Death, drink and Luke Kelly

For most people Ronnie Drew does not generate awe, more a warmth. People think they know him, they are easy with him. And when the story broke some weeks back that he had cancer, many who never met him in person were shocked. He is part of our cultural furniture. Whenever he dies there will be outpourings not just of appreciation but of affection. There is a raspish quality to his voice, not to his personality. He is gentle, modest, kind.

The interview was done in two stages. First at St Vincent's Hospital on the morning of Tuesday, 19 December, then a week later, on 26 December, at his home in Greystones. He looked ill at first sight and vulnerable. The chemotherapy drip was in his arm and was adjusted every so often. But as he spoke (the transcript of the interview ran to over 15,000 words) he became animated and very funny.

 He spoke of his agnosticism early on and about his ‘positive' attitude to his illness. Positive not in the expectation he was going to beat the cancer but positive in accepting the river of good will that was flowing towards him. At one stage a priest came to the door with holy communion and asked of Ronnie if he wanted to receive. He did so willingly, remarking this was part of the positivity he was experiencing.

He looked 15 years younger a week later at his home and not a bit ill. The house was full with family – his daughter, Cliodna, her husband and two children, friends of the children, family friends, Ronnie and his wife Deirdre.


Vincent Browne: Do you recall when you were first told you had cancer?

Ronnie Drew: I think it was 4 October. I was kind of expecting it because I was hearing a hoarseness in my voice. I never suffered from the delusion that I had a good voice but I knew it had a distinctive quality and now I was aware of a hoarseness and then I was finding it difficult to swallow. I thought it might go away but it didn't go away. So eventually I went to the doctor. It came as a shock, but not as a terrible shock. So I came in here (to St Vincent's private hospital) on 12 October and they had the knife and fork down your throat business, whatever they do. I have it (cancer) in my throat and there are spots on my lungs and that seemed to be worrying them and me, now, as it turns out, more than anything.


Last night the consultant came in and he said, ‘I suspect we may be making progress'. I'm not looking to be absolutely cured, as long as it became manageable. After all I am 72, I can't expect to live forever. I wouldn't mind getting another few years out of it because I quite enjoy life and have a few things to do. It's not necessarily for the salvation of mankind, or it's not going to stop global warming.

I'm very positive, not in the sense that I am going to get better. If somebody offers me something from, say, some way-out religion and says, ‘That will cure you', I don't necessarily believe that it will cure me but I believe it's been given to me with a positive attitude and so I accept the positive attitude. Some people send me Mass cards and I see that as positive and I accept it gratefully.

I'm a bit vague about the God thing, but you know I am quite sure that, even if he is there as we believed as kids, he has no massive plan for me. There's no masterplan for Ronnie Drew.

What are the things you want to do?

Well, I'm writing some sketches about my life, about growing up, about going to England in the 1950s, about working in the telephone exchange, about The Dubliners. And I am hoping to do recordings with some people I regard as great musicians: Louis Stewart, Jimmy Smith, Jimmy Faulkner, Arthur McGlynn and Michael – Mike – Hanrahan and there's a couple more. I want to put down songs which I haven't sung for years.

When you were told of the cancer and thought of dying, what did you think would happen to you after you die?

I am what they conveniently call a coward, I'm an agnostic. I don't know but I believe there's something but I don't believe it's the one where we all go to hell and shake hands with God in heaven, sit down for porter and meet our uncle Jack.

Tell us of your background, where you grew up and went to school?

My father was a carpenter and his big claim to fame was that he never lost a day over drink even though he was fond of it. I mean he had a good sup at the weekend. When I was born we lived in a tenement but then moved to a council house in 1937, a very good, well-built house – inside toilet, bath, ranger, copper cylinder.

When I was about three or four I moved to live with my grandparents. This was when my mother was expecting another child I think. My grandfather had won thousands on the sweep and had bought a posh house on Tivoli terrace in Dun Laoghaire. I think the family thought they would make a gentleman of me. Have me go to work in a suit. Maybe not a doctor or a solicitor but certainly go to work in a suit.

