The Irish Times view on Luke Kelly: Echo of a rare oul’ voice

What elevated the balladeer to a higher plane was that extraordinary voice, hard as a quayside flagstone yet capable of the utmost delicacy and sympathy

There was something quintessentially Dublin about the fact that, after many years of lobbying for the erection of a statue to commemorate Luke Kelly in his native city, two were unveiled on the same day this week. Photograph: Paul Kelly

There was something quintessentially Dublin about the fact that, after many years of lobbying for the erection of a statue to commemorate Luke Kelly in his native city, two were unveiled on the same day this week. Photograph: Paul Kelly

 

There was something quintessentially Dublin about the fact that, after many years of lobbying for the erection of a statue to commemorate Luke Kelly in his native city, two were unveiled on the same day this week. Still, it seems perfectly appropriate the great balladeer should now be memorialised on both sides of the Liffey, within earshot of the Gaiety theatre on the south side and in the heart of the north side inner-city community from which he came.

In his memoir of Kelly, trade unionist Des Geraghty recalls how the working-class Dublin of their shared youth had little time for traditional Irish music. Luke’s father was fond of singing Negro spirituals in the style of Paul Robeson, and the son shared his interest in Fats Domino and Frank Sinatra.

Kelly embodied a different Ireland – urban, working class, politically radical – that still struggles to be heard

It was during his years as a self-described “beatnik”, working as a casual labourer across northern England, that Kelly became interested in traditional ballads, especially after hearing a crowd of Geordies reciting Brendan Behan’s The Auld Triangle. Years later he would recall the pride he felt that a song rooted in the working-class Dublin he grew up in was being sung with such passion by an English crowd. Those years in England were also formative for his lifetime commitment to revolutionary socialist politics.

The success he enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s with the Dubliners and others earned Kelly a place in the national musical pantheon before his death from a brain tumour in 1984 at the age of 44. What elevated him to a higher plane was that extraordinary voice, hard as a quayside flagstone yet capable of the utmost delicacy and sympathy. It’s not surprising Patrick Kavanagh agreed to let him record a version of On Raglan Road, set to the air of The Dawning of the Day. There were many other gems he made his own, from his heartrending rendition of Phil Coulter’s Scorn Not His Simplicity to The Auld Triangle itself. Like Behan before him, Kelly embodied a different Ireland – urban, working class, politically radical – that still struggles to be heard but continues to echo along the banks of the Royal Canal.

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