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Ronnie Drew: a rare auld talent

To many of us in the folk audiences of the 1960s, perhaps introduced to the music by Robin Hall and Jimmy McGregor, the Clancy Brothers and the Spinners, the Dubliners were a breath of fresh air.

Salut! Live will never decry the contributions of the slick, TV-friendly bands, duos and singers. They all served their purpose, and did so well.

But to be drawn into the world of the Dubs - Luke Kelly, Ronnie Drew, Barney McKenna, John Sheahan and Ciaran Bourke - was a revelation. By comparison with the cleaner cut artists, here was a gang of rebellious, hard-drinking ruffians who also happened to be capable of producing magical music, from boisterous chorus songs to maudlin ballads and scintillating medleys of jigs and reels. I naturally exclude the abstemious, mild-mannered John Sheahan from that description of thirsty hellraisers.

And in Luke Kelly and Ronnie Drew, they had a sublime balance of vocal power. Close your eyes and imagine Kelly singing Raglan Road or The Town I love So Well, and Drew's gravel tones wrapped around The Rare Auld Times, Dicey Reilly, The Band Played Waltzing Matilda or even the novelty hit Seven Drunken Nights and you may struggle to nominate a better pair of male voices in folk music.

Luke Kelly was the first to die, struck down at 43; Ciaran Bourke was next, just 10 years older. Now Ronnie Drew has gone. He succumbed to cancer, aged 73, at St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin, on Saturday (Aug 16).

I saw Ronnie in action at concert halls from Edinburgh to the Albert Hall, Newcastle to Tralee, and in smaller venues from a night club in Spennymoor, Co Durham to the Watermans arts centre beside the Thames at Brentford.

At their best, he and his colleagues gave me some of the most memorable musical thrills I have experienced. Even as the band declined, in my view a process than began with Luke's untimely death, there was still the likelihood of something special at any performance.

And with his rough-edged voice and the twinkling, staring eyes surrounded by that explosion of hair, Ronnie epitomised the name and Joycean inspiration of the band.

Do not get the idea that Ronnie was a ramshackle chancer who drifted through his career, fitting a spot of work here and there in the gaps between bouts of serious drinking. I am sure he sank gallons in his time, but he was also a true professional.

My abiding memory of him is of seeing him arrive at Brentford early in the evening for a solo gig, smart in a suit and clutching a little case in which he kept the accoutrements of the travelling performer. It was almost like witnessing a conscientious door-to-door salesman preparing for another day's slog around the estates.

This, taken from the track listings of his album An Evening With Ronnie Drew, is what you would expect from the man in such a performance:

1 Finnegan's Wake
2 McAlpine's Fusiliers
3 Waltzing Matilda
4 Two Island Swans
5 Firefighter
6 The Auld Triangle
7 Nora
8 The Sick Note
9 Someone Like You
10 La Quinta Brigada
11 We Had It All
12 Dicey Reilly
13 Dirty Old Town
14 Parting Glass

A thread at Mudcat has already attracted some moving tributes to Ronnie, and among them I particularly liked this, from "Eric the Red":

There most be a rare ould session going on in heaven, Luke, Ciaran and now Ronnie, a rare beautiful man.

Up there, with no further need to abstain on medical grounds from a few jars, the lads can recreate the spirit that, 15 years ago, led a man called Ian McDonald to write to me from Warwickshire (in response to something I had said about Luke's loss to the band) with the thought that Ronnie and the Dubs represented, for him, "something exciting and slightly forbidden". For English fans, Ian added, the appeal was rather like that of wartime GIs to many Englishwomen.

Rest in peace, Ronnie, and take with you to that peaceful repose the gratitude and admiration of the countless people around the world to whom you gave such rich, occasionally mischievous pleasure.



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