1961-1962 — In the Beginning …
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. Molly lived around the corner from O'Donoghue's Pub and there they would meet every Friday night to get paid for the Gate gigs. Luke Kelly had come home from England with an interest in folk music, singing and playing 5-string banjo, and Ciarán Bourke played the whistle and guitar while studying in the University.
In 1962, there were few sessions in Dublin at the time. O'Donoghue's Pub in Merrion Row was a quiet place where, according to Ronnie, "civil servants used to be sneaking in from their offices to have small whiskeys and things". "One night," says Ronnie, "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." From there, according to Ronnie, "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." In the beginning they were know as "The Ronnie Drew Group" because, as Ronnie states, "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."
Very early on, a newspaper advertised one of their appearances as "The Ronnie Ballet Group". For a brief period, Mary Jordan on the spoons, and Anne Mulqueen, a singer from Limerick and friend of Barney's, used to sit in with the boys.
It was Mary's mother, Peggy Jordan, who introduced them to the Abbey Tavern in Howth where they would play every Saturday night. After a few weeks, Ronnie began to realize, "there was an awful lot more money coming in the door than what we were getting. 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'."
Their standing gig at the Royal Hotel, according to Ronnie, "became a kind of craze then, you see, and a sort of 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." From the start, Ronnie didn't like the responsibility of the group being called "The Ronnie Drew Group." As the story goes, Luke happened to be reading James Joyce's Dubliners, it seemed a natural choice, and from then on they were billed as "The Dubliners."
1963-1966 — The Transatlantic Years
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. Ronnie had heard fiddler John Sheahan and singer and guitarist Bobby Lynch playing spots around Dublin and asked them to join the group. 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. 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 embarked on a run of shows at the Gate Theatre titled Finnegan's Wakes and produced an album of the same name, one of their very best.