28 October 2012

Dublin 3


I was spellbound.  His head was tilted back like a sword swallower’s, and from his throat issued the sound of steel, a blade of pure sound, not sharp, perhaps, nor shiny, but fashioned and worn and used and honed and hefted and crafted and wielded and powerful and strong.  His hair, curls and frizzes of coppery coils, shook back down his neck, darker against the thin shine of the spotlight.

In the gutted Georgian building on Lower Mount Street, then “The Ould Triangle” folk club, Luke Kelly was cold fire. No one stirred.  His voice cut the dark, retelling ballads as if they were personal.  In the pauses I could hear my Sweet Afton burning, the crisp crackle of tobacco and paper like a bonfire.  “Oh, come all ye Tramps and Hawkers…..” “ Joe Hill”  and “On Raglan Road…..” [And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day”] and songs I had never heard before, and have not heard since.  He had a great repertoire of folk song, partly following several years in the early sixties in Newcastle, Leeds and Birmingham, and some time with Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in London.  Many of the songs Luke sang dealt with social issues, and his passionate left-wing position was uncharacteristic of the time.

The club was celebrating its second birthday; it was Wednesday, August 16th, 1967 and I was with friends because Jim Trayner, who I’d met in Kinsale, was playing there.  I was introduced to Luke in what might have been the kitchen.  It was late, and the pubs had closed, but pints were still flowing in the club.  He was charm itself, and in no hurry to turn away.  We talked of the Dubliners and their coming tour of the UK, and, with Gerry O’Grady, of Irish music, banjoes and song.  It was 3.30am when we got back to Deirdre’s house and Jim and I sat up until dawn, alight with the spirit of the occasion.

After a night in Phoenix Park, the jumper the colour of "buff coloured puke"

The trip to Kinsale had been accidental; when hitch hiking you accept lifts and advice ad hoc, and having taken the 7.00am ferry from Fishguard to Rosslare, I had exhausted any concrete plans, so when a kind driver recommended the Folk House in Kinsale, that’s where I ended up.  And from there I found myself in company and next thing was I was camping out in the vast ruins of Charles’ Fort, which once dominated the approach to Kinsale harbour. 

Jim Trayner was a housepainter by trade, but a singer and guitarist by inclination.  On the battlements over the sea he taught me to play Tom Paxton’s “Last thing on my mind,” one of the few songs I still know by heart.  Also there was Joanna O’Dwyer, a Dublin girl with skin like the collar on a pint of stout and hair the colour of butter.  Jo had been taught at school by Ronnie Drew, and told me, I think, that he had been an interpreter for David Lean on location for “Lawrence of Arabia” and had nearly caused a riot by insulting the Arabs.  This may be true, but it would be more likely that Ronnie was in Spain when David Lean shot “Dr Zhivago.”  Anyway, I was taken by her light smile and lively chatter and when we went separate ways I was drawn inexorably back to Dublin, as Bantry, Limerick, Cavan drizzled by in the grey.

I kept a (admittedly sketchy) diary of the trip, and what amazes me now is the ease with which we moved about the city, from Dun Laoghaire (where I stayed with Deirdre and her brother Paddy while their parents were away) to the centre, to the O’Dwyer’s house where mother was untrusting, suspecting me to be much older (insisting on Jo’s little brother being chaperon) to the National and Municipal Art Galleries, to St Stephen’s Green to hang out, to the Guinness Brewery at St James’ Gate, to one of the many Forte’s restaurants on O’Connell Street, to O'Donoghue's in Merrion Row, and so on, and so on.

And people were so friendly, so hospitable.  In my diary I wrote: “Mr and Mrs McMahon v nice people.”  They were indeed, as Paul had taken me back home one night, and his mother fed me and prepared my bed for the night; in the morning, after a full Irish breakfast, his father gave us a lift into town.

And the party we had at Deirdre’s was mad.  Paul turned up with a six pint kettle full of Guinness, and Jim came from a recording studio with a jacket full of miniature bottles of whiskey.  Guitars and songs provided the entertainment.  It was grand.

I saw Joanna once more after that.  By some chance, three years later, we both happened to be at the Spaniard in Old Kinsale.  She was travelling with a boyfriend and on her way, she thought, to the continent.  I was heading to Mayo and my cousins in Westport. So, like ships in the night?  Anyway, a few days later, totally against all plans, our paths crossed once more in the flurry of Grafton Street in Dublin. A chat, a drink, a flash of a smile.  And then nothing.  Less ships in the night; more the Lusitania and a torpedo.  She had had a murmur on her heart:  I wonder does it murmur yet?

The Quays, 1970/71, where Phil Lynott got the look

And I never saw Luke Kelly in person again.  The Dubliners toured the world, but Luke collapsed in 1980 with a brain tumour, which finally silenced him in 1984.  He was 44.  Since then the other original Dubliners have died; CiarĂ¡n Bourke in 1988, Ronnie Drew in 2008, and Barney MacKenna on April 5th 2012.  There are still plenty of people in Dublin, but they are not all Dubliners as of yore.

Christy Moore recorded a tribute to Luke Kelly written by Michael O’Caoimh, which refers to the “power and passion” of his voice, soaring heavenly above.  It ends:

“For memories are all we have
When we think of you today
Your name we’ll always honour, Luke
We’re glad you passed this way.”

Amen to that.

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