Much of the information (through 1986) comes from an interview I conducted with Ronnie Drew at Bewley’s in Dublin, Ireland on Thursday, September 11, 1986.
Around 1961, Ronnie Drew returned to Dublin from Spain, where he had learned the guitar, and began to perform informally at parties, singing songs, and telling stories. A relatively well-known comedian by the name of John Molly heard Ronnie at one these parties and invited him join his show at the Gate Theatre. Ronnie was glad to go along as the "curtain warmer", as well as to perform solo spots throughout the show and feed Molloy straight lines. Molloy wanted to add another musician and Ronnie suggested tenor banjo player Barney McKenna.
"… he wanted this musician for the girls — somebody who wasn’t in the blue suit. I said, 'What about Barney McKenna?' and I got Barney in and Barney played for them. That started the association with Barney and myself. John Molloy … he live up in a place called Eli Place, which is just around the corner from O’Donoghue’s Pub. We used to go over … Barney and myself … to meet John there every Friday to get paid." — RD
In 1962, Ronnie, Barney, Luke Kelly & Ciarán Bourke, begin playing together at informal sessions in O'Donoghue's.
"At the time, Donoghue’s Pub was a very, very quiet pub … civil servants used to be sneaking in from their offices to have small whiskeys and things. Luke Kelly had come home from England and he came into Donoghue's. Ciaron Bourke was studying in the University … he used to play the tin whistle and play the guitar and one night we asked Paddy Donoghue, round about Christmastime, could we play a few tunes. So we played a few tunes. That was it. The music has never stopped in Donoghue's since that day. That was more or less how the whole thing got going—or how the whole thing began." — RD
The band, initially known as "The Ronnie Drew Group", are asked to play in other pubs around Dublin.
"People used to ask us to sing in places and we got a few pounds for playing. All these pubs which they used to euphemistically call cabarets — they're just pubs — a room where you can sing. So we got a few of these.I had — which isn't hard to do — attained a little fame in Dublin, because Dublin's very small and you know all the reporters. One day … we said we'd change the name to something else, because I didn't like the responsibility of being called 'The Ronnie Drew Group' from the start. Luke happened to be reading James Joyce's 'Dubliners'. So why not be call it The Dubliners?" — RD
Mary Jordan, introduced them to the Abbey Tavern in Howth, where they would play every Saturday night — eventually moving their gig across the road to the Royal Hotel.
"After a few weeks, I began to realize there was an awful lot more money coming in the door than what we were getting, because she was getting the price of all the drinks she sold. So I went to the hotel across the road — The Royal Hotel — and I said to your man, 'How about us playing here on Saturday night?' They said, 'Sure.' My wife went out and took the money at the door and we shared out what we had taken in. It became a kind of craze then, you see and a sort of a club, a lot of people used to come out to it. They'd come out every Saturday night — not necessarily to hear the music — but they made friends — a nice meeting place and the whole thing sort of bloomed then."
"There were groups everywhere. They were coming out of the taps when you turned them on. Everybody was imitating everybody else — the same formats. We were kind of lucky in one way in that — the only the thing that I sorry for is that we didn't record enough material early. We had all this material, which has subsequently been recorded, but we never used it." — RD
As their reputation in and around Dublin began to grow they acquired their first real manager, John Sheridan. They played every Monday night at Mick McCarthy's famous Embankment Club in Tallaght in the Dublin Mountains. The folk revival was gaining momentum in Britain, and with help from Luke's contacts in England and Scotland and great encouragement from Domnic Behan, the Dubliners were invited to play the Edinburgh Festival in 1963. This performance not only led to a meeting with Nathan Joseph, the head of Transatlantic Records, but appearances on a series of programs recorded at the Howff in Edinburgh and broadcasts on the BBC.
In 1964, the group released their first album, The Dubliners with Luke Kelly on the Transatlantic label. During this period Luke became restless and decided to leave the group and go back to England.
