A risk-taking raconteur and the real Irish rover

Ronnie Drew's calling cards were his baritone voice, his gift for storytelling and his forensic memory

Ronnie Drew's calling cards were his baritone voice, his gift for storytelling and his forensic memory

RONNIE DREW, singer, guitarist, actor, raconteur, socialist and unfailing risk-taker, died on Saturday at the age of 73.

Born on September 16th, 1934, he was the eldest of five children. He was reared by his grandmother in Dún Laoghaire.

In the 1950s, Ronnie emigrated to Spain to avoid being lured into a permanent and pensionable job at home. As he told this writer in an interview in 2006, he learned to play flamenco guitar and speak Spanish while he was there.


The latter he gleaned in pubs and restaurants so his accent was "quite convincing", but his grammar was, by his own admission, "arseways".

His first serious foray into the world of music followed a brief spell as an actor in the late 1950s, when he performed at the Gate, among other theatres.

In 1962 he formed The Ronnie Drew Group with Barney McKenna, Luke Kelly and Ciarán Bourke, having honed their repertoire in the back room of O'Donoghues pub on Merrion Row. This group later became known as The Dubliners, with the addition of John Sheahan on fiddle. Kelly was reading James Joyce's Dublinersat the time, hence the choice of name.

Drew's calling cards were his distinctive baritone voice and his natural gift for storytelling, allied with a forensic memory for fine detail. The Dubliners quickly forged a reputation for merrymaking and mayhem, while tattooing countless songs into the subconscious of generations, including the banned Seven Drunken Nights(which charted at number 7 in the UK in 1967), Biddy Mulligan, McAlpine's Fusiliers, The Captains And The Kingsand Weile Waila.

Drew left The Dubliners in 1974, having tired of the repetitious nature of the road. He returned to the fold five years later and remained with the band until 1996, when he took his leave for good.

Drew was, like many other great artists before him such as Seán O'Casey, self-taught. An inquisitive person, he read widely, but wore his learning lightly. He spoke without rancour but with great wit about his socialist principles, born out of a time when "everyone had nothing so there wasn't even a question of one-upmanship".

Drew's collaborations were as eclectic as his personal interests. The Dubliners's cover of The Irish Roverwith The Pogues in 1987 saw him paired with like-minded frontman Shane MacGowan. More recently, he recorded a number of solo and collaborative albums, the final one, 2007's Pearls, in collaboration with Dublin band Grand Canal.

His wife Deirdre was his mentor and best friend, and he acknowledged openly that her death in June 2007 decimated him. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in late 2006, and participated in a number of searingly honest television interviews where he spoke candidly about his demanding medical treatment and of his anxieties facing death.

He died on the 31st anniversary of Elvis Presley's death.

Ever the philosopher, Drew never regretted taking the unpredictable path in life. As he said in a 2006 interview with this writer, "Pensions? Hah! I remember meeting people who'd taken the permanent pensionable jobs after school, and by 43 or 44 years of age, they were twisted and bitter.

"The way I looked at it was that you can't always wait for the green man to cross the road. Sometimes you have to go when it's red - to get to the other side."

Siobhán Long

Siobhán Long

Siobhán Long, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about traditional music and the wider arts