Luke Kelly is a towering figure in Irish traditional music.
He is widely regarded as one of the best singers of his generation and was one of the founder members of the legendary band, The Dubliners, in the 1960s.
Along with Ronnie Drew, he was the main singer of the group and was well known for his renditions of Irish classics such as Whiskey in the Jar, Black Velvet Band and Raglan Road.
Kelly was born in Dublin in 1940 and attended the Lawrence O’Toole School. He was very intelligent and got good grades but had to leave to start work when he was just 13.
He worked in a number of jobs before moving to Wolverhampton in England to join his brother Paddy.
They worked together on a building site until Luke was sacked for asking for more money.
Early days performing folk songs
When Kelly was a teenager, he thought folk songs were for ‘squares ‘but after listening to them more closely, he said he discovered that there was far more to the fantastic melodies and clever lyrics than he had first thought.
After losing his job in Wolverhampton, he moved around the UK. He had learnt to play the banjo and started playing at a folk club at The Bridge Hotel in Newcastle.
He started to learn more songs and was soon performing at the more famous McReady’s pub in Leeds, a staging post for many great singers in the 1960s, including Christy Moore.
Kelly became popular in England
Folk music was popular in England at the time and Kelly quickly began to establish a reputation as a special talent.
He was soon performing in folk clubs all over the UK.
As he began to develop his style, he started to become more political. His left wing politics added conviction to his performances.
Over the years he would sing songs about social issues such as Irish nationalism, worker’s rights, war and the arms race. As Ronnie Drew pointed out, Kelly remained idealistic throughout his life.
The Ronnie Drew Ballad Group
Kelly left the UK in 1962 and returned to Dublin. He started to perform at O’Donoghue’s pub where he met Ronnie Drew and Barney McKenna.
He went on tour in Ireland with the Ronnie Drew Ballad Group.
They were joined by Ciaran Bourke and changed their name to The Dubliners after the book by James Joyce that Kelly was reading at the time.