FolkWorld Issue 37 11/2008; Article by Sean Laffey

Here's to You, Ronnie Drew
A Fond Farewell to an Iconic Folk Singer

Our past Irish summer, what little of it we had wasn’t the best on record, invariably wet, often over cast; it was a long way from the blue tinted skies of a John Hind photograph. Back in the 1960’s Hind produced a series of iconic images of Ireland which defined the way we and others saw the country, the pictures were often staged and then sent to be finished in Italy, where vivid

Ronnie Drew

Ronnie Drew @ FolkWorld: FW #19, #23, #35

Icon Video The Auld Triangle, Dirty Old Town, Dublin in the
Rare Old Times
, I'll Tell Me Ma, McAlpine's Fusiliers,
Nora, The Ballad of Ronnie Drew (Late Late Show)

Mediterranean skies were added to give the pictures punch. We all knew of course that Ireland wasn’t as green and as sunny, but we could hope that on our best days it would match this two dimensional ideal.

It was through one set of images that the Aran sweater took hold as a cultural icon, and once it was adopted by the Clancy Brothers no self respecting balladeer would appear without the knitted gansey.

I remark on this process of cultural extension here in this tribute to the late Ronnie Drew, who passed away on the 17th of August after a courageous battle with lung cancer. Drew’s contribution in stark contrast to John Hind’s wasn’t to offer a romanticised Hollywood version of ourselves, but present us as we are, simultaneously insular and expansive, often sacred and profane within a heartbeat. Drew and the Dubliners defined a generation of ballad singers. They were the young guns who had lived through the “emergency”, had seen the economic downturn of the fifties and some, like Luke Kelly and Christy Moore, packed themselves off to Britain to try their hand at the flourishing folk circuit.

Back then, like today, two parallel Irish musical universes seemed to exist, the impromptu pub session with its roots in the London Diaspora (celebrated again this year in the Return to Camden Town Festival), and the more organised, often left-wing Folk Club movement that would bring in exotic artists like Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan, while the relative unknowns such as Moore and Kelly would hustle for guest spots.

When those singers returned home to Ireland, they brought with them a stage craft and a big repertoire of socially relevant songs, many from the industrial balladry of Britain. They sang songs by Dominic Behan and most notably Ewan MacColl that married traditional idioms with biting modernism. McAlpine's Fusiliers, The Tunnel Tigers, England's Motorway, Champion at Keepin' 'Em Rolling, MacColl’s classic 1949 love song to his home Salford, Dirty Old Town, and the poignant line which described so accurately the huddles of young Irish lads waiting for a start on a Monday morning at the top of the hill in Cricklewood: As I went out through Camden Town, up came a Murphy truck.

And what's it to any man whether or no',
Whether I'm easy or whether I'm true,
As I lifted her petticoat easy and slow,
And I rolled up me sleeve for to buckle her shoe.

So as the distance increases behind us, as the shadows lengthen, what kind of narrative can we take from the body of songs that singers like Luke Kelly and Ronnie Drew have left us? Some are historical markers, identifying times and place, but the best have a universal appeal that transcended their time of writing to become human stories for us, for any age, for any people. When the music community knew that time was running out for Ronnie Drew, Bono and a few famous musicians got together to make a single, to celebrate his life while he was still around. It was a warm tribute, perhaps a little too American, perhaps a little over produced, too overdone, but the most honest section came at the end when Shane MacGowan, himself an accomplished song writer (in the same camp as MacColl and Behan) and obvious victim of life’s excesses, sang over the pipes of Eoin Dillon, the chorus from Drew’s Easy and Slow. Not withstanding the Freudian overtones, that final measure puts the whole gambit into perspective. Dubliners German Album A private act of kindness is all we need for the world to work. We live most of our lives in the shadows of our own making and very occasionally those dark passages are lightened by the generosity of others. So thanks Ronnie and Luke and all those musicians who have shared this culture so warmly with us all.

Although he had forged a solo career over the past decade he was forever associated with the Dubliners, when Ronnie Drew passed away in August, his death made the national headlines, his passing became a marker for a golden age of Irish identity, his musical presence, his wit and his “look” was an icon for a generation at home and overseas. For some populist writers when he died the ballad boom came to a halt.

