Few people ever had such an impact on Irish life and culture as Luke Kelly. Now, some thirty years since his death, his legend lives on and continues to evolve. The true brilliance of an artist can often be defined by their longevity. Luke Kelly's voice has stood the test of time. His popularity remains undimmed amongst all generations, his unique sound remains unparalleled. Luke Kelly sang the definitive version of such classics as 'Raglan Road', 'Dublin in the Rare Old Times', and 'Scorn not his Simplicity'. Many artists, some great themselves, have covered those tracks since Luke's death, but no version has ever even entered the same stratosphere as his. Luke Kelly sang those songs with an authority that cannot be matched. The absolute clarity of each word allowed all who listened the opportunity to delve deep into an Ireland lost somewhere in time. When Luke Kelly sang, he painted a picture in the mind of all who listened. No matter where in the world you stood, Ireland's streets and people were as vivid as if you'd never left. Luke Kelly's voice had that power. He was more than just a singer, so much more.
"Raised on songs and stories, heroes of renown, the passing tales and glories that once was Dublin town". Luke Kelly was born in November 1940, and lived his early years within the working class confines of Dublin's inner city. It was during those early years that Luke developed his passion and understanding of the working man. His subsequent development as a singer became closely intertwined with his politics. Throughout his life, Luke was an advocate for the disadvantaged. An advocate for those who were so often forgotten by the increasingly metropolitan reincarnation of his hometown. Every word that Luke sang was for those forgotten generations. For those, who were left behind by an increasingly modern Ireland. Luke Kelly's voice became a beacon of hope for the working-class Irishman. He sang with a passion and commitment that drew the people to him. There was no doubt in his delivery, every word connected with his people on a level that can only be described as 'biblical.' Luke Kelly was for the people, by the people. He was one of their own, and they loved him for it.
Dublin in the early 1960's became the epicentre of a cultural revival in Ireland. Packed folk music sessions could be heard from the doors of every pub in Dublin. Luke often frequented O'Donoghoue's bar, and it was there he took part in an event that changed the course of Irish music forever. The formation of 'The Dubliners' was the result of that magic. The group would go on to become one of Ireland's premier bands of all time. With Luke on lead vocals, ably supported by the likes of Ronnie Drew, Ciaran Bourke, John Sheehan and Barnie Mckenna, the band would achieve success beyond their wildest dreams. A generation of timeless hits followed. Songs such as 'The Black Velvet Band', 'Seven Drunken Nights' and 'Dirty Old Town' to mention but a few. The Dubliner's became the symbol of a new Ireland. One that was evolving, but without forgetting the traditions that built it. Despite their success, things weren't always rosy in the garden. Luke grew restless in Dublin and yearned for new experiences. He left the band for a number of years, travelling to London with his then partner, but eventually returned to resume his role as the voice of Ireland's greatest band.
The Dubliner's popularity spread far beyond Ireland's shores. During the ten years that followed, they travelled all across Europe on sell-out tours. The uniqueness of their sound drew masses from all over, wherever they went. Stories of their drinking sessions quickly became legend. Wherever Luke and the Dubliner's were, one could be sure that a pint of Guinness or a drop of whiskey wasn't far behind. It was a hectic lifestyle and it eventually took its toll on the bands members, especially Luke. During the 1970's Luke Kelly's health began to deteriorate. He suffered from a variety of problems such as severe migraines and forgetfulness prior to his final diagnosis with a brain tumour. Luke openly spoke about his issues with alcohol during those years, and how it affected him for better and worse. Many of his ailments were put down to his lifestyle rather than the more sinister reality which was soon uncovered.
When performing live at Corks famed 'Opera House' in June 1980 Luke collapsed on stage, and was rushed to Cork University Hospital. He underwent life saving emergency surgery. Following a period of recovery he returned to performing with his beloved Dubliner's. Although he survived, Luke never quite returned to the person he once was. He was more withdrawn, and preferred the solitude of his home than performing for the masses. Luke did tour with the band in once more in 1983, but was forced once again to leave the stage due to his ill-health. Another operation followed, but it became clear that Luke had little time left. He returned to hospital in January 1984 for the last time. Luke Kelly was pronounced dead on January 30th 1984. Luke Kelly was taken from us far too soon. He had so much more to give, but despite his short life, Luke's legacy was unshakeable. His voice will never be forgotten, and will remain in the hearts of all who love Irish-folk music for as long as time exists.
Two statues of Luke were unveiled in Dublin in January 2019, to mark the 35th anniversary of his death. One, a life-size seated bronze by John Coll, on South King Street. The second sculpture, a marble portrait head by Vera Klute, is on Sherriff Street. His life was short but his contribution enormous. Luke Kelly's funeral drew thousands onto the streets of Dublin. He sang for the people, and they turned in their droves to pay their final respects. Luke Kelly went to his final resting place in Glasnevin Cemetery, loved by all. A hero of renown, who never forgot where he came from. His gravestone bears the simple inscription, Luke Kelly, Dubliner. Rarely can so few words explain so much...
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