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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Luke Kelly, Founding Member of The Dubliners

luke-kellyLuke Kelly, singer, folk musician and actor, is born into a working-class family in Lattimore Cottages at 1 Sheriff Street, Dublin on November 17, 1940. He is noted as a founding member of the band The Dubliners.

After Dublin Corporation demolished Lattimore Cottages in 1942, the Kellys become the first family to move into the St. Laurence O’Toole flats, where Luke spends the bulk of his childhood, although the family is forced to move by a fire in 1953 and settles in the Whitehall area.

Kelly is interested in music during his teenage years and regularly attends cèilidh with his sister Mona and listens to American vocalists including Fats Domino, Al Jolson, Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. He also has an interest in theatre and musicals, being involved with the staging of plays by Dublin’s Marian Arts Society. The first folk club he comes across is in the Bridge Hotel, Newcastle upon Tyne in early 1960. Having already acquired the use of a banjo, he starts memorising songs.

Kelly befriends Sean Mulready in Birmingham and lives in his home for a period. Mulready is a teacher who is forced from his job in Dublin because of his communist beliefs. Mulready’s brother-in-law, Ned Stapleton, teaches Kelly “Rocky Road to Dublin.” During this period he studies literature and politics under the tutelage of Mulready, his wife Mollie, and Marxist classicist George Derwent Thomson.

In 1961 there is a folk music revival or “ballad boom,” as it is later termed, in waiting in Ireland. Kelly returns to Dublin in 1962. A concert John Molloy organises in the Hibernian Hotel leads to his “Ballad Tour of Ireland” with the Ronnie Drew Ballad Group. This tour leads to the Abbey Tavern and the Royal Marine Hotel and then to jam-packed sessions in the Embankment, Tallaght. Ciarán Bourke joins the group, followed later by John Sheahan. They rename themselves The Dubliners at Kelly’s suggestion, as he is reading James Joyce‘s book of short stories, entitled Dubliners, at the time. Kelly is the leading vocalist for the group’s eponymous debut album in 1964, which includes his rendition of “Rocky Road to Dublin.”

In 1964 Kelly leaves the group for nearly two years and is replaced by Bob Lynch and John Sheahan. Kelly goes with Deirdre O’Connell, founder of the Focus Theatre, to whom he marries the following year, back to London and becomes involved in Ewan MacColl‘s “gathering.”

When Bob Lynch leaves The Dubliners, John Sheahan and Kelly rejoin. The ballad boom in Ireland is 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 express concern to Kelly about his drinking.

The arrival of a new manager for The Dubliners, Derry composer Phil Coulter, results in a collaboration that produces three of Kelly’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 Syndrome. Kelly remains a politically engaged musician, becoming a supporter of the movement against South African apartheid and performing at benefit concerts for the Irish Travellers community.

Kelly’s health deteriorates in the 1970s. During a concert in the Cork Opera House on June 30, 1980 he collapses on the stage. He had already suffered for some time from migraines and forgetfulness which had been ascribed to his intense schedule, alcohol consumption, and “party lifestyle.” A brain tumor is diagnosed. Although he tours with the Dubliners after enduring an operation, his health deteriorates further. He forgets lyrics, has to take longer breaks in concerts due to weakness and becomes more withdrawn. In the autumn of 1983 he has to leave the stage in Traun, Austria and again in Mannheim, Germany. Shortly after this, he has to cancel the tour of southern Germany and, after a short stay in hospital in Heidelberg, he is flown back to Dublin.

After another operation Kelly spends Christmas with his family but is taken to hospital again in the New Year, where he dies on January 30, 1984. His funeral in Whitehall attracts thousands of mourners from across Ireland. His gravestone in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, bears the inscription: Luke Kelly – Dubliner.

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Birth of Irish Author Maurice O’Sullivan

maurice-osullivan-houseMaurice O’Sullivan (Irish: Muiris Ó Súilleabháin), Irish author famous for his memoir of growing up on the Great Blasket Island and in Dingle, County Kerry, off the western coast of Ireland, is born on February 19, 1904.

Following the death of his mother when he is six months old, O’Sullivan is raised in an institution in Dingle, County Kerry. At the age of eight, he returns to Great Blasket Island to live with his father, grandfather, and the rest of his siblings, and learns the native language. He joins the Garda Síochána in Dublin in 1927 and is stationed in the Gaeltacht area of Connemara.

O’Sullivan is persuaded to write his memoirs by George Derwent Thomson, a linguist and professor of Greek who has come to the island to hear and learn the Irish language. It is Thomson who encourages him to go into the Guards, rather than emigrate to America as do most of the young people. Thomson edits and assembles the memoir, and arranges for its translation into English with the help of Moya Llewelyn-Davies.

Fiche Blian ag Fás (in English, Twenty Years a-Growing) is published in Irish and English in 1933. As one of the last areas of Ireland in which the old Irish language and culture have continued unchanged, the Great Blasket Island is a place of enormous interest to those seeking traditional Irish narratives.

While Fiche Blian ag Fás is received with tremendous enthusiasm by critics, including E.M. Forster, their praise at times has a condescending tone. Forster describes the book as a document of a surviving “Neolithic” culture. Such interest is tied up with romantic notions of the Irish primitive, and thus when O’Sullivan tries to find a publisher for his second book, Fiche Bliain faoi Bhláth (in English, Twenty Years a-Flowering), there is little interest, as this narrative necessarily departs from the romantic realm of turf fires and pipe-smoking wise-women.

In 1934, O’Sullivan leaves the Guards and settles in Connemara. He drowns on June 25, 1950, while swimming off the Connemara coast. Dylan Thomas commences, but does not finish, a screenplay of Fiche Blian ag Fás.

(Pictured: The ruins of the house in which Maurice O’Sullivan grew up on the Great Blasket Island)


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Evacuation of the Blasket Islands

blasket-islandsThe remaining human inhabitants of the Blasket Islands, a group of islands off the west coast of Ireland forming part of County Kerry, are evacuated to the mainland on November 17, 1953.

The Blasket Islands are inhabited until 1953 by a completely Irish-speaking population, and today are part of the Gaeltacht. Sadly, the Blasket Island community declines as a result of the persistent emigration of its young people. The last twenty-two inhabitants are forcefully evacuated by the government to the mainland on November 17, 1953, after the Irish government decides that it can no longer guarantee the safety of the remaining population. Many of the descendants currently live in Springfield, Massachusetts, and some former residents still live on the Dingle Peninsula, within sight of their former home.

The islanders are the subject of much anthropological and linguistic study around the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries particularly from writers and linguists such as Robin Flower, George Derwent Thomson, and Kenneth H. Jackson. Thanks to their encouragement and that of others, a number of books are written by islanders that record much of the islands’ traditions and way of life. These include An tOileánach (The Islandman) by Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Peig by Peig Sayers, and Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty Years A-Growing) by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin.

The Great Blasket Island, the principal island of the Blaskets, remains uninhabited today, but visitors can travel by ferry over to this remote and wildly beautiful place and spend several hours or all day marvelling at its natural beauty and what remains of years of human endeavour.

The Blasket Islands have been called Next Parish America, based on the erroneous idea that the next parish west of the islands would be the United States. The actual next parish west of the Blasket Island would be located in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.