What The Dubliners really drank back stage…

It’s good to see The Dubliners are still touring regularly and packing large theatres wherever they go.

They played several gigs every month of last year, mainly in venues all over Europe.

Now they’re getting ready for a tour of the UK. They start at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow on February 18th and play another 15 gigs before finishing at the Fringe Theatre at Great Malvern on March 22nd.

St Patrick’s Day in Birmingham

They’ll be playing Birmingham Town Hall on March 17th so that should make the city’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations that little bit more special.

I saw the band play several times in the 1970s and 1980s and they always put on a fantastic show, always full of energy, spirit and great Irish music.

In those days, of course, they had a bit of a reputation for liking a drink or two before and after a show.

Drink got the band in trouble in the early days

Drink was the reason the band found themselves sacked by their promoter in their early days before they even got started. The late, great Ronnie Drew told the story on the Irish TV programme the Late, Late Show way back in 1984.

In 1963, when they were just starting out they were booked to play a series of shows across Ireland. Unfortunately, the tickets weren’t selling and the promoter was looking for a reason to cancel the tour so he wouldn’t have to pay the band.

Barney MacKenna at the top of a radio mast

One day in Carrick-on-Suir, Ronnie and Barney MacKenna came back after drinking at lunchtime and the promoter accused them of being drunk.

Barney decided to prove that he wasn’t drunk by climbing to the top of a nearby radio mast … which, of course, had the opposite effect of proving the promoter’s point.

The Dubliners draw their first big audience

Barney’s exploits at least had the effect of pulling in the crowds at last – hundreds of people lined the streets to see him as he sat there combing his hair at the top of the mast.

Eventually, he was persuaded to come down, but only after the police promised not to arrest him. He got a standing ovation from the crowd who clapped and cheered as he came down.

The promoter was not amused and, having at last got the excuse he wanted, he promptly cancelled the tour and sacked the band.

Tales of drinking became a little exaggerated

The band survived the setback, of course, but their reputation as a hard drinking band persisted long afterwards.

The reputation wasn’t really deserved though, as I found out when I went to see the band at Batley Variety Club in 1979.

As the compere of the show introduced the band just before they came on stage, he did a little mime of someone drinking fast, suggesting that the band had had a few and were drunk.

Audiences liked the idea of a hard drinking band

It got a laugh and a cheer from the audience as people generally liked the image of a band – especially an Irish band – liking a drink or two.

I couldn’t see any signs of their performance being affected by drink as they were absolutely superb that night.

Sorry if I’m shattering a prized Dubliner’s myth

After the show, I went back stage to meet the band and they were doing some hard drinking all right but – and I’m sorry if I shatter any myths – they were drinking tea!

It was quite surprising and quite amusing considering their reputation.

I’m not sure what they’re drinking these days but they’re still producing great music and long may they do so.

By Patrick Kehoe

Pat Kehoe is a writer for Irish Music Daily. His favourite Irish music bands are the Dubliners and Planxty.