I started off school in St Joseph's Orphanage, which was a sort of kindergarten school. Then I went to the Christian Brothers in Dun Laoghaire and that's the place where I had an awful lot of problems because I was looked upon as being a total dunce, which I probably was. I used to take all the blame myself at that time for being the dunce. I don't anymore. In fact it was so bad that when we walked around the school yard at breaks, I was made to carry an abacus ball frame to show that I was bad at maths. I felt very humiliated and I would say it was the start of a bad inferiority complex. I'm not being dramatic but I just feel it was. I was there right up ‘til sixth class and then I transferred to the secondary school and I only got as far as the Inter Cert. I couldn't take anymore of it and I got a reference from the [teacher] which when you read between the lines [it said], ‘He is not exactly a criminal and doesn't mean any harm but I wouldn't give him a fuckin' job.'

What did you do after you had finished your schooling?

I worked cleaning out railway carriages in Dun Laoghaire. I was on the brew for a while. I then got a job in a tailor's shop in North King St but was fired. I got a job with a builder as an electrician but was fired from that too. Then I went to England in 1955, London, where I worked as a porter in a hotel, then as a lift boy in another hotel and came back to take up a job in the Telephone Exchange. I had applied there before I went to England.

Tell us about your time at the Telephone Exchange.

It changed my life. I met guys there who had the same questions in their head as I had in mine and for the first time I didn't feel stupid talking about these matters. I realised these people don't think I'm fucking mad. They also introduced me to books and I started to read a lot. There were a great bunch of fellows there – Michael Kane, the artist, Joe Hackett, a poet, Joe Kelly who later taught in the College of Art, many others (repeatedly in the interview he expressed anxiety that he would level important people out of his narrative – people important to the narrative – and would cause offence). They opened up a whole new life for me because I had been living a life where there weren't any books. I used to go to the library myself and get books but I didn't know what to read, I had no direction, you know, I just wanted to read but I must say, going to the telephone exchange changed my whole life. The Telephone Exchange was full of oddities and I don't mean that in a bad way and I don't mean odd balls in that sense. It was night work, we worked from about five in the afternoon to 12 or one.


How did you talk to these people, were you not on the phone all the time?

Ah no. You'd be sitting there and there'd be lulls. In those days, there wasn't mad communication going on. You'd have plenty of nights when you could talk, then you'd have breaks and you'd have chats you know.

Did you have much fun there?

We had great fun. In those days you had to dial 0 if you wanted to get a call outside Dublin.  In front of us in the exchange there was a kind of wall and on this wall there was strips of red and white lights and underneath each light there was a hole, a small little plug hole. The white light indicated ‘private subscriber', a red light indicated a coin box. Some nights we would put two people in separate coin boxes on to each other, each thinking they were on to the exchange.

I remember one night in particular there was this lady in Dublin, she got onto Birmingham to another woman there, and as was the case in those days, a lot of men were working in England and sending home money. This woman in Dublin was obviously checking up on the husband and she had a friend living over there. ‘Well, how's he getting on?' ‘He's out with her three and four times a week, you know and every Saturday night.' ‘Ah I was thinking something was going on' said the woman, and the other one said, ‘You can bet your eyeball there's something going on.'

The one in Dublin said, ‘I knew there was something funny you know because everytime I got the money, when I opened the money there was a big spit in it.

It [the spit] was obviously his protest at sending home the money but even though he was resentful and was going out with this other woman in Birmingham, he carried out his duties.

Another night a posh lady came on and demanded to be put through immediately to a number in England. I thought I'd let her cool her heels and I told her there would be a delay of an hour and twenty minutes. She became very impatient and I more or less told her what she could do with herself. She then said, ‘Do you know who you are talking to?' I said I didn't. She said she was the wife of the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs and she would have me sacked in the morning. I asked her did she know who she was talking to. She said no. I said, ‘Thanks be to Jaysus' and pulled out the cord.

How long were you there and where did you go then?

