On June 30, 1980, at a concert in Cork, Luke Kelly collapsed on stage.
"When I left the group in 1974, he was okay. Then when I went back to the group, about a year or two after I returned to the group, which was 1979, Luke used to drink a fair bit. He was forgetting words on stage. We all thought he was drinking too much. But it was happening when he wasn't drunk that he would forget. I said a lot of times he wasn't drinking that much that he couldn't remember. But it turned out anyway that he had a brain tumor. One night we were in Cork". "We were on the stage of the Opera House in Cork. Luke had started singing a song. I noticed his hand shaking, but I didn't mind that because it sometimes happens from too much adrenaline. It's happened to me a couple of times. I was watching and in case he got it too bad, I was ready to take over the song so the people wouldn't know. The next thing he started slurring his words. The next thing he just collapsed and was rushed to straight into the hospital and they did an operation on his head that night." — RD
Luke recovered and returned to the group on a part-time basis. In the meantime, Seán Cannon was asked to fill in for Luke.
The group had begun recording Prodigal Sons with Luke, but when the album was released it didn't contain any of his songs. His versions of "A Song For Ireland" and "Raglan Road" from those sessions were subsequently released on Luke's Legacy after his death. In October 1982, Bob Lynch committed suicide in Dublin, continuing the Dubliners' string of tragedies.
1983 saw the releases Prodigal Sons and 21 Years On, the latter being a live album recorded at the Dublin Concert Hall. In the autumn of that year the group embarked on tour with Luke Kelly. A concert at the Carré in Amsterdam was recorded and later released on CD (Live in Carré)—this was Luke Kelly's last recording. The Dubliners continued on to Germany, where Luke again collapsed.
"I can't remember the name of the town we were in but he had to be taken off. It was somewhere near Heidelberg. He was taken to Heidelberg to one of the clinics. A couple of days after we had a day off and we were traveling to Stuttgart. I didn't like going on the bus, so I said, 'I'll get a train to Heidelberg and then a train on to Stuttgart.' It was a day off and I wanted to make use of the day off as well. The lads tend to get up late in the day and I tend to get up early. So I got up early and I got a train to Heidelberg by ten o'clock in the morning. I didn't know what hospital he was in, but I just went into a hospital and inquired and it turned out he was in it. There were a lot of clinics in Heidelberg. I went in and sat down for over two hours. It was a great chat—talked away. A couple of weeks later, he was gone home from Heidelberg with all his medical data to Dublin."
"He was out of hospital and had another operation on his head and I went to see him when I came home from Germany, which was about December. Shortly after that he went home for Christmas. Then at the end of January we got word that he was in hospital and very bad. I went into the hospital about nine o'clock and I stayed all night and he died that night".
"He had a huge funeral in Dublin—television and radio and all the papers. In fact, there were so many there they had to get police on motorbikes. Here in Ireland when you die you go to the church—the Catholic Church. His church—I mean his family's church—Luke didn't go to mass—Catholicism dies very hard in Ireland. So he was brought over to the church. But they had to go right through the city at half-past five. There were a good six guys on the motorbikes—policemen—driving the whole way in front to get through the traffic. Luke would have had a laugh because Luke used to have run-ins with the police. They were all there—politicians from both sides of the divide. It was a terrible loss." — RD
Between 1984 and 1987, the Dubliners continued to tour; in Germany, Scandinavia and Australia their popularity hadn't diminished, but in Ireland they played less. During this period Ronnie was looking to the future with and without the Dubliners.
"I've been branching out and doing a lot of stuff on my own because when you're playing with the Dubliners all the time it's like being one show for 25 years. I've been doing quite a few things on my own recently. I think you need to get out because you get a bit stale in the group. Next year the Dubliners will be 25 years together. I think it's time we're going to make an album—a double album next year. We're only going to do three or four old numbers and twenty-four new ones as well and Jim McCann will be on it and there's a group in England called the Pogues—they say they've been influenced by us, and they're going to get to do one song with us. I'll probably have Stockon's Wing as well doing another number that we did in Australia — 'Now I'm Easy.'" — RD
The album to which Ronnie was referring was Celebration, and with it an appearance on the Late, Late Show, the Dubliners made a most spectacular comeback (although, in fact, they'd never really been away). The Late, Late Show tribute included appearances by Jim McCann, Christy Moore, U2, The Pogues, Stockton's Wing, Charles Haugey and a moving recitation by Ciarán Bourke. Their collaboration with The Pogues of "The Irish Rover" blew off the roof and the Dubliners, once again, experienced popularity on par with their heyday in the sixties. Countless television appearances and sold-out concerts followed.
In 1988, the group contribute several tracks on the Official Dublin Millennium Album. Ronnie also took a verse (from the same album) on Band Of Dubs' version of "Molly Malone", with the rest of the group also playing on the song.
That same year, the Dubliners suffered yet another tragedy. While on tour in England, the group received word that Ciarán had been rushed to the hospital and was in very serious condition. The group flew back to Dublin and within hours of their arrival at the hospital Ciarán Bourke passed away. While Ciarán had been unable to perform for over ten years, The Dubliners continued to pay him (a fact never made public until after his death) and did not take on a full-time 5th member during his lifetime.
After Ciarán's death, Eamonn Campbell was asked to officially join the group. Later in 1988, this line-up of Ronnie, Barney, John, Seán and Eamonn released The Dubliners' Dublin.