Lyrical farewell for Dubliner Ronnie Drew

 

ALL THE charm and spirit of an old New Orleans jazz funeral infused the celebration of Ronnie Drew's life in Greystones, Co Wicklow, yesterday as hundreds of family and friends, led by the singer's son and daughter, Phelim and Cliodhna, followed his coffin up the aisle to the strains of Just a Closer Walk with Thee, played by saxophonist, Keith Donald and sung by Eleanor Shanley and Mary Coughlan.

Over an hour before the start of the 10am service, the congregation had overflowed into a nearby church hall, which was equipped with a video link, out onto the local road and up onto a nearby bridge.

The attendance, which included representatives of the President, Mary McAleese, Taoiseach Brian Cowen and the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Eibhlin Byrne, heard a traditional Catholic Mass, interwoven with poetry, stories and a grieving family's grace and gratitude. Above all they heard about a man "whose love and compassion and huge feeling for the person who got a hard hand in life oozed through his voice", in the words of Bishop Eamon Walsh. "In a way he elevated the words of songs to become a sacred mantra."

The tension between the sacred and the secular was reflected in Bishop Walsh's reference to the "tight-rope" walked by the presiding clergy on such occasions, and Phelim's remark that "it would not be Dad's funeral without there having been a slight edge". But as the day's musical director, Phil Coulter put it, "you couldn't see Ronnie Drew having a po-faced funeral".

Phelim and Cliodhna had chosen all the music, he said, and they were "very specific" about what they wanted for Ronnie.

They both rose to pay tributes to their father and to those who eased their sorrow since they lost their mother Deirdre, a year ago.

As well as Prof John Crown and the medics who cared for Ronnie, Cliodhna thanked the man "who had the unenviable job of shaving his head and beard", the caterers "who made sure we had something nice", the dry cleaners "who made sure we had the right clothes" and those in the Irish music industry - including members of U2 and the Pogues — who had been involved in the recording of The Ballad of Ronnie Drew.

She ended with an Arthur O'Shaughnessy poem: "We are the music-makers and we are the dreamers of dreams . . . One man with a dream, at pleasure/ Shall go forth and conquer a crown; And three with a new song's measure/Can trample an empire down".

Phelim spoke about a "large man" who was a "surrogate grandfather to many children", and "who enjoyed life to the full". His Dad didn't have much respect for money, he said; it was there to make life better and to enjoy.

He remembered a report that Michael Flatley was making a million a week. "What would you do if you earned a million a week?" Ronnie was asked. "I'd work for two. And then I'd stop", he said.

Phelim too ended with a poem, written as a lament for Brendan Behan by Seosamh Ó Broin: "Sad solemn notes and cases of newly-drawn stout/ the usual symptoms when a light goes out . . ."

But it always came back to the music. Chief celebrant Fr Denis Quinn recalled bringing tapes of The Band Played Waltzing Matildato New Zealand and watching tears trickle down the faces of big Australian army officers.

Yesterday, Don Baker's bluesy, solo rendition of Amazing Graceon the harmonica was singled out by Bishop Walsh as being "particularly moving".

For others, it might have been the inimitable Dubliners' spirit, manifest in the instrumentals played at Communion.

Broad smiles cracked sombre faces as the congregation matched lyrics to music and Dubliners, John Sheahan, Patsy Watchorn and Barney McKenna launched into McAlpine's Fusiliers("What keeps me here is the rake o' beer, the women an' the craic"), Finnegan's Wake("tunderin' Jaysus, do ye think I'm dead?") complete with the final mischievous flourish, "How's yer aul' wan . . . "; and Weela Weela Wallia, which triggered a gentle singalong.

This came about as the ensemble wound down, grinned Phil Coulter later, and Barney McKenna "got a rush of blood to the head" that caused him to break into song and bring the congregation with him. Thus did the legend of the woman who "stuck the penknife in the babby's head", become a sweet and muted tribute to an icon. The legendary Dolly McMahon, who sang with Ronnie Drew and Luke Kelly before they became the Dubliners, laughed and remembered the "wild" boys.

In between, were exquisite musical grace-notes such as The Parting Glass, sung by Eleanor Shanley with Mike Hanrahan of Stockton's Wing, and Ar Éireann Ní Nosfhainn Cé Híplayed by Barney McKenna.

The celebration ended with a slow, poignant rendition of The Band played Waltzing Matilda, led by Earl Gill on trumpet, joined by an array of musicians such as Paddy Moloney and Sean Keane of the Chieftains, Finbar Furey, Louis Stewart, Richie Buckley and Miles Drennan.

Gardaí halted traffic and many waited outside Redford Cemetery on the edge of town as the cortege brought Ronnie Drew to his final resting place beside Deirdre.