Ronnie Drew: Lead singer of the Dubliners

Monday 18 August 2008 00:00

With his huge bushy beard, trademark gravelly voice and a gift for stripping a song down to its soul, Ronnie Drew was one of Ireland's musical heroes. He was a founder member of the folk group the Dubliners, whose charismatic stage presence and penchant for raw, bar-room ballads and roaring chorus songs helped them achieve unprecendented international success over four decades. Drew was the group's incorrigible front man and he came to define the archetypal image of the raffish, hard-drinking, carousing Irishman of popular myth.

Yet, while he was central to many legendary drinking stories during the the Dubliners' heyday in the Sixties and Seventies and could certainly be irascible, Drew was a far cry from his popular public image – he was a sensitive, deeply intelligent, devoted family man, with a dry humour and an abiding interest in literature, theatre, poetry, world affairs and local politics. He was also actively involved in various campaigns promoting Dublin, notably its Dart (Dublin Area Rapid Transport) train system.

The son of a carpenter, Drew was born in the port town of Dú*Laoghaire, but due to overcrowding in the family's council house, he spent most of his childhood living with his grandparents nearby. He showed little academic aptitude and his schooldays were miserable. His early working life was no more promising with a series of short-lived jobs, among them cleaning railway carriages, washing dishes, working in a tailor's shop and as a builder's electrician. In 1955 he made his first visit to London, working for a spell as a lift boy in a hotel before returning to Ireland to take a job working night shifts as a telephone operator, a period when he started reading seriously for the first time.

With friends, he then moved to Spain, spending three years teaching English in Seville and learning to play Spanish guitar. A natural entertainer, he was back in Dublin one summer telling stories at a party when a friend, John Molloy, an actor working at the Gate Theatre in the city, suggested Drew perform a spot at one of the shows there.

At the Gate he met the banjo player Barney McKenna, who joined him on stage, while Drew's interest in Irish folk music was further sparked by seeing colourful folk singers like Margaret Barry and Dominic Behan. He grew a beard – originally to cover warts on his face, but when he started hearing requests for "the feller with the beard" he knew he couldn't shave it off.

Drew met and struck up a friendship with another singer, guitarist and banjo player, Luke Kelly, and they'd go drinking together at O'Donoghue's pub with Barney McKenna. There they also met Ciaran Bourke, a singer and tin whistle player, and at a time when it was rare to hear live music in pubs, they started swapping songs and got special dispensation from the landlord, Paddy O'Donoghue, to play together in his pub. The fiddle player John Sheehan was another regular, and was later inducted into the group.

John Molloy devised a show at the Gate based around their music, A Ballad Tour of Ireland, and the band were subsequently offered paying work, initially billing themselves as the Ronnie Drew Group. When Luke Kelly returned to Ireland in 1962 after a foray in England, they changed their name to the Dubliners at Drew's suggestion, in honour of the James Joyce book Kelly was reading at the time.

Despite the records of the McPeake family from Belfast and the American success of the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, this was a time when traditional Irish music was perceived to be moulded by polite parlour-room styles. With their bawdy material, barn-storming delivery and rough accents, the Dubliners changed all that, building their reputation as a raucous good-time band, having fun on stage and partying hard off it.

Drew, however, had an important stabilising influence in his life after meeting Deirdre McCartan, the daughter of an Irish politician. They were married in 1963, and remained a solid partnership until Deirdre's death in 2007.

The Dubliners recorded their début album at Cecil Sharp House in London in 1963, but their big break came four years later when their slightly risqué version of "Seven Drunken Nights" – learned from the Connemara sean nós singer Joe Heaney –suddenly crashed into the UK charts after constant airplay by the pirate station Radio Caroline. Yet it failed to chart in Ireland, where it was banned for being too suggestive (though Heaney's Irish language version had been played without comment) and even a direct appeal by the group to the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, failed to rescind the ban. Another hit that year, "Black Velvet Band", confirmed the Dubliners' crossover breakthrough and they began to tour all over the world, their sound instantly identified by Drew's extraordinary, endearingly coarse voice.

The frantic lifestyle took its toll. Cairan Bourke suffered a debilitating brain haemorrhage on stage in 1974 and Luke Kelly collapsed on stage with a brain tumour in 1980. To some degree the Dubliners fell out of fashion as their staple material like "Wild Rover", "McAlpine's Fusiliers" and "Whiskey in the Jar" began to sound dated and they were superseded by younger bands like Planxty, Bothy Band and Moving Hearts, with their more modern approach to Irish music. "We had a party which started in 1962 and ended around 1970," said Drew, who left the group in 1974 and made two solo albums before rejoining in 1979.

The emergence of the Pogues, taking clear inspiration from the Dubs' direct style, triggered a revival of their fortunes, which gained momentum when the two bands collaborated on the hit single "Irish Rover" in 1987 and Drew's rowdy singing and rampant humour won over a new generation of fans.

In 1995, exhausted by the schedule and musically bored, he quit the Dubliners again, touring with a one-man show, and released the solo album Dirty Rotten Shame. Now living on the Co Wicklow coast at Greystones, south of Dublin, he led a quieter lifestyle (and in later years was teetotal), but collaborated on two albums with the ex-De Dannan singer Eleanor Shanley and also worked with Mike Hanrahan and Jah Wobble. He made occasional TV appearances, performing songs that displayed a deeper side to him.

In 2006 Drew was diagnosed with throat and lung cancer and subsequently lost his distinctive shaggy hair, but he remained positive. Earlier this year many of the artists who had taken inspiration from him – U2, Sinead O'Connor, The Corrs, Chieftains, Damien Dempsey, Shane MacGowan, Christy Moore – released a tribute single, "The Ballad of Ronnie Drew", with proceeds to the Irish Cancer Society. It topped the Irish charts and a frail-looking Drew gave an emotional interview thanking them when they performed it on RTE's Late Late Show in February. "Illness can make you happy in a strange way," he said, "because it makes you realise people are there for you".

Colin Irwin

Ronnie Drew, singer and guitarist: born Dú*Laoghaire, Ireland 16 September 1934; married 1963 Deirdre McCartan (died 2007; one son, one daughter); died Dublin 16 August 2008.

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