Few would argue that Luke Kelly was one of the greatest ballad singers Ireland has produced. The Dubliner would have turned 80 on November 17th, and Liam Nolan writes on his formative years, shining a light on how he became one of our most treasured entertainers.
Noel Pearson described Luke Kelly walking onstage, “The chin would be out, and he’d give it the full wallop every time… He commanded you to listen to him by his attitude… ‘Listen to this, ye blackguards’, and the eyes would be sparkling.” Niall Tóibín called him, “a force of nature…”
Don’t take my word for it. Richard Fitzpatrick quoted those two utterances in a piece he wrote for the Irish Examiner 30 years after the flame-haired Irish Dubliner died.
Luke was only 43 when he passed away in 1984. A brain tumour killed him, but not before he had slipped into a seriously and rapidly deteriorating health decline that saw him at times crippled by migraines, at other times forgetting dates and song words, and even which country he was in.
Late in his short life he became convinced that he would have been diagnosed earlier were it not for his symptoms being mistaken for the quirks of a hangover.
He had on occasions spoken about his difficulties with drink, and he gave up drinking a considerable time before he died.
Hundreds of people turned up at the Church of the Holy Child in Whitehall for the funeral of the iconic singer, writer and performer with the so distinctive style. There were five priests on the altar concelebrating his funeral Mass.
Actress Siobhan McKenna was there, Labour Party Senator (and now President of Ireland) Michael D. Higgins and his wife, Sabina, were there, as were soccer international goalie Pat Jennings, The Fureys, the Wolfe Tones, and politicians Charlie Haughey and Noel Browne.
They, and all who packed the church that day, came to pay their last respects to a performer who had been born less than half-a-mile from O’Connell Street, born in a one-room cottage in Lattimore Place in Dublin’s North Inner City. Eight families shared the communal toilet and water taps.
The Corporation demolished the cottages in 1942, and Luke Kelly snr., together with his wife and children, were among the first tenants of the new Saint Laurence O’Toole Flats.
Then came yet another move — this time to the suburb of Whitehall. A fire brought this move about, and Luke, it seems, never fully took to it.