"Then after a year — about 1963 or 64, Luke announced he was going back to England and sing in these folk clubs. I had heard John Sheahan and a friend of his — a fella called Bobby Lynch. They were kind of hanging around, doing spots here and there. So I asked them if they'd like to join the Dubliners, so they did." — RD
This grouping produced a live album, The Dubliners in Concert and O'Donoghue's Opera on RTE; the latter was recently restored and played at the Dublin Film Festival. After a year in England, Luke decided to return, and Bobby Lynch, who was more content being a part-time musician, left the band.
"About a year later, Luke came back. And Bobby Lynch just left because he had a job in the daytime. He worked in the Department of Agriculture or some thing. So Luke stayed with us then. For a good period then there were five of us. We did a show in 1966 at the Gate Theatre in which we had Joe Heaney. He was a great traditional sing for Carne in the west of Ireland. He was a native Irish speaker. He sang an awful lot of songs in Gaelic. During that show, we introduced Joe to the public in Dublin who really had never listened to this kind of singing. It was totally unaccompanied and very stylized. On several shows we at the Gate we had Paddy Maloney of the Chieftains. Another day we had Martin Fay of the Chieftains. Another time we had Tommy Reck — several people joining in. We were sort of working our way here." — RD
This line-up of Ronnie Drew, Luke Kelly, Barney McKenna, Ciarán Bourke and John Sheahan is considered the essential Dubliners and remained intact until 1974. In 1966, the Dubliners released their 3rd and last album on the Transatlantic label, Finnegan's Wakes, recorded at the Gate Theatre during their run of the same titled shows.
The Dubliners signed with the Major Minor label in 1967 and this proved to be the turning point in the career of the Dubliners. On St. Patrick's Day of that year they released the single, "Seven Drunken Nights". Radio Telefis Eireann refused to play the song, due to its "questionable" content, and instigated an unofficial ban on the Dubliners that lasted for years. Fortunately, Radio Carloine had no such misgivings about the song and played it often; the single sold 40,000 copies within two days and went on to sell in excess of 250,000. The song was subsequently picked up by the BBC and went to number 5 on the British charts.
"Then Dominic Behan got us in touch with a fella called Philip Solomon in London. And Philip Solomon wanted to take us on and be our manager. None of us had any business acumen or that about the thing. The money handling was purely to have money — not to hoard money — but just to have some money for a change. We made a record of that song 'Seven Drunken Night' which strangely enough was given to me by Joe Heaney, this Gaelic singer. It went to number five in the British Top 20 charts and we had to appear on 'Top Of The Pops' — most unlikely crew. And at this stage we were playing all over England. If nothing else, it opened us up to a very wide audience."
"The BBC were very annoyed at me because I did an interview for the BBC. And they tended to treat us as fellas who could play and sing, but not a lot upstairs — not too much. Not that it bothered them, being the BBC. I resented this attitude. The said, 'How does it feel to be in the top 20?' I said, 'It's great. We got more gigs and more money.' What he wanted me to say was, 'Fantastic — we've reached the top.' 'Oh,' I said, 'it's no reflection of our talent if that's what you mean. It's not a great song. It's a nice little song. A business machine went into operations and the public were told to buy it and they bought it.' There'd be none of these things unless business machines went into operation. It was played ad nauseam on the radio, except of Radio Eireann, our own radio stations. It was banned here because they felt the content was irreverent and a bit lewd. Stupid! But the strange thing was that Joe Heanney had sung for years in Gaelic on the same stations and nobody ever banned it. So we made great capitol out of that. That opened us up to a far wider audience." — RD
Between 1967 and 1969, the Dubliners followed with 5 more albums on Major Minor and a number of singles, including "The Black Velvet Band", which also charted in Britain. As their reputation grew they began to tour outside of Ireland and Britain to tremendous success, particularly in Germany and Scandinavia where they remained very popular.
On May 1, 1969, The Dubliners gave six-month's notice to their current management (Scott Solomon Management and The Dorothy Solomon Agency) and Major Minor that they wished to terminate their agreements with them. Considering their popularity at the time, Major Minor and the respective Solomons were none too pleased by the boys' decision.
These breaks caused widespread speculation that the band was splitting up. However, the Dubliners were far, far from finished. The band embarked on tours of Canada, the US and Britain. In December 1969, they released the album At Home With The Dubliners.