The Dubliners — said to be the best accident that ever happened to the world of folk music — are regarded by many as the fathers of Irish pop music. They were undoubtedly responsible for bringing ballads and traditional music from the small clubs and pubs to the international stage of popular music. They paved the way and influenced future followers: Planxty, The Pogues and U2. Bono is quoted as saying" … and then there was The Dubliners — more like The Clash and The Rolling Stones … "
The Dubliners had humble beginnings playing for their own enjoyment and pints of porter in the back room of O'Donoghue's pub in 1962. Then, there was Ronnie Drew, Ciarán Bourke, Barney McKenna and Luke Kelly. Before they knew it, they were being paid to perform and became known as The Ronnie Drew Ballad Group. They started regular shows at the Abbey Tavern in Howth, where they were to meet Bob Lynch and John Sheahan, a new duo, who performed during the interval. Bob and John would sometimes remain on stage and play with the Group for the second half of the performance. People soon started to remark how good the new line-up sounded, and so it all began.
They never dreamt that within a few years they would be rubbing shoulders with the likes of The Beatles, The Who and Jimmy Hendrix while later sharing the bill with Cliff Richard and The Beach Boys at Wembley Pool Arena, to an audience of over ten thousand. Prompted to find a name with an international appeal, it was Luke Kelly who was responsible for re-naming the Group, while reading "Dubliners" by James Joyce. However, he was soon to leave the Group that he had newly christened and return to England to study under the watchful guidance of Ewan McColl. Bob Lynch and John Sheahan now became permanent members, although Bob was to leave within a year with the return of Luke.
In 1967 The Dubliners shot to stardom with the release of their now famous version of Seven Drunken Nights which reached number five in the British Charts, leading to an appearance on Top Of The Pops. When Ronnie was told that they were in the British Charts, he asked whether this was good or bad news. It was obvious then, that fame was not going to change The Dubliners, it may have been responsible for spreading their hard drinking reputation, but the integrity of their music would remain intact. A scries of hit singles and chart-topping albums followed, proving that The Dubliners were no one hit wonders. In 1968 they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in America. The following years saw extensive touring of Europe, Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand. But tragedy would strike for the first time in 1974, when Ciarán Bourke collapsed, on stage at Bournemouth, having suffered a brain haemorrhage. He was never to perform again. Ciarán continued to take an active interest in the Group, and contributed to The Dubliners musical development until his death in 1988.
1974 was also the year that saw the departure of Ronnie Drew for the first time. Heavy touring schedules had taken their toll and Ronnie wanted to pursue a solo career. Luke Kelly had become a good friend of Jim McCann's, having acted together in the Dublin production of Jesus Christ Super Star. Luke felt that Jim was the natural replacement for Ronnie. The extensive touring and recording continued. In 1979 Jim decided to leave and Ronnie returned. In 1980 Luke Kelly collapsed on stage in Cork. Having undergone an emergency operation for a brain tumour he made a remarkable recovery, and was performing again just three weeks after his ordeal. Over the coming years Luke's health continued to deteriorate and old friends Seán Cannon, Jim McCann and Paddy Reilly would stand in for Luke during his periods of hospitalisation. Fate was to wield a cruel blow and in January 1984 Luke died. For many it felt like the end of The Dubliners but the show went on and Seán Cannon became a permanent member.
1987 was the year that The Dubliners celebrated their 25th Anniversary with the release of a highly acclaimed album Celebration, produced by Eamonn Campbell. A special edition of The Late Late Show dedicated to The Dubliners achieved the highest ratings in Irish television history. The world of Irish music, celebrities and politicians assembled to pay tribute not only to the contribution that The Dubliners had made to Irish music, but also to their impact on Irish culture as a whole. A collaboration with The Pogues, The Irish Rover, again launched The Dubliners into the higher echelons of the British Charts, something they had already achieved twenty years before. When rehearsing for their appearance on Top Of The Pops, Ronnie was asked by the young Floor Manager, if he knew where he was going. Ronnie quipped, "I was here son before you were born". 1987 saw a massive resurgence in their popularity with an ever-increasing young audience — they had once again bridged the generation gap. They were delighted to accept U2's invitation to join them on tour, where they played to stadiums of over 70,000 screaming teenagers. Following the huge success of The Irish Rover, Eamonn Campbell became a permanent member of the group. In 1992 The Dubliners marked thirty years in the business with another critically acclaimed album entitled Thirty Years A-Greying. Among the special guests who joined them to celebrate that occasion were Billy Connolly, Rory Gallagher, Hot House Flowers and The Pogues. In 1995 Ronnie left the Group for the second time. However, Paddy Reilly, regarded by many as Ireland's best ballad singer, agreed to join and immediately received the approval of the legions of Dubliners' fans worldwide.
Today The Dubliners continue to tour and perform to capacity audiences everywhere. Such is their universal appeal that such notables as Stephane Grappelli, James Galway, Kate Bush and Prince Rainier have attended their concerts over the years. This album is yet another milestone in the colourful recording history of the band. For this occasion, Ronnie and Jim have joined Barney, John, Paddy, Seán and Eamonn in new studio recordings to celebrate their 40th anniversary. It is a cocktail of new material, new arrangements and echoes from the past. It will surely be remembered as another remarkable album in an already distinguished recording career. The all-night sessions of the 60s may be less frequent, but this album proves that their talent as entertainers and music makers continues to dominate the music scene. The Dubliners, like good malt, keep on maturing with age. So sit back, raise a glass, and savour this unique blend. Here's to the last millennium where it all started, and to this one where the magic continues … Slainte!
Fiachra Sheahan, January 2002