The arrival of a three-headed monster from planet Pluto would have appeared marginally less extraordinary than the Dubliners in 1968. The Dubliners looked like they'd just been dragged out of a seedy bar via a hedge (backwards) and dropped on London from a very great height. The odd thing was they probably had.
Colin Irwin in the sleevenotes to Live at the Albert Hall.
Folk music can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. It can conjure up images of the mellow harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel, the old-country melodic stylings of Fairport Convention or Clannad, the foot-stomping, boozy hollering of the Pogues or the Levellers, or just a hazy tableau of some bloke in the pub with his guitar. Eventually though, if you sit and think about it long enough, one picture will start to dominate the others. It will start with a vague idea about beards. Big beards. Then vats of stout and ale. Then fiddles and banjos. Eventually, when this picture emulsifies into a whole scene, you'll find yourself looking at the Dubliners; the folk stereotype of beer, beards and ballads brought to life.
In The Beginning
The beginning point of any Dubliners biography is always Merrion Row (or Baggot Street, depending on who you ask), Dublin. As you might expect, the Dubliners started out in the back room of a pub. A few years earlier, unable to face the prospect of a dull nine-to-five day job, Ronnie Drew had emigrated to Spain, travelling, teaching English and playing his guitar. Upon returning to Dublin, Ronnie made friends with John Molloy, a renowned local actor, and joined him in a number of stage ventures. One of these ideas for a stage show involved collecting traditional Irish ballads. Drew decided that recruiting some additional musicians to form a group would be a good idea and he knew just where to find them - in the pub!
Experienced folk singer Luke Kelly had just returned from travelling the folk clubs of Britain and regularly visited O'Donoghue's pub, as did tenor banjo wizard Barney McKenna and guitarist and whistle player Ciaran Bourke. Along with Ronnie's deep, gravelly tones, they formed the Ronnie Drew Ballad Group, playing a series of concerts at the Grafton Cinema, the Abbey Tavern and the Royal Hotel. As their fame spread around the area, Ronnie Drew voiced his dislike at being the only named 'frontman' of the band so, at Luke Kelly's suggestion, they named themselves after James Joyce's collection of short stories Dubliners.
First Stop Dublin, Next The World
In 1963 the band invaded the United Kingdom, packing their beards and instruments and hitting the Edinburgh Folk Festival, getting themselves onto the Hootenanny compilation recorded at the festival in the process. On hearing them, the head of Transatlantic Records was impressed enough to sign them to his label, allowing them to record and release their eponymous first album and a single, The Rocky Road to Dublin.
Luke Kelly took a sabbatical from the band at around this point, continuing his previous solo career in England. Singer and guitarist Bob Lynch stepped in as replacement, and fiddler John Sheahan drifted in (and never drifted out), becoming an integral part of the Dubliners sound to this day. Luke Kelly soon returned to the fold as Bob Lynch moved on, leaving the Dubliners with their most famous lineup, about whom comedian and banjo-playing beardy-man Billy Connolly said:
I first came across the Dubliners in Glasgow City Hall in the sixties. I sat mesmerised in the stalls being completely blown away. I had never seen such a collection of hairy people in my life. I had never seen such energy like Luke Kelly. I had never heard a voice as extraordinary as Ronnie Drew's. I had never heard banjo-playing as amazing as Barney McKenna's. Ciaran Bourke looked like the gypsy from one of his own songs who was quite likely to run off with your girlfriend if you didn't keep a close eye on him.
Many Drunken Nights
The Dubliners' big success came in 1967. Popular pirate radio station Radio Caroline put their recording of traditional comic drinking song Seven Drunken Nights on the playlists. Although, as Ronnie Drew is heard to remark on many recordings, 'There are seven verses, but we're only allowed to sing you five of them' (the last two having been banned for being a little bit too saucy for public broadcasting), the song was a big hit, selling 40,000 copies in the first two days of release and reaching number five in the charts. In an era divided between sharply-dressed crooners and psychedelic tie-dyed flower people, a rowdy bunch of scruffy Irishmen belting out a bawdy drinking song had caught the public's attention. This set the stage for the Dubliners' career. A skilled bunch of musicians and singers (all of whom contribute vocals at one time or another, justifying the renaming from The Ronnie Drew Group), the Dubliners are more than capable of tackling heartfelt ballads such as A Parcel of Rogues or The Leaving of Liverpool. However, the band are always at their best, even now as the old statesmen of folk, launching into their huge repertoire of comedic drinking songs such as Seven Drunken Nights, A Pub With No Beer and All For Me Grog, or their vignettes of Ireland in the early 20th Century such as Dr Johnson's Motor Car and The Black Velvet Band. It's surprisingly easy to ignore the unfortunate seemingly pro-IRA slant to many of these songs when you think that the Dubliners pre-date a lot of the organised crime aspect of the IRA.
Between 1961 and today, the number of bands to have formed, made records and then split is almost countless, but although musicians have left, been replaced and returned several times, the Dubliners are still around (albeit singing a few more of their songs sitting down). One testament to the love of the band for their music is their determinedness to battle on against adversity. After suffering a brain haemorrhage in 1974, Ciaran Bourke returned to the band and played on until his death (aged 53) in 1987. Similarly, Luke Kelly returned from a brain tumour to tour with the band from 1982 until his death in 1984. Thankfully, there's always a pool of talented singers and instrumentalists willing to join such a renowned band. Today Sean Cannon, Eamonn Campbell and Paddy Riley complete the Dubliners line-up, still touring the world and drawing the crowds. As anyone who has heard the fantastic 1987 single The Irish Rover with The Pogues will testify, the grey-haired old fellas can still cut it with the young upstarts. Maybe Guinness is good for you after all?