Luke Kelly was born into a working-class family in Lattimore Cottages, 1 Sheriff Street, a quarter of a mile from Dublin's main thoroughfare, O'Connell Street. His grandmother, who was a MacDonald from Scotland, lived with the family until her death in 1953. His father worked all his life in Jacob's biscuit factory and enjoyed playing football. Both Luke and his brother Paddy played club Gaelic football and soccer as children.Luke left school at thirteen and after four years of odd-jobbing, he went to England in 1958. Working at steel fixing with his brother Paddy on a building site in Wolverhampton, he was sacked after asking for more money. He worked odd jobs from oil barrel cleaning to vacuum salesman.
The first folk club he came across was in The Bridge Hotel, Newcastle upon Tyne in early 1960. Having already acquired the use of a banjo, he started memorising songs. In Leeds he brought his banjo to sessions in McReady's pub. The folk revival was under way in England: at the centre of it was Ewan MacColl who scripted a radio programme called Ballads and Blues
. The skiffle craze had also injected a certain energy into folk singing.Luke started busking. On a trip home he went to a fleadh cheoil
in Milltown Malbay on the advice of Johnny Moynihan. He listened to recordings of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. As he sought out the musician in himself, he also developed his political convictions which, as Ronnie Drew pointed out after his death, he stuck to throughout his life. As Ronnie also pointed out, he learned to sing with perfect diction.Luke befriended Sean Mulready in Birmingham and lived in his home for a period. Mulready was a teacher who was fired from his job in Dublin because of his communist beliefs. He had strong music links; a sister, Kathleen Moynihan was a founder member of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and he was related by marriage to Festy Conlon, the Co. Galway whistle player. His wife's brother, Ned Stapleton, taught Luke "The Rocky Road to Dublin".Luke bought his first banjo, which had five strings and long neck, and played it in the style of Pete Seeger and Tommy Makem. At the same time, Kelly began a habit of reading and also began playing golf on one of Birmingham's municipal courses. He got involved in the Jug O'Punch folk club run by Ian Campbell. He befriended Dominic Behan and they performed in folk clubs and Irish pubs from London to Glasgow. In London pubs like The Favourite he would hear street singer Margaret Barry and musicians in exile like Roger Sherlock, Seamus Ennis, Bobby Casey and Mairtín Byrnes.Luke Kelly was by now active in the Connolly Association, a left-wing grouping strongest among the exiles in England. His political development was significant. It gave edge and conviction to his performance and lent weight to The Dubliners' repertoire at a time when the youth in Ireland were breaking away from Civil War politics. He was also to start frequenting Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger's Singer Club in London.
In 1961 there was a folk music revival or "ballad boom", as it was later termed, in waiting in Ireland. The Abbey Tavern sessions in Howth were the forerunner to sessions in the Hollybrook, Clontarf, the International Bar and the Grafton Cinema. Luke Kelly returned to Dublin in 1962. O'Donoghue's Pub was already established as a session house and soon Luke was singing with, among others, Ronnie Drew and Barney McKenna. Other early people playing at O'Donoghues included The Fureys, father and sons, John Keenan and Sean Og McKenna, Johnny Moynihan and Mairtin Byrnes.A concert John Molloy organised in the Hibernian Hotel led to his "Ballad Tour of Ireland" with the Ronnie Drew Ballad Group (billed in one town as the Ronnie Drew Ballet
Group). The success trail led to the Abbey Tavern and the Royal Marine Hotel and then to jam-packed sessions in the Embankment, Tallaght. Ciaran Bourke joined the group, followed later by John Sheahan. They renamed themselves The Dubliners at Luke's suggestion, as he was reading James Joyce's book of short stories, entitled Dubliners
, at the time.In 1964 Luke Kelly left the group for nearly two years and was replaced by Bobby Lynch and John Sheahan. Luke went with Deirdre O'Connell, founder of the Focus Theatre, whom he was to marry the following year, back to London and became involved in Ewan MacColl's "gathering". The Critics, as it was called, was formed to explore folk traditions and help young singers. Luke Kelly greatly admired MacColl and saw his time with The Critics as an apprenticeship. "It functioned as a kind of self-help group to develop each other's potential," said Peggy Seeger. In 1965, he sang 'The Rocky Road to Dublin' with Liam Clancy on his first, self-titled solo album.Bobby Lynch left The Dubliners, John Sheahan and Luke rejoined. They recorded an album in the Gate Theatre, Dublin, played the Cambridge Folk Festival and recorded Irish Night Out
, a live album with, among others, exiles Margaret Barry, Michael Gorman and Jimmy Powers. They also played a concert in the National Stadium in Dublin with, to Luke's delight, Pete Seeger as special guest. They were on the road to success: Top Twenty hits with "Seven Drunken Nights" and "The Black Velvet Band", The Ed Sullivan Show