Latterly as I mentioned above he had been championed by the rock and roll elite of Irish music. So much so that in February of 2008 U2, Sinead O' Connor and Christy Moore recorded a tribute to the singer, called The Ballad of Ronnie Drew. The song was more Bruce Springsteen than the Twang Man, more mid-Atlantic than working class Malahide, but it made it’s mark on both Drew and his public, it opened up his back pages to a younger audience and reminded us all of his enormous contribution to the ballad boom. And it was a genuine out-poring of love for the man and his music. I remember seeing posters of a googley eyed Ronnie Drew in the now defunct Hot Press Hall of Fame in Abbey Street Dublin, a venue where the images of the folkies of the sixties shared wall space with Phil Linnott and the lads from Skid Row. Back in the 80’s his face was on billboards across the capital urging us all to buy Genuine Irish products, yes nearly thirty years ago he was an Irish institution.

This autumn, some of those surviving rock legends lit a metaphorical torch to Drew’s memory not beside the Liffey, but next to the Hudson in New York, in a country that strangely the Dubliners, whom Drew fronted for many years, never really conquered. The Dubliners worked and are still working the European circuit and indeed Drew himself had spent time in Spain. He once told me his Iberian jaunt left him competent in the language and he had a “bit of Flamenco guitar” but he added “I was never much good at it.” Luckily for the Irish Diaspora he excelled in the folk songs of his native Dublin, The Dubliners and as such, even though his live appearances State-side were few and far between, he was cherished by the Irish community and appropriately honoured there too. Posthumously handed the Spirit of Ireland Award by the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan in October, it was Bono who collected the accolade on the late singer’s behalf.

Ronnie had been around a long time, I came across him 44 years ago and I was sick when I first heard Ronnie Drew. It must have been in 1964 and I was off school with some sort of glandular problem, maybe it was measels, whatever it was I was miserable. Stuck on the sofa in the front parlour, it was an age before kids TV and the video recorder hadn’t even been invented, it was reading or the wireless and that was about it to keep a mumping child amused. My Da’ came in to cheer me up, by that stage I’d had enough of Lucozade and he wisely presented me with a vinyl album. That was my first encounter with the Dubliners, up until to then I’d led a more of less sheltered life, the Da had worked it that I spent my first pocket money on a Clancy Brothers EP and he had a collection of John MacCormack and Brenda O’Dowda 78s, so I suppose he was grounding me in the tradition of the comic song. Nothing had prepared me for the Dubs. There I was running a temperature and I got an injection of Ronnie Drew and Luke Kelly, ‘twas pink penicillin to shift all my spots.

It was all down hill from there, I became an obsessive, joined their fan club, I rember bought rare vinyl from Germany on a teenage trip to Dusseldorf and Munster, I hunted through record shops, my companions raised on the Stones, Yes and Deep Purple found thin pickings in those German stores, Ronnie Drew & Eleanor Shanley but I got a copy of Double Dubliners (FMI Germany C 062-93678 Electrola GmbH Koeln 1972), I still have it today, but confess it must be twenty years since it ran around a turntable.

It didn’t stop there for me of course, who buys a folk album just to listen to it? Folk means we can all join in and so that’s what I did in the early 70’s. I must have sung Springhill every morning in the bathroom, OK it was a Luke Kelly song off that album, but there were other songs by Ronnie Drew that made their way into my little shower room concert hall. I can honestly say that the Dubliners songs got me through my first close shave with puberty. Once the beard looked like it might stay around it led to a mandolin and well the rest is my history.

Now I believe I’m not alone in all this. You see as part of the research for this fond remembrance of Ronnie Drew I went back over the Irish Music Magazine photo archive. Time after time I came across record label promo-pics of hirsute folkies. The mode was set by Ronnie Drew and the lads in the Dubliners. The look, the sound, the uncompromising attitude, became as the Germans say the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, a beard was a badge of identity, all you needed to declare yourself a folky was a mop of hair and a chin full of fluff, grab a big dollop of angst and a flat pick and you were set up, which made it patently difficult for any lady to work her way unnoticed into the fold..

Would I have discovered Ronnie Drew myself? I like to think I would. Who couldn’t warm to him, feisty, funny and famously un-cool. The Dubliners were the kind of band you were proud to call Irish, but maybe you wouldn’t want to bring them home to mother. So much hair, so many beards, yet they wore suits, you got an inkling they still went to Mass on Sunday morning albeit with a raging hangover.
Seven Drunken Nights

As I went home on Monday night as drunk as drunk could be
I saw a horse outside the door where my old horse should be
Well, I called me wife and I said to her: Will you kindly tell to me
Who owns that horse outside the door where my old horse should be?

