Friday 20 October 2023


 I had seen him at a number of gigs in The Bronx. He always sat at the bar, up by the stage, where he could take in everything, but not necessarily be associated with us.

I was playing with Turner & Kirwan of Wexford back then, it must have been the late 1970’s.

We had a regular Sunday afternoon gig at the Archway, courtesy of Manager Sean Lynch, where we could cut loose and play lengthy tracks like Traveling People and Father Reilly Says Goodbye from our album Absolutely and Completely.

We drew our own crowd to those gigs. But this was different. We were playing a midweek night, filling in for Dermie Mac, Gerry Finlay, or one of the other accomplished showband-like groups that the Archway clientele longed for.

To be blunt, we weren’t cutting it. The crowd that remained after enduring a couple of our sets had long stopped dancing.

It wasn’t that we didn’t try, we gave it our best - three jives, three slows, with some old time waltzes tossed in - but our hearts weren’t in it.  

We’d crossed over to the dark side - playing all original music down in the Village. Besides Alison Steele on WNEW-FM was raving about us, and wondering what part of heaven we’d dropped down from?

Still, there was only one set to go when I sat down next to the guy who had been eyeing us.

He ordered a Heineken and Jameson’s and shoved them in my direction.

“I bought your album last week and must have played it 10 times by now.” He stated, without the least enthusiasm.

I stole a look at him to make sure he wasn’t a total lunatic. He seemed harmless enough, so I shrugged as if such praise was common.

“Yez have got a lot better,” he added. “Jaysus, yez were fierce bad at first.”

Such observations are hard to put a spin on, so I held my peace and took a slug of the Heineken. Late sets could be dispiriting, so I saved the Jameson’s for fortification.

“How long are you over here now, about seven years, right?”

He had hit the nail on the head, but after his earlier “fierce bad” remark, I didn’t want to give him any satisfaction.

“You know that means you’re never going back,” he took a sip from his Budweiser.

“How so?” He had piqued my interest.

“No one goes back after seven years, unless you have a young wan waiting for you. And that’s hardly the case, is it?”

When I didn’t answer he looked me in the face for the first time and nodded. “You and me are the exact same.”

To my mind we had sweet damn all in common, but he barged ahead. “You and me are neither here nor there. We don’t fit in here and we’ll never fit in at home again.”

At that point Pierce Turner coughed into his microphone to signal that our third set was about to begin.

“I’ll remember that,” I called back to him as I mounted the stage, taking care not to spill the Jameson’s.

“I know you will.” He said. And he was right.

I never saw him again, but I can summon him up at will, though The Archway and Turner & Kirwan of Wexford have long gone.

He was talking about the emigrant’s curse. After 7 years you’ve replaced Manchester United with the Mets. It’s not that you don’t still support the red devils, it’s just that you don’t know the new players, and unless you’re a fanatic you don’t go down the pub early on weekend mornings to get soused and watch the games.

Meanwhile, the “young wan” you left behind has married someone else. And you’ve been talking to your American girlfriend about saving for a house and a family.

Oh, you still cause a great commotion when you do go home, but you don’t go for Christmas anymore; besides, there comes that day when both parents have passed on, and the house or farm has been sold.

You’ve settled down, made all the right decisions and, for the most part, you’re contented with life; but you notice that you often slip beyond the thread of friendly conversation to that solitary place where you are indeed - neither here nor there.

Wednesday 4 October 2023


 In a recent Irish poll, Luke Kelly was voted “the best representative of Irish heritage.” 

What a distinction for this son of inner city Dublin who left school at 13, and eventually took the emigrant boat to England in the dismal 1950’s.

But then Luke, by his early 20’s, was a local legend long before he gained fame internationally as singer/banjoist with The Dubliners.

I had the good fortune to come under his influence early on. As a callow youth, I came second in a talent competition held during the Wexford Opera Festival. The Dubliners were playing a week’s residency at the same venue, so I got to watch them nightly from side stage.

Luke and Ronnie Drew shared lead vocals during these stunning gigs. Every act that visited Wexford in those days “performed.” The Dubliners, instead, straggled onstage and captivated the audience with their songs and naked charisma. They left an indelible mark on the town.

In 1967 the Fleadh Cheoil was held in nearby Enniscorthy. On the closing Sunday evening thousands gathered in the old Town Square.

Traditional heads were hammering out jigs and reels to beat the band when a hush descended on the square as whispered word was passed around that Luke Kelly was about to sing. There was a silent surge forward and some sturdy GAA men took it upon themselves to act as stewards.

From out of nowhere Luke appeared, his head of red curls flashing in the sunset. He carefully removed his banjo from its case, and a bottle of Baby Powers from his back pocket. Then he was hoisted up on the roof of a car and stood there swaying until he gained his balance.

He took a healthy swig of the whiskey and passed the bottle down to a friend with a nod and a wink.

Some idiot broke the silence and was immediately shushed by a multitude of angry listeners. Luke didn’t even seem to notice. Then he began to sing to the accompaniment of his banjo, and his voice ricocheted across the sacred square where Pikemen had routed the English 169 years previously.

His first song was The Leaving of Liverpool. But when the chorus arrived, no one joined him on “So fare thee well, my own true love, and when I return united we will be…”

We had no wish to hear ourselves; we wanted to drink in this redheaded seanchaĆ­who had packed so much living into his 27 years.

He seemed surprised but seized the moment and sang another half-dozen songs, one as revealing as the other. On that evening he was the working class hero that John Lennon longed all his life to be.

What was so striking about Luke? Well, he was the man for that moment in the “summer of love.” The gangly Dublin kid who had endured the hard knocks of class-conscious Catholic Ireland came into his own in the heathen pubs and folk clubs of Northern England.

He came under the influence of proletarian intellectuals like Ewan McColl and Dominic Behan. They raised his political consciousness and taught him how to sing songs without frills or adornment, songs with a message that would soon pierce the hearts of a generation.

For Luke had that rare gift that I’ve only experienced from two other performers, Bob Marley and Bruce Springsteen – no matter the size of his audience, he was singing to just you alone.

The Dubliners were a groundbreaking band. They liberated their audiences by sweeping away the vestiges of British colonialism and Irish conservatism in a wave of innovation, braggadocio, and musicality.

As time went on, however, the moments of silence became rarer and Luke seemed to retreat into himself. He’d no sooner begin one of his gems than the crowd would join him in full throat. There were times he appeared disconnected, almost disinterested.

Booze, late nights, and constant travel wear everyone down unless there’s something to look forward to. His health suffered and eventually collapsed. He was only 43 when Dublin came to a standstill for his funeral.

His music lives on though, his clear rugged voice still cuts through speakers and AirPods, and I’ll never forget that evening in Enniscorthy Town Square when he silenced every whisper and set the heather blazing.