Drew is most recognised for his lead vocals on the singles “Seven Drunken Nights” and “The Irish Rover,” both charting in the UK top 10 and then performed on Top of the Pops. He is recognisable for his long beard and his voice, which was once described by Nathan Joseph as being “like the sound of coke being crushed under a door.”
Drew is born in Dún Laoghaire, County Dublin on September 16, 1934 and is educated at CBS Eblana. Despite his aversion to education, he is considered the most intelligent in his class by schoolfriend and future Irish film censor, Sheamus Smith. Drew also sings as a boy soprano before his voice breaks.
In the 1950s, Drew moves to Spain to teach English and learn Spanish and flamenco guitar. His interest in folk music begins at the age of nineteen. When he returns to Ireland, he performs in the Gate Theatre with John Molloy and soon goes into the music business full-time, after holding a number of short-term jobs.
In 1962, he founds the Ronnie Drew Group with Luke Kelly, Barney McKenna and Ciarán Bourke. They soon change their name to The Dubliners, with John Sheahan joining shortly afterwards to form the definitive line-up, and quickly become one of the best known Irish folk groups. They play at first in O’Donoghue’s Pub in Merrion Row, Dublin where they are often accompanied by Mary Jordan on the spoons and vocalist Ann Mulqueen, a friend of McKenna’s. Mary Jordan’s mother, Peggy Jordan, introduces them to the Abbey Tavern in Howth, which becomes a regular Monday night venue for the emerging group. They also play across the road in the Royal Hotel, at all-night parties in Peggy’s large house in Kenilworth Square in Rathgar, and in John Molloy’s flat at Ely Place.
Drew leaves the Dubliners in 1974, goes to Norway in 1978 and records two songs with the Norwegian group Bergeners. He rejoins The Dubliners in 1979 and leaves for good in 1995, though he does reunite with the group in 2002 for a 40th anniversary celebration. He makes several television appearances with the group between 2002 and 2005.
From 1995 onwards, Drew pursues a solo career. He records with many artists, including Christy Moore, The Pogues, Antonio Breschi, Dropkick Murphys, Eleanor Shanley and others. He does a number of “one-man shows” consisting of stories about people such as Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh and Seán O’Casey, as well as Drew singing their songs.
He fronts a campaign to encourage the use of Dublin’s light-rail infrastructure (the DART) and, before that, the “My Dublin” ads for radio stations 98FM and FM104. He narrates a retelling of the great Irish Myths and Legends over a six CD set in 2006. He also narrates the stories of Oscar Wilde in his distinctive voice for a series released on CD by the News of the World newspaper. Both were re-released as CD box sets in 2010.
On August 22, 2006, Drew is honoured in a ceremony where his hand prints are added to the “Walk of Fame” outside Dublin‘s Gaiety Theatre.
In September 2006, Drew is reported to be in ill-health after being admitted to St. Vincent’s University Hospital, Dublin, to undergo tests for suspected throat cancer. On October 25, 2007, Drew, now bald and beardless, appears on Ryan Confidential on RTÉ One to give an interview about his role in The Dubliners, his life since leaving the band and being diagnosed with throat cancer. Later in 2007, he appears on The Late Late Show, where he speaks about the death of his wife and his ongoing treatment for cancer.
Ronnie Drew dies in St. Vincent’s University Hospital, Dublin, on August 16, 2008, following his long illness. He is buried three days later in Redford Cemetery in Greystones.