How shocking it was to hear this afternoon that Ronnie Drew is gone at last at the brave age of seventy-three, a little over a year since the passing of Tommy Makem. We knew that he was ill, but there’s an awful finality about death, a never no more that brooks no argument.
Ronnie Drew has been a public figure in Ireland for over forty years. That’s a long time. Is it possible that every generation has their own Ronnie Drew? In the recent documentary September Song, made by his son Phelim, Ronnie Drew was surprisingly dismissive of his legacy, even the notion of him having a legacy in the first place. “I never did anything much,” he kept saying during that lonesome film.
A generation may now know him only as the feature of that recent travesty, the wretched and depressing Ballad of Ronnie Drew – what other evidence have they? The Dubliners got very old in the past decade, and Ronnie Drew no longer toured with them. Their last recording of significance had Paddy Reilly replacing Ronnie Drew as the band’s frontman. To fully understand Ronnie Drew and his role in Irish life, if there is such a thing as Irish life, it’s necessary to excavate further.
Ronnie Drew and the Dubliners came into the consciousness of my generation – children of the 1970s – when they appeared on the Late Late Show tribute to the Dubliners in 1987, twenty-one years ago. Ronnie Drew and the Dubliners themselves were initially apprehensive about the program, not least as it was made only three years after the death of Luke Kelly, the Dubliners’ greatest talent. In Luke’s absence, Ronnie Drew became the personification of the band, their grit and attitude, and they enjoyed a return to the bigtime when they returned to Top of the Pops, twenty years after their first appearance, to guest with the Pogues on their version of The Irish Rover.
The Pogues saw The Dubliners as their trailblazing forebears, in terms of singing and drinking. It’s hard to say if the Dubliners themselves ever really knew what to make of the Pogues; they certainly didn’t see themselves as handing on any torches to Shane McGowan et al.
Ronnie Drew was unconcerned with his legacy; he seems a man that just didn’t want to go back working for the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. The Dubliners were one of the acts in the Phoenix Park welcoming back the Irish soccer team after either the 1990 or 1994 World Cup. After a song, Ronnie Drew quipped that the crowd were to tell their Mammies and Daddies that The Dubliners would be playing in the National Stadium later in the week. Whereas the crowd should have answered in one voice “no, Ronnie – we’re here to see you, and to inherit and gladly accept the birthright that you’re passing on to us.” But they didn’t, of course. They never do.
Come West Along the Road, RTÉ’s magnificent and essential archive program about Irish traditional music, featured The Bothy Band last Friday, and presenter Nicholas Carolan remarked that some acts are so revolutionary that it’s hard to recognise just how revolutionary they are, as the revolution has become the accepted norm. If that was true of the Bothys, how much truer is it now of The Dubliners?
When we think of Irish traditional music, we think of ballad groups. But prior to The Dubliners, there were no ballad groups. There was John McCormack, Ruby Murray and the Batchelors, and that was it. Music was being played and sung as it has been for generations in Clare and Corca Duibhne and places like that, but nationally, it didn’t exist. It took the international folk boom of the sixties, and the success of the Clancys and Tommy Makem in America, to legitimise Irish music to the Irish nation, and the blessing is that it happened at just the right time.
A confluence of talents – Seán Ó Riada, the Clancys and Tommy Makem, The Dubliners, Donal Lunny, Christy Moore and others were all in the right place at the right time to breathe new life into the old forms, and to save the music just as surely as the language is lost. Irish singing was always done solo – to sing to accompaniment of guitar, banjo and fiddle was no less revolutionary in the staid sixties that the Pogues’ London punk infusion of twenty years later.
How revolutionary were the Dubliners? Ronnie Drew always said that America didn’t know what to make of them – the suits suggested they weren’t weirdoes, but the beards man, the beards! Had the G-Men heard that, a few weeks after Nelson’s Pillar was blown up by the IRA to commemorate the Rising in 1966, The Dubliners brought the Admiral’s head on stage with them at the Olympia, they might have needed more than suits to get the band their US visas.
In a national context, before Ronnie Drew formed The Dubliners, there was nothing. Ciarán Mac Mahuna said he’d meet fiddlers down the country who used to hide their instruments, and he had to coax them to play. Ronnie Drew and The Dubliners destroyed that stigma forever, and this is why he and Luke and Ciarán are together again now in that little piece of paradise that is reserved solely for heroes of the Gael.
I don’t know what plans RTÉ have to commemorate Ronnie Drew’s passing; I just hope the national broadcaster doesn’t let the nation down. Just repeating September Song would be bitterly disappointing. A repeat of the Late Late Show Tribute to the Dubliners would be more in keeping the momentous nature of Ronnie Drew’s passing – the show had an air of “beloved entertainer” about it which was one of Gay Byrne’s few weaknesses, but the performances remain outstanding and vivid in the memory.
What would be really wonderful, however, and what would perhaps go furthest to clearing away the cobwebs and showing just how revolutionary the Ronnie Drew Folk Group and The Dubliners were, would be a broadcast of O’Donaghue’s Opera, insofar as it can be broadcast.
O’Donoghue’s Bar on Merrion Row, D2, was the seedbed of the Irish traditional and folk revival in Dublin in the 1960s, and a short film was set there based on the ballad “The Night Before Larry Was Stretched.” The short highlights that exist on You Tube are startling and remarkable forty years on, and feature a young Ronnie Drew – how raven black is his beard! – as the eponymous Larry. Reader, imagine what it was like to be in the midst of it at the time, and there, at last, we'll have found the true Ronnie Drew.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh anam uasal Ronnie Drew, laoch mór an cheoil, agus go tseinne sé ceol binn bríomhar na nGael go sioraí lena gcomráidithe Luke agus Ciarán, atá imithe roimhe agus atá buailte go léír le cheile arís i bhFlaithis.
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