Ah, you're drunk,
You're drunk you silly old fool,
Still you can not see
That's a lovely sow that me mother sent to me
Well, it's many a day I've travelled a hundred miles or more
But a saddle on a sow sure I never saw before

And as I went home on Tuesday night as drunk as drunk could be
I saw a coat behind the door where my old coat should be
Well, I called me wife and I said to her: Will you kindly tell to me
Who owns that coat behind the door where my old coat should be

Ah, you're drunk,
You're drunk you silly old fool,
Still you can not see
That's a woollen blanket that me mother sent to me
Well, it's many a day I've travelled a hundred miles or more
But buttons in a blanket sure I never saw before

And as I went home on Wednesday night as drunk as drunk could be
I saw a pipe up on the chair where my old pipe should be
Well, I called me wife and I said to her: Will you kindly tell to me
Who owns that pipe up on the chair where my old pipe should be

Ah, you're drunk,
You're drunk you silly old fool,
Still you can not see
That's a lovely tin whistle that me mother sent to me
Well, it's many a day I've travelled a hundred miles or more
But tobacco in a tin whistle sure I never saw before

And as I went home on Thursday night as drunk as drunk could be
I saw two boots beneath the bed where my old boots should be
Well, I called me wife and I said to her: Will you kindly tell to me
Who owns them boots beneath the bed where my old boots should be

Ah, you're drunk,
You're drunk you silly old fool,
Still you can not see
They're two lovely Geranium pots me mother sent to me
Well, it's many a day I've travelled a hundred miles or more
But laces in Geranium pots I never saw before

And as I went home on Friday night as drunk as drunk could be
I saw a head upon the bed where my old head should be
Well, I called me wife and I said to her: Will you kindly tell to me
Who owns that head upon the bed where my old head should be

Ah, you're drunk,
You're drunk you silly old fool,
Still you can not see
That's a baby boy that me mother sent to me
Well, it's many a day I've travelled a hundred miles or more
But a baby boy with his whiskers on sure I never saw before
Forget the image it was those voices that made the big impression, Kellys’ stridently clear and Ronnie’s, croaking like a bullfrog in a coal cellar, the light and the dark the perfect balance, as complex as a fresh poured pint of Guinness, that’s what set them apart.

At one stage I picked up a little book of their music, held together by staples and with a green and black cover, it was full of mono photographs, recording an era that we now look back on as special, I think it was from the time the Dubliners made it to the UK’s Top of the Pops. Years later, in 1997, I met Ronnie, at the Antonio Breschi album launch in Celtic Note on Dublin’s Nassau Street. I can’t say we were ever intimate, we didn’t send each other Christmas cards, but we shared a joke or two that afternoon. I gave him the book, he was genuinely amazed. I don’t think he knew it had been produced in the first place.

Forty two years ago in 1967 Ronnie Drew sang lead vocals on Seven Drunken Nights by the Dubliners, it was their first UK hit and helped them on the road to international stardom. No wonder five years later I’d find that album in a German record shop.

However, the song was immediately banned by RTÉ (the national radio station) in Ireland, in those days, having no commercial rivals for the advertising pound the national station was able to take a much more moral tone than today. The song’s fortunes however didn’t sink and a ship of sorts came to its rescue. The Dubliners say they got the original song from Joe Heaney the noted sean-nós singer, but its popularity was in no small measure due to the owner of their record label, Phil Solomon. He not only owned Major Minor Records but was a director of Radio Caroline (the offshore Pirate Radio Station). When RTÉ cut the song, Solomon urged his own DJ’s to play and plug the single, so successful was the strategy that it eventually entered the UK top ten, reaching number seven in 1967.

The Dubliners were invited to broadcast the song on the BBC’s premier pop music show Top of the Pops. The song added to their image as heavy drinking party animals and it helped them make a career out of ribald as well as more serious ballads. It would be twenty years before they appeared on the show again, when they joined the Pogues on the Irish Rover.

The song itself is a humorous tale of a duped, perhaps short sighted, cuckold, based on the Child Ballad “Our Goodman” ( Child # 274) with an earliest reference of 1776 in the Herd collection. In genteel and polite company only the first five verses are sung and as we know our readers to be gentle folk of delicate dispositions, we will as custom permits omit the final two crude and vulgar verses.

For all the rumours of wild boozy nights and shebeen lock-ins, for some who met him casually Ronnie could be famously grumpy, maybe in his later years he was just jaundiced. If the truth be told the music business wasn’t always kind to him. There was the infamous long running legal battle with a record label in the North of Ireland, royalties were a very long time coming and when they did Ronnie had come to the end of the road with the Dubliners, well almost. He was a fantastic and natural host at the IMM Awards ceremony in 2003 and what a night that was, the Dubliners back together for one night only, Ronnie had a presence that transcended the evening and the event.

