Luke Kelly was born on November 17th 1940, only a quarter of a mile from Dublin's O'Connell Street. His father worked all his life in Jacobs biscuit factory and the entire family was thoroughly working class and steeped in that special socialist politics which is Dublin’s own.
Luke left school at 13 and, after four years of odd-jobbing, went first to the Isle of Manand then on to Englandin 1958. He was still only 17 years old. His first port of call was Birmingham, where his brother Paddy lived and worked. This led to a job steel-fixing with Paddy on a building site in Wolverhampton but Luke was sacked after asking for more money. He then worked in a range of jobs from oil barrel cleaning to vacuum salesman.
The first folk club he came across was in Newcastlein early 1960. Having already acquired the use of a banjo, he started memorising songs. In Leeds he brought his banjo to pub sessions and was often to be seen at the Communist Party headquarters there.
Back and forth from England to Ireland, Luke met Ronnie Drew in these years, an event that would have great significance. Luke also started busking and listened to Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
Luke lived with Sean Mulready in Birmingham, who had been a Dublin teacher hounded from over his membership of the Communist Party of Ireland.
In 1961, Luke began a lifelong interest in reading and became involved in the Connolly Association, a Communist Party orientated group of Irish exiles in England. Luke toured Irish pubs, selling the Irish Democrat, the Association’s paper.
Luke also became involved in the Young Communist League and was a seller of The Daily Worker. Sometimes he would break into a song to encourage a sale in return. His mop of red hair inevitably led to him being dubbed by all his customers as “Luke the Red”!
Mulready’s family was heavily involved in music links and Luke was by now also active in Birmingham’s Jug O'Punch folk club run by Communist, Ian Campbell, where he would become a resident singer. He also began going to the Singers’ Club in London, founded by Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger.
Luke returned to Dublin in 1962 as the ballad boom was beginning, gravitating to Ronnie Drew and The Dubliners. But, in 1964 Luke Kelly left the group for nearly two years. He married the late Deirdre O'Connell and went back to Londonto become involved in Ewan McColl's `The Critics’.
He then rejoined The Dubliners, which recorded an album and went on to play a concert in the National Stadium in Dublin. Top Twenty hits with Seven Drunken Nights and Black Velvet Band followed. Luke took to the stage, surprising many with his performance as King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar and occasionally performed in various folk repertoires.
During any visit to Birmingham during the 1970s, no matter where he was playing in concert, or in any other sort of performance, Luke would seek out the Communist Party’s Star Social Club, especially its Saturday night folk club – preferably in a lock in after the place had officially closed! Luke preferred socialising with comrades than staying in swanky hotels, as he would put it – even if it was until dawn. He was even known to abscond during intervals of shows held in the city to pop in for a few jars at the Star Club.
From 1978 his partner until his untimely death was Madeleine Seiler, a German student when she and Luke met.
On June 30, 1980, at a concert in the CorkOpera House, Luke Kelly collapsed on stage and was rushed to hospital where a brain tumour was diagnosed. Sean Cannon, whose politics closely mirrored Luke’s own, was a frequent stand-in when the singer could not be on stage with the Dubliners. Luke did perform with the group again but became ill on a tour.
Finally, he was admitted to the RichmondHospitalfor Emergency treatment on Saturday night, 28 January 1984and died on the 30th January. His final resting place Is in GlasnevinCemeteryin Dublin.
Peggy Seeger once spoke for all who ever heard Luke Kelly sing, especially something that had a strong political resonance for the man. She said: “When Luke was singing a good song, you could feel the hair raise on the back of your neck.”
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