I first saw him at a Fleadh Cheoil in the packed town square of Enniscorthy, the very walls throbbing with music, good fellowship and liquor. As a wild-looking, red-headed man - banjo in fist – climbed to the roof of a car, whispers swept the square, “It’s Luke Kelly.”
For a long moment, he stood still as a statue and stared out at us. A hush swelled and spread outwards. I was stunned by the power of any man to still that unruly crowd.
And then Luke began to sing Kelly The Boy From Killane and his words ricocheted across the same square that Father Murphy and his Pikemen had stormed through in the rebellion of 1798.
It was one of those moments of revelation, and I knew I’d never be happy if I didn’t at least try to do the same myself some day.
When he finished the last thrilling chorus he laughed heartily at the thunderous applause; with a shrug of his shoulders he took a slug from a bottle handed up to him, then wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
His point made, he continued with The Leaving of Liverpool. This sailors’ work song gave us the freedom to join in and we did with gusto on the choruses – our voices reverberating off the walls until you could almost see the beautiful girl on the banks of the Mersey that we were all leaving behind.
I prefer to think of Luke at that moment – young and in control of his destiny. I suppose it had something to do with the times: there was an air of possibility abroad, a sense that things were changing.
Still, Luke’s vision was rooted in the past, for he had that innate power of the seanchaí to summon back to life a revolutionary spirit that had lain dormant in Enniscorthy for almost 170 years.
He summoned something achingly familiar that had been kept at arm’s length from us - our own sense of Irishness – something fierce and untrammeled that one never heard on the radio, a dissident spirit that did not sit easy in the musty, lace-curtain parlors of that time.
Luke had sensed its presence in Enniscorthy Town Square and harnessed it to further his performance.
There were other occasions when I saw him torn and almost hesitant to get on stage. As the years passed, the venues he performed in with The Dubliners were often very rowdy – people were more interested in hearing their own voices than creating the space and silence he needed to delve into the heart of some lyric and find its truth.
In the course of the night he always silenced them once, or even twice, but in the end what was the point in trying to contain a Niagara of noisy banality fueled by flashfloods of Guinness.
And so, with a shrug of his shoulders, he’d belt into some up-tempo sing-a-long, but you could almost touch a thin shroud of despair that cloaked him no matter how much he beamed.
My other favorite performance of this galvanic talent was at the Television Club on Dublin’s Harcourt Street. Cahir O’Doherty and The Gentry was the featured band.
Now a renowned balladeer in Florida, Cahir had a tremendous soulful voice while The Gentry were very hip and cutting edge.
In the midst of the dancing, Cahir announced that he had a special guest. Everyone assumed it would be some other showband luminary, instead out strode Luke, resplendent in a flower-power shirt and matching turquoise velvet pants.
This caused consternation for Luke was after all a folk-singer and tended to dress in puritanical blue denim.
The shock did not stop there, for he launched into a bluesy, boozy, version of With a Little Help From My Friends replete with Rockette kicks. And, oh my God, was he good – hilarious and having the time of his life.
That was Luke Kelly – troubled and triumphant – a rebel in the soul unafraid to question tradition or himself.
He’s still the man and a whole host of us influenced by him will always be boys in his shadow.