in 1968 and a tour of New Zealand and Australia. The ballad boom in Ireland was becoming increasingly commercialised with bar and pub owners building ever larger venues for pay-in performances. Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger on a visit to Dublin expressed concern to Luke about his drinking.Christy Moore became a friend after they met in 1967. During his Planxty days he got to know Luke particularly well. "Mind you at that time I think his best singing days were over. I think Luke ran out of steam in The Dubliners as a singer. I've heard tapes of him singing as a younger man and he was wonderful". Luke took to the stage, surprising many with his performance as King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar
. In 1972 The Dubliners themselves performed in Richard's Corkstone Leg
, based on the "incomplete works" of Brendan Behan.The arrival of a new manager for The Dubliners, Derry composer Phil Coulter, resulted in a collaboration that produced three of Luke's most notable performances: “The Town I Loved So Well”, "Hand me Down my Bible", and “Scorn Not His Simplicity”, a song about Phil's son who had Down's Syndrome. Luke had such respect for the song that he only performed it once for a television recording and rarely, if ever, sang it at the Dubliners' often boisterous events.His interpretations of “On Raglan Road” and "Scorn Not His Simplicity" were significant musical achievements and became points of reference in Irish folk music. His version of "Raglan Road" came about when the poem's author, Patrick Kavanagh, heard him singing in a pub in Dublin city then called to the Bailey pub, and approached Luke to say that he should sing the poem (which is set to the tune of “The Dawning of the Day”). Kelly remained a politically engaged musician, and many of the songs he recorded dealt with social issues, the arms race and war, workers' rights and Irish nationalism, ("The Springhill Disaster", "Joe Hill", "The Button Pusher", "Alabama 1958" and "God Save Ireland" all being examples of his concerns). In the socially and politically conservative atmosphere in Ireland at the time, this was notable.
Luke Kelly married Deirdre O'Connell in 1965, but they separated in the early 1970s. Luke spent the last eight years of his life living with his partner Madeleine Seiler, who was from Germany.
On 30 June 1980 during a concert in the Cork Opera House Luke Kelly collapsed on the stage. He had already suffered for some time from headaches and forgetfulness, which however had been ascribed to his alcohol consumption. A brain tumour was diagnosed. Although Kelly toured with the Dubliners after enduring an operation, his health deteriorated further. He forgot lyrics and had to take longer breaks in concerts as he felt weak. On his European tour he managed to perform with the band for most of the show in Carre for their Live in Carre album. However in autumn 1983 he came off the stage in Traun, Austria and again in Mannheim, Germany . Shortly after he had to cancel the tour of southern Germany and after a short stay in hospital in Heidelberg he was flown back to Dublin.After another operation he spent Christmas with his family but was taken into hospital again in the New Year, where he died on 30 January 1984. His gravestone in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, bears the inscription: Luke Kelly – Dubliner
.Sean Cannon took Luke's place in The Dubliners. He had been performing with the Dubliners since 1982, due to the deterioration of Luke's health.
Luke Kelly remains an Irish icon and his music is widely regarded as one of Ireland's cultural treasures. The influence of his Scottish grandmother was paramount in Kelly's help in preserving important traditional Scottish songs such as 'Mormond Braes', 'Peggy Gordon', 'Robert Burns', 'Parcel of Rogues', 'Tibbie Dunbar', Hamish Henderson's 'Freedom Come All Ye', and Thurso Berwick's 'Scottish Breakaway'The Ballybough Bridge in the north inner city of Dublin was renamed the "Luke Kelly Bridge" and in November 2004, the Dublin City Council voted unanimously to erect a bronze statue of Luke Kelly. However, the Dublin Docklands Authority has since stated that it can no longer afford to fund the statue. Councillor Christy Burke of Dublin City Council has appealed to members of the music community including Bono, Phil Coulter and Enya to help build it.Paddy Reilly has recorded a tribute to Kelly entitled The Dublin Minstrel
. This features on his Gold And Silver Years, Celtic Collections and the Essential Paddy Reilly CD's. The Dubliners recorded the song on their Live at Vicar Street
DVD/CD. The song was composed by Declan O'Donoghue, the Racing Correspondent of The Irish Sun.At Christmas 2005 writer-director Michael Feeney Callan's documentary, Luke Kelly: The Performer
, was released and outsold U2's latest DVD during the festive season and into 2006, acquiring platinum sales status. The documentary told Kelly's story through the words of the Dubliners, Donovan, Ralph McTell and others and featured exclusive full versions of rarely seen performances such as the early sixties' Ed Sullivan Show.