t really pay artists. The people who went to the Universal and the Coffee Kitchen wanted to play and got the chance to play one or two songs. You might have a special guest who might have got paid, but that was the way.

"From an early stage, though, we paid people £5 or £6 for a 20-minute session, which would be €80 or €100 now. We could bring in Louis Stewart with his sextet, we could bring in Butler Fox, we could bring in Horslips and we could actually pay them.

“We quickly got a reputation for being a nice place to come. Because we were outside the city it was a bit different too. Everyone did the circuit in town, but you had to get the 46A to the church in Foxrock if you didn’t have a car and walk to the club with your instrument.

“You hear the enthusiasm and appreciation of the audience in some of the responses on the album. There was no drink there, so very few disruptions. People really listened, and the singers and musicians appreciated that. It was a great experience for artists.”

Those performances live on thanks to McCann’s recordings. “Kevin would come in and set up and tape whoever came on. You’ve tapes with someone you’ve never heard of followed by Luke Kelly or Louis Stewart and then someone unknown again. That’s unique: there was no other folk club recording the shows.”

About 30 hours of tapes have survived. "In the early days tapes were expensive, so we reused some of them. You might have a band playing and then a solo artist comes in out of nowhere, or something like Joni Mitchell, which Kevin taped from the radio."

Kearney says the club’s unique character led to its eventual demise. “All these teenagers grew up at the same time and then went to college, got married and went to work. The music scene changed. People were going into the city, and there was lots more music around. Music moved into sessions and pubs.

“The incredible thing is that many of the musicians who played with us are still playing, and there are new clubs around, like the Tarred and Feathered club in Raheny, the Red Hat club in Naas, and the Lord Edward. There’s an incredibly vibrant scene again, but with lots of the same players as before.”

The parish hall, on Old Bray Road in Cornelscourt, is now an Indian restaurant called Shanai, but the scene created by those Dublin teenagers lives on in the new album. “It was a unique cultural and social moment that we just happened to be in the middle of,” Kearney says. “So many of the acts who played there quickly went on to bigger things, acts like Horslips and The Chieftains.

“Paddy Moloney was interviewed a few years ago, and he said the atmosphere at the club was like it was in his grandmother’s house down the country, with people of all ages coming together to play and listen. That was lovely to hear.”

Live at Foxrock Folk Club: The Parish Hall Tapes 1970-72 is on Cornelscourt Records; it is available from HMV, Tower Records, Claddagh Records, Freebird Records, Mojo Records and iTunes; foxrockfolkclubproject.blogspot.ie

Remembering Luke Kelly: Making the Foxrock tapes

We should be thankful that Kevin McCann was around to record Luke Kelly’s visit to Foxrock Folk Club in December 1972, as it’s rare to come across unreleased archive recordings of the singer. Although there’s a suite of studio albums that he recorded with The Dubliners, other live and impromptu recordings of this significant figure in Irish culture are few and far between.

The recordings of Kelly singing Blackwaterside, Alabama '58 and Jail of Cluain Meala in Foxrock church hall capture the range of his powers. There's that distinctive voice, capable of shaking the rafters, as well as the political edge in his astute reading of Alabama '58, the Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger song. There's also a guest turn from Seán Potts, the Chieftains and Ceoltóirí Chualann founder member, on tin whistle on Blackwaterside.

There have been attempts to capture Kelly's life on screen over the years. Sinéad O'Brien's 1999 documentary Remembering Luke remains the best, gathering insightful views from people who knew him personally and others who were fans of his music and activism.