I recall another time, trying to buy a dinner with him in Tipperary Town. We’d just done an interview in the Royal Hotel (he was touring with Eleanor Shanley and Mike Hanrahan at the time and had given up a few holes of golf to meet up with me). We were stuck in the dead hour between the cafés closing and pubs running their dinner menus, so there was only packets of crisps in the Royal. We went for a walk up the hill past the Charles Kickham Monument with its back to the Galtee Mountains, eventually we found a half trendy bistro and tucked into something vaguely resembling Italian cuisine. For a minute or two over that simple meal he let me into his confidence.
The Ballad Of Ronnie Drew

Here's to the Ronnie, the voice we adore
Like coals from a coal bucket scraping the floor
Sing out his praises in music and malt
And if you're not Irish, that isn't your fault
Raise up our voices like dogs in a pack
Thankful for honest men we never lack
We got 'em by twenties, we got 'em by ones
Them and their daughters and all of their sons

And what's it to any man whether or no'
Whether I'm easy or whether I'm true
As I lifted her petticoat easy and slow
And I tied up me sleeve for to buckle her shoe
Get up and go at it, five until five
When the whistle says beat it we come back alive
He'll sing to the heavens, he's stormy as hell
And wherever he goes, we'll be wishing him well

The dawn and the dust, the wise, the unjust
Kids in gambling games
The unheard, the unseen, the unwashed and the clean
Where the streets all have names
Baggot Street, Leeson Street, right on to Stephens Street
With lovers and loners who can hear all intoners
The goths and the ravers, immigrants and traders
Sing out Ronnie Drew

A life for a life or a hand for a hand
Trust in the music and strike up the band
The more that we sing the less that we fight
Time and again this is proved to be right
Build you a statue on St. Stephen's Green
No fairer monument ere to be seen
The statue of Ronnie Drew holding the hand
Of a girl with her hair in a black velvet band

Here's to you, Ronnie Drew
No stranger to devils or angles to tell
Here's to you, Ronnie Drew
A friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend to you
Ronnie Drew, we love you, yes we do
Here's to you, Ronnie Drew, here's to you

We talked off the record and off the record it will stay, but I saw him as a deep and humble man who understood the frailty of celebrity and the pressures and pretensions that often come with it. I walked away with even more respect for the man and his outlook on life.

I’ll close my fond memory of Ronnie with an email I got from his long time friend Keith Donald, the current chairman of the Irish Music Rights Organisation.

“Ronnie Drew was a legend, a philosopher and a good friend. Other writers will mention his years with the Dubliners, his chart entries and the many other highlights of a successful career; I can only tell you of a strong and positive friendship over many years.

“I was fortunate to know Ciaran Burke and Luke Kelly for many years before these two original Dubliners died. So I knew Ronnie by repute before I met him in the Green Room of the Gaiety Theatre where we were both working. We drank long and often. When I finally achieved sobriety in 1991, Ronnie wasn't long in noticing the difference in me and asked my secret. So pints and shorts and hilarity became, coffees and philosophical chats about drink, drinkers, politics and the world in general.

“I managed his career for a couple of years in the mid-90s and produced his album, Dirty Rotten Shame, with songs by Shane Magowan, Elvis Costello, Bono and Simon Carmody, Mick Hanly and Christy Moore. We had good times doing that and I got to know him better.

“There were aspects to Ronnie that I found amazing. For instance, in his first paid employment in a mens' haberdashery as a teenager, he observed the lowly status and pay of his fellow employees and persuaded the entire workforce to join their relevant union, bringing thanks from all except the employer who was almost bankrupted. He knew no fear when it came to taking a stand and was willing to perform at any charity gig providing that the cause met with his approval. I also have personal knowledge of him doing good by stealth: when a mutual friend fell on hard times, he was invited for coffee and, when they parted company, the friend realised that Ronnie's handshake had transferred a substantial wad of cash. It was the mutual friend who told me that, not Ronnie.

“Ronnie was a man of conviction as well as extraordinary talent, with utter loyalty to Deirdre, Cliodhna, Phelim, his grandchildren and his eclectic circle of friends. He has been an inspiration and I will miss him.”

And so will I, and so will I.

Photo Credits: (1) Ronnie Drew @ Irish Music Awards, NCH Dublin 2003, (2) The Dubliners (by Sean Laffey); (3) The Dubliners, (4) Eleanor Shanley & Ronnie Drew (unknown).

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