Ireland’s great characters: Luke Kelly

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Luke Kelly, founding member of iconic Irish group The Dubliners, made history as part of an Irish folk revival that put Ireland on the global stage in the 1960s

Here in Ireland, we’ve got an innate understanding of what makes a good yarn. From literary giants to musical heroes, our cities and villages are home to a variety of entertaining raconteurs. And on the musical streets of Dublin, two statues have been unveiled on either side of the River Liffey to honor one of the city’s most iconic storytellers: Luke Kelly.

Born into a working-class household near the Five Lamps area of Dublin city, Luke was a balladeer, musician, storyteller and political activist who was deeply committed to social change, and sought to tell the plight of the poor and downtrodden through his music.

Dublin city
Dublin city

Power and passion

Best known as the flamed-haired troubadour of Irish folk icons The Dubliners – named after James Joyce’s collection of short stories – Luke Kelly’s uncompromising voice and raucous banjo were at the heart of a traditional music scene making waves across the globe.

Luke was a powerhouse of energy. As a social activist, he championed causes such as civil and workers rights. As a performer, he was electric. As his friend and biographer, Des Geraghty said of him: “the hair would stand up on your head when Luke was in full flight.” This unbridled passion struck a chord with audiences and, along with The Dubliners, he helped propel Irish folk music onto the world stage.

As long as there were songs to be sung, Luke was there, in the thick of it.

John Sheahan, fellow member of The Dubliners

A lasting legacy

Luke Kelly and The Dubliners reignited interest in Irish songs and poetry, and reinvented them for new audiences. Luke’s versions of traditional ballads have become iconic, both in Ireland and around the world. Today, Luke’s influence can still be felt in Dublin’s lively pub trad sessions. If you’re looking to tap this vibrant scene, then a visit to where The Dubliners honed their musical style at O’Donoghue’s on Merrion Row is a must – you’ll still find musicians gathering to play here every night of week. Or ramble over to the International Bar on Wicklow Street and enjoy the rustic charm of the place where the group formed during the 1960s.

In 2019, two statues were unveiled to mark the 35th anniversary of Luke’s death and celebrate his impact on his home city. The statues were placed on either side on the River Liffey, on South King Street and along the Royal Canal near where the singer was born. Amongst the leafy and idyllic surrounds of Glasnevin Cemetery, a headstone reads simply: “Luke Kelly, Dubliner” – an appropriate epitaph for a true legend who captured the spirit of Dublin.

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