In December 1964, when I was fifteen months old, The Dubliners recorded a live album at Cecil Sharp House in London, and at some point in the next few years my parents must have bought it, for it’s the first record I can remember ever hearing. The photograph on the cover was of a huddle of bearded prophets; they reminded me of Moses in a prayer-book a nun in school had shown me, but gruffer, dark-eyed, low-lidded, cool, like seamen come home from some forbidden adventure and sworn to fraternal secrecies. There were other records in the house – Danny Doyle, The Clancy Brothers – but nobody on their covers looked even remotely like a Dubliner. The handsomest of this pantheon was a young man called Ronnie Drew, who came, as did I, from Dun Laoghaire.
The record was pressed on heavy shellac, the material of the era, and it scratched very easily, and was brittle as thin slate, so there was a certain scrupulous caution in how you even touched it, as you eased it out of its wrinkled inner sleeve. The words ‘Major Minor’ were printed on the label. The crow-black disc was beautiful. The stylus buzzed and skipped as it nuzzled into its groove and those extraordinary sounds rose up once again through the crackle and rustle of the past.
The growling passion of Luke Kelly. The audience cheering wildly. Bottles clinking on glasses. A spangling, plunking banjo. And the oceanic thunder of Ronnie Drew’s voice, which would literally rumble the speakers if you turned it up loud. You’d feel it coursing through your body, up your spine like a drug, or like something more elemental -- like weather. It was dangerous, dark, exciting, beautiful, a sound once heard never forgotten. Yeats writes of the Wild Geese that they were ‘the names that stilled your childish play.’ But what stilled my own play was that voice of Ronnie Drew, so etched into my memory that I don’t even have to put on one of his recordings to hear it. None of us do. It’s always there.
Oh thunder and lightin’, it’s no lark,
When Dublin city is in the dark,
So if you’ve any money, go up to the park,
To view the zoological gardens.
I had heard traditional music before; everyone in Ireland had, but it was often twee and sanitized in the early 1970s, cleansed of its power, made more hummable, certainly, and easier to listen to, and in no way at all unpleasant. But this was Irish song with dirt under its fingernails, as spellbinding as American gospel, as heart-rending as Puccini, as wild as the sea-spray on a Connemara cliff, as wrenching as a Kilburn hangover. These songs were our Chaucerian saga, our deck of tarot cards, our Odyssey, our blues, our soul music, our secret scripture. And in the voice of Ronnie Drew, so different from Luke Kelly’s righteously intense artistry, they found their Muddy Waters.
..If you pride your life, don’t join, by Christ,
With McAlpine’s Fusiliers…
How many times did I listen to that anthem of the Irish navvies who had gone away to England to support their families? Hundreds, maybe thousands. I knew its every phrase. You could almost see the beads of sweat on the singer’s brow, and the snarling nonchalance of that spat-out ‘by Christ’ was hundred per cent punk-rock before anyone had ever heard of it. This was music that meant something, more demonic than diddly-eye, full of discords, clashes, raw power, high emotion, electric with the force of its own searing honesty, performed with masterful self-belief. There was no cleaned-up mix; you got the botched chords, the mistakes, the roars of the audience, the repartee of the band. You could almost smell the beer, the loneliness, the joy, the grime of the Archway boarding house. You took it as you found it or you didn’t take it at all, and you felt it would be all the same to The Dubliners either way. It wasn’t the sound-track to a Bord Failte commercial; it was the music of the real place we lived in then, with its evasions, compromised options and terrible beauties. And nobody sang it like Ronnie. There was only one Luke Kelly, a Caruso of his craft, a maestro we will never see again; Ronnie’s genius was different, crackling with subtlety as well as muscle, alive to every phrasing and silence in a song, and together they fronted the kind of band that mattered, and will always matter to lovers of real music. Luke’s voice could lash you like a whip-crack when he wanted it to do that, but Ronnie’s gravely rasp seemed to come from someplace under the sea, a sound, as one critic put it, ‘like someone crunching coal beneath a boot.’ To listen to his recording of Brendan Behan’s ‘The Auld Triangle’ is to realise that a song can scorch its way into you and never quite leave you again. I knew by the time I became a teenager, full of adolescent certainties, that if you didn’t like The Dubliners, there was very little hope for you. And if you didn’t like the singing of Ronnie Drew, you were not to be trusted at all. You were nuthin but a hound-dog, as Elvis would have put it, and you couldn’t be no friend of mine. Stupid opinions, yes; the grandiosities of a kid. But as a middle-aged man, I’m not so sure I was wrong. The child is father to the man.
Quit yer throwin’ the whiskey around like blazes.
Be the thunderin Jaysus, do yeh think I’m dead?
He somehow entered a song and made it completely his own. He walked around in it, pointing out its beauty, its rage or its grief, never forgetting that it also had sweetness too, and that no art can move us quite like music. If the song was funny or risqué, as certain old Dublin songs are, you’d laugh out loud when he sang it. If it was sad you’d feel the painful smoulder of its truth, and it burned in you long and low. He inhabited his craft, as the greatest interpreters of a song always do; really he was inseparable from his music. The power of the voice reminded you that he’d named his band after the greatest collection of short stories in the English language, whose author, James Joyce, had loved song so ardently. A song sung by Ronnie Drew could somehow become a compression of the world, a miniature with the force of a novel.
