This is part of an Irish Times feature by Una Mullally on Luke Kelly, who died 30 years ago today, aged 43. She says the singer’s legacy consists of his own achievements and his influence, which lives on in the intonations of many Irish singing voices. Tonight a tribute concert was held at Vicar Street in Dublin in his memory.

“Having grown up on Sheriff Street in Dublin’s inner city, and having left school in his early teens, Kelly typified the hard working-class musician. It is perhaps fitting that one of his early heroes, Pete Seeger, should die in the week of Kelly’s anniversary. The recordings of Woody Guthrie and his friendship with Seán Mulready would become strong musical touchstones for Kelly on his journey towards becoming one of the most significant figures in 20th-century Irish music”.

Raglan Road…one of my favourites

“An appreciation for traditional music is stirring among a new generation of music fans – many of whom weren’t even born when Kelly died in 1984. This is thanks, in part, to The Gloaming’s ascent. Like The Gloaming, Kelly produced visceral reinterpretations of songs that to many people were historical artefacts, rather than living pieces of musical art. In the process, he inspired and invigorated countless ballad singers. Dissecting what makes an artist as emotionally fine-tuned as Kelly might seem overly clinical, but there was a magic in his voice that many musicians have since tried to tap into”.

John Sheahan, who joined The Dubliners in 1964, has written a sonnet to mark the anniversary. Of Kelly’s talent, he told the Irish Times: “It’s to do with the nature of the way he sang – such passion and commitment – and he was a great interpreter of songs. He took risks in singing and in the manner he phrased songs. He would hold on for that millisecond longer than anyone else would dare to, then catch up on the melody and create a certain tension with the listener. It’s like a high jumper going those extra few millimetres and beating the height. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it works, it’s wonderful. When it fails, you’re grateful they took the chance.”

The article continues:

“Kelly was keenly political, a member of the Communist Party and a fundraiser for Amnesty International. Sheahan points to his generosity as one of his defining characteristics. He remembers an occasion when Kelly’s wife, the actress Deirdre O’Connell, had returned from a furniture auction with a table. By coincidence, Sheahan’s wife had picked up a set of chairs at auction similar to the table, and he joked about the coincidence to Kelly. ‘Before I could say anything, he had the table out the door and strapped to the roof of my car. He had no great commitment to material possessions’.”

When a Belfast family with whom Kelly and The Dubliners were friends were made homeless after being burned out of their house in the late 1960s, Kelly offered them the basement of his home, where they lived for a decade.

Scorn not his simplicity

“His legacy was putting his own stamp on a song such that it became the definitive version of a song for others to come along and emulate,” says Sheahan. “Kelly’s legacy is also the ongoing culture resonance of The Dubliners, who took songs people were familiar with – albeit in a rigid parlour or classroom setting – and reinvented them. Traditional music up until then was sitting down playing jigs and reels. We stood up. Here we are. Take us or leave us. No apologies.”


A fiery halo crowns your lived-in face,
You shine forth like a beacon from the throng,
Among your fellow peers you set the pace,
And soar above the crowd on wings of song.

Committed to the cause of human rights,
You hold aloft the flame of Amnesty,
When striking workers seek you in their plight,
You rally with your songs unstintingly.

A minstrel boy, you charm your way through life,
Enriching all who chance to pass your way,
You shelter wayward spirits from the night,
And raise them up on wings till dawn of day.

Though links with us alas too soon are severed,
Your spirit and your song will soar unfettered.

© John Sheahan January 2014

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