I was there about nine months. I loved it and instead of going to England again when we left we went – a bunch of us – to Spain where we taught English in Seville and that was great too. I learnt a bit of Spanish and took lessons in the Spanish guitar. We used to come back to Dublin during the summer for there were no schools during the summer months and then go back again. One summer I was home I met John Molloy, who was involved with the Gate Theatre at the time. He heard me tell a few stories at a party one night – I didn't know whether people were laughing at me or with me. John said the stories were very funny and asked me would I do a few gigs at the Gate. I did. After a while Barney McKenna whom I had met joined us with his banjo and it started from there.

I quickly became really interested in Irish music through Ciaran MacMathuna's programmes and also a Saturday night programme, ‘Balladeers'. I came across people like Maggie Barry and Dominic Behan. I really liked Dominic, he was very talented and very funny.

When did you meet Luke Kelly?

I met Luke in 1962 in the International Bar (in Wicklow St, Dublin) and in a strange way we got on from the word go. We were both of a similar mind set, though coming at things from a slightly different viewpoint in politics and music.

Luke had a far finer voice than me. Luke could have been a very good singer in any arena. In my case, I hadn't a good voice but had a certain way of putting a song across which kind of got me going but I mean there's no doubt about it that Luke had the actual musical voice.

Do you remember the first time you heard him sing?

I do actually. It was in the International Bar that first night. I think I was probably a bit jealous of him, you know but it didn't last very long. He was very generous. It took a little while to get to know him.

I used to go up to O'Donoghue's (a public house on Merrion Row, Dublin) because John Molloy, whom I was working for in the Gate Theatre, lived around in Ely Place. I used to go there to meet John to get paid. Luke started calling in and the friendship grew gradually and you know, Luke turned around and says to me, such a song would suit you. There was no rivalry. I was close to him, but he'd be shouting, you know, ‘Fuck off' and all that. Luke was the communist, I didn't quite agree – for instance I used to ask him why if communism was so great, why did so many people want to get out of communist countries? He used to get very annoyed.

When did you do your first gig with Luke?

Well, the first gig with Luke arose from O'Donoghue's. Barney used to join Luke and I there and then Ciaran Burke, who was an agricultural student in University, he used to come in. In those days you had to seek permission to play a tune. I think it was around about Christmas one time Barney and I said to Paddy O'Donoghue (the pub owner), could we play a tune and from that day to this we never stopped playing. Luke had a banjo but his forte was singing, and we began swapping songs. Luke had been in England, he'd been there quite a few years and he brought back an awful lot of industrial ballads from England and songs about the working class and so on, which were an eye opener to me. I was really impacted by these songs because they'd a lot to say, you know.

Now what happened was we were in O'Donoghue's – myself, Ciaran Burke, Luke and Barney – and we were singing away, playing away in the corner. Some fella asked us would we play – I think it was the Ashbourne House Hotel for a few bob – so we said ‘Why not?' Now we previously had played with John Molloy, like the four of us and he led a thing called a ballad tour of Ireland where we went around Ireland. We didn't make any money. We were called the Ronnie Drew group at the time.

Then Luke went back to England and the rest of us got a regular gig in the Royal Hotel in Howth. Luke came back after a year. We were rehearsing one day and I said I didn't like the name of the band. Luke was reading Joyce's Dubliners at the time and he suggested we call ourselves The  Dubliners and that was it.


Tell us of the fun you had in the Dubliners.  

We had a great time. We had a party which started in 1962 and ended about 1970. We had fantastic times. A lot of drinking went on, a bit too much at times but in fairness, we managed somehow to keep it kind of even keel.

Was drink a problem?

I'd say it was. It became a problem for all of us after a while. So we all had to take it a bit handy, you know. Because when you're young and you go out and these things, you know, you don't have any kind of clever plan in mind or anything. We were essentially living from day to day.

Did you used to go on stage having had a fair few?