Dubliners loved him. Everybody did. His grace, his knowledge, his passionate interest in literature and the theatre represented some of the best values of the country he sang about, and while other Irish traditional musicians ventured down sectarian paths, Ronnie and The Dubliners never did. Long, long before Ireland became a more peaceful place, they were singing the ballads of the Orange tradition, side by side with the songs of drink, work and love for which they will be always remembered. He was no unthinking tribalist, no flag-waver for causes. He let the songs do the talking, if there was talking to be done, and he trusted you to listen to whatever it was they said. You didn’t want to listen? More luck. No problem. He’d keep on singing them anyway.
No narrow artistic purist, he often worked with the younger musicians who idolised him, from bluesman Rory Gallagher, who in many ways he resembled, to the great Shane McGowan on whom he had been an immense influence. He had enough faith in his art to know it could survive new ideas, indeed that it needed them to stay meaningful. He was never an islander, in any sense of the word. He realised that a song can be an axe to the frozen sea around us, if wielded with the extraordinary skill he possessed. Such a gift comes from God, or providence, or fate. Knowing what to do with it comes from intelligence and compassion, and Ronnie Drew had both, in great measure.
Two last memories, both personal, and I treasure them now. One day when I was aged about eight, my parents and I were walking through the old Dandelion Market in Dublin, which was then located just off Leeson Street. Suddenly there was the kind of commotion that only flurries through a crowd when a hero of some kind has been spotted. I remember people’s excitement; their whispers, their pointing, as he moved among the stalls, I think with his wife, although I may be misremembering that. But I do not misremember what happened next. My father saw him coming and held out his hand, and it was accepted and words were exchanged. They nattered for a minute or two about this and that, and then Ronnie Drew looked down and noticed me. On Easter Island, in the Pacific, there are ancient stone statues of gods, which have watched the waves sternly since time immemorial and looking up at the face of Ronnie Drew that Sunday morning was like gazing into the puss of one of those. There was a sort of fierceness to his handsomeness and when he reached down to tousle my hair I was enthralled and petrified in equal measure. ‘How’s me buck?’ he asked quietly. I was suddenly meeting Santa Claus. In my memory, his was the first adult hand I ever shook, and if that isn’t true, it has become true to me now, so powerfully memorable an experience it was.
Many years later, on the second of the only two occasions when I ever met him, I told him about that morning in Dublin and how much it had thrilled me. I remember him laughing ‘Go’way.’ It was in 1997 and his son, the gifted actor Phelim Drew, was appearing in a play of mine at the Gate Theatre. Ronnie attended the opening night party, which was a lot of fun. There was an enormous crowd milling around the bar that night but only one of them caused people to behave with quite so much love. He was surrounded, asked for autographs, offered drinks, practically mobbed, and through all of it behaved with an extraordinary grace and modesty, his beautiful eyes twinkling as he shook people’s hands and heard their stories of what his music had meant to them. ‘That’s gas,’ he’d say gently. Or ‘Thanks for telling me that.’ In his sharp-cut pinstripe suit, he looked like a prince, a bearded ambassador for the Republic of Song. He posed for people’s cameras with a kind of self-mocking solemnity, stiffly upright, an old soldier come home. His utter pride in Phelim was obvious, as how would it not be? It was touching, to see him so proud.
Late that night, I remember introducing Ronnie to my father-in-law, John Casey, a beautiful man who passed away last year at the age of 82. John was from Loughlynn, a tiny town in County Roscommon. He had emigrated to London in the 1950s, worked all his life in the building trade, got married over there, been father to three English children. Of all the memories I have of him, my recollection of him meeting Ronnie Drew is one of the most achingly sweet. John had served his long days in McAlpine’s Fusiliers, and to shake the hand of the hero who had remembered them in song touched him in a way that almost moved him to tears. ‘Thanks for everything, Ronnie,’ he said. ‘Ah, no problem,’ Ronnie replied. And the two of them stood in that noisy, crowded bar, clapping each other on the shoulder, laughing. It was as though they were old buddies who hadn’t seen one another in a while rather than two men who had only just met. There were tears in my own eyes watching them, and I’ll admit to a tear or two now. For that was Ronnie Drew, a gentleman, a Dubliner, and to have even so fleetingly been in the glow of his presence was an honour I will never forget. His voice is on the stereo now, as I write these words, and of course the song he’s singing is not tragic or sentimental but one of the dirty Dublin ballads of the independent republic of The Liberties, where my own father was born and reared.
The queen she came teh call on us,
She wanted teh see all of us,
I’m glad she didn’t fall on us,
She’s eighteen stone!
“Mercy me, Lord Mayor” says she.
“Is this all yeh have to show to me?”
“Why no Mam, there’s much more to see --
Póg mo thón”
Perhaps that is how he would want to be remembered, with a grin, a wink, a smile at his native city, its follies, its foibles and its laughter at the expense of the pompous who mistakenly believe in their own power. If so, I write out the words, and I wish they were more prayerful. But they are what they are. So was he.