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Luke Kelly Tribute » Luke Kelly… The Legend (continued)

Luke Kelly Tribute

A Memoir to Ireland’s greatest folk artist, Luke Kelly.

Luke Kelly… The Legend (continued)


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Being the free spirit that he was, Luke Kelly left the group for nearly two years in 1964. With Deirdre O’Connell, founder of the Focus Theatre, whom he was to marry the following year, he went back to London and became involved in Ewan McColl’s “gathering.” The Critics, as it was called, was formed to explore folk traditions and help young singers. Luke Kelly greatly admired McColl and saw his time with The Critics as an apprenticeship. “It functioned as a kind of self-help group to develop each other’s potential,” said Peggy Seeger. Folk was the kind of music that most appealed to Luke Kelly, because it was tightly connected with social awareness and the hippie ideology. Towards the end of the 1960s, when The Dubliners won international acclaim, he seized the opportunity to attack the injustice he saw in the world.

Luke Kelly was not just a profound artist, but also a strong-willed and politically influential person who spoke his mind on issues such as apartheid and nuclear rearmament.

Eventually Luke took to the stage, surprising many with his performance as King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar. In 1972 The Dubliners themselves performed in Richard’s Cork Leg, based on the “incomplete works” of Brendan Behan.

An unlikely alliance with Derry composer Phil Counter produced two of Luke’s greatest performances: The Town I Loved So Well and the deeply moving Scorn Not His Simplicity. The latter was about Phil’s handicapped son and showed Luke as passionate in caring for the individual’s plight as he was about the good of society. He had such respect for the song that he only performed it once for a television recording and rarely, if ever, sang it at The Dubliners’ often boisterous concerts.

The years of touring and living life to the full were taking their toll on Luke. He began to have bouts of forgetfulness on stage. He would forget words from songs he had sung all his life. On June 30, 1980, during a concert at the Cork Opera House, Luke Kelly collapsed on stage. He was rushed to hospital and a brain tumour was diagnosed. Following a lengthy operation there was every hope of a full recovery. The following years were a struggle for Luke. Still, after he became ill, he joined the Dubliners as much as he possibly could. If he could not be on stage for the whole concert, he could still do some songs. Luke managed to join the band on stage again in 1983, just nine days after undergoing surgery for a second tumour. He managed to play five more shows with the band before his condition worsened on a tour of Switzerland and was forced to stop for good.

This time there was to be no recovery.
On January 30, 1984, Luke Kelly died in his place of birth, Dublin. It wasn’t just an end of an era; it was the end of the life of one of Ireland’s greatest singers, performers and characters. His friend and band mate John Sheahan paid an apt tribute to Luke when he said: ‘Ronnie was the daddy of the band, but Luke was the soul.’

Luke united Dubliners in their appreciation of their own music and street songs. Years later, when the City Council was divided along Civil War lines over the naming of a new Tolka River bridge at Ballybough, the councillors quickly united as Tony Gregory proposed that it be named after Luke Kelly. .

After his death, “The Luke Kelly Memorial Fund” for brain research was launched, and The Dubliners and guests have had concerts in support of this fund.

Few others can match the contribution Luke made to music’s development in Ireland. 20 years after his death, his influence is still heard in singers of all ages. His life ended too soon, but it shows that his belief and determination were as much a part of his success as was his voice.

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