Oh Jaysus yeh. Ah yeh. I remember one time we were on stage in Amsterdam, and you know Amsterdam. We were playing in a place called the The Carree Theatre and it's one of the posh theatures, you know like theatres in Amsterdam and of course we'd arrive and do sound checks at 6 or 6.30. And then of course we'd all have a few before going on. It was only human nature like out and have a couple like, we wouldn't be drinking like all day but. Anyway, the show's going up and Luke comes in. ‘Where the fuck were you Luke?' He said, ‘I came out of a pub and I knew the backstage was somewhere near a canal and I couldn't find the fucking place, somewhere near the canal in Amsterdam. There was canals everywhere.' But we got over it, we just told the punters Luke got lost.

Were you ever in a position that you weren't able to perform because of drink?

I remember making a bollix of things alright. I remember making a bollix of things a few times. Not too often. I mean in the overall picture, it was very minimal really, the amount of times you'd have them. Somehow, like all these things by chance, you got away with.

Which of the Dubliners did you get on best with? Who would you have been best pals with and have more fun with?

I have a great affection for Barney. I liked them all but Barney is more like a brother. We started off in the Gate together, we were the first two together. I have a great feeling for him.

When did you leave the Dubliners?

1995 I think it was.

Why did you leave?

Well, it's very simple. I felt years ago [that] I'd finished me work with The Dubliners, years ago, but I got lazy and dependent on the work, I'm telling you the truth now. So eventually, I had to face up. I went to do my one-man thing, which I did, with reasonable success and even though it was not a huge worldwide success, [it was a] success for me in that I had to actually work. I've done an awful lot of things since that, and that's why I had to leave [The Dubliners]. That's the only reason, it was nothing against the lads, you know, just for my own self. I'm glad I did.

Where did you meet Deirdre (his wife)?

Deirdre and several friends of hers were running the Point Theatre and I was in the Gate with John Molloy. Deirdre's father was Dr Patrick McCartan (member of the IRB, elected to the first Dáil in 1916, Sinn Féin representative in the US until 1921, left politics because of the civil war, re-entered to contest the 1945 presidential election, was a member of the Seanad from 1948 to 1951). He heard me singing on the radio and he said ‘I'd like to meet that guy'. His daughter, Deirdre, knew that friends she worked with at the Pike knew me and I went out to see him in Greystones (just a few doors away from where the Drew family home is now) and there I met Deirdre. From then on we just started going out.

When did you get married?

We got married in 1963 in Westland Row Church – the priest was Fr Michael Cleary! We had our reception in O'Donoghue's pub and finished up that night in a restaurant in Lincoln Place drinking wine out of a teapot.

What are your memories of Patrick Kavanagh?

Paddy would be around Baggot Street. I used to meet Paddy in all those pubs along there and I remember Paddy used to talk about all sorts of auld shite. People often say to me, you met Paddy Kavanagh,  but I wasn't taking notes. I'd be certain of the things he'd say and listen to him because they'd be great. I remember one time we were in McDaids (a public house off Grafton St where literary figures used to meet at the time in the 1950s and 1960s). Paddy was taking bicarbonate of soda with whiskey for his stomach and some posh gent came in and said, ‘Paddy, if you continue to take whiskey with bicarbonate of soda, you'll ruin your tummy.' Paddy replied, ‘I don't mind fornication, it's kind of natural, I don't mind the man robbing to feed his family, in certain cases I'd even condone murder, but I hate vulgarity. The word is “belly” or “stomach”'.

Was he good company generally?

I liked him, I got on very well with him. He was a difficult enough fella socially at times, but I mean, I can be a grumpy fucker too if I like.

Brendan Behan?

I knew Brendan, [but] not as well as I would liked to have known him. I knew the rest of the family very well. Dominic and Stephen and the mother, I knew all the family very well.

Did you always have a beard?

No. The beard came about for two reasons. I was with John Molloy of the Gate Theatre and I got a lot of warts on my face. Now the doctor told me not to shave and by the time the warts had gone away again I had a beard and enquiries were coming for the fella with the beard. So I figured it was an economic fucking necessity to keep it there. And it may also be that I don't have a face like Rock Hudson, you know.π