In 1962 Luke Kelly returned home from London a changed man. With a five string banjo is his hand, folk music in his veins and a “head full of socialism”, he was quick to impart his new-found wisdom to whoever would listen. One of those who did was his younger brother Jimmy.
The Kelly family, from a poor working class household in Sheriff Street in Dublin, was not the hotbed of radical left-wing politics and vibrant workers songs that you might imagine. As Jimmy admits himself, most people seem to think the Kelly family comes from some atavistic breeding ground of nationalism, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
“People seem to think we came from a Gaeltacht family where these songs were everywhere, not at all. Luke was very contemporary...he was a big fan of Frank Sinatra.” says the younger Kelly brother in a deep gravelly Dublin accent which instantly recalls that other famous Dubliner Ronnie Drew.
Most of the music in the house was provided by their father who had a fine repertoire of, not folk songs, but British music hall songs which used to entertain the young Kelly family of a Saturday night.
“We’re talking about the 40s in Dublin, no jobs, poverty, unemployment, so what was the entertainment? The entertainment was my father singing to us. He wasn’t a bad singer, he had sort of a tenor voice and he would sing a lot of music hall songs,” says Jimmy, “that’s where we spent our Saturday nights singing.”
At this point no one in the Kelly family, least of all the future Dubliner had any notion of folk music, as Jimmy says with almost a whisper, “sure Luke didn’t know what folk music was.”
A trip across the ocean would soon sort that out and not only would the enthusiastic young singer arrive back with a new-found interest in the songs of the workers but also the politics of the working classes too.
“When he came back from England in ‘62 he was full of socialism and Karl Marx and Mao Tse-tung and the Soviet Union.”
In the early sixties things were starting to change around the world.
The civil rights movement led by a young Martin Luther King was about to grip America while in Hamburg four Liverpudlians were about to change the way people viewed pop music forever, and usher in a generation which would be forever defined as swinging. In Ireland, the dark days of the fifties, where some half a million people emigrated, were being slowly left behind due to a booming international economy.
By the end of the 1960s, living standards had increased by 50 per cent in the country. Change did not come easy though, people had to fight for everything they got and when it did come it was only ever gradual.
“Things were stirring at that time, we were still very conservative though but there were things happening in America with the civil rights movement, the North hadn’t erupted at that stage and the whole ballad scene was taking off. There was a lot of left-wing radicalism and that sort of thing”, he laughs, “the Dublin Housing Action Committee were protesting every week up and down O’Connell Street.”
Not only was the young Luke Kelly’s life’s path now set but so was his younger brother’s. Where Luke would dedicate his life to singing the music of the people, representing his left leaning politics in songs like “Joe Hill’ or “The Springhill Mining Disaster” his brother would take up in the baton in another more direct way. He joined the Worker’s Union of Ireland - which later merged with ITGWU to form SIPTU in 1990 - and began work in 1972 remaining there until his retirement in 2002.
While his brother conquered Europe with the Dubliners, Jimmy worked in the Local Authority area of the Union working with the “real stalwarts of the movement” like the cleansing department, water works and drainage who he laughs “would make a toughy out of ya.”
His time here, which he refuses to call a job choosing the word vocation instead, is remembered with clear warmth if only a little frustration.
“It was very rewarding, though frustrating naturally enough. It was always difficult to improve levels of employment which were dreadful when you think of what they had to endure, but over time conditions did improve, not merely in the wages, but holidays as well.
Throughout the seventies as Jimmy struggled to improve the rights of Dublin’s poor, Luke sang to them and the pride in his brother’s achievements as a singer is something Jimmy is clearly full of.
“It was new [the Dubliners music], it was fresh, they created a great atmosphere, they were singing great songs and they were playing great music and they were really loved.”
Jimmy hung up his Trade Union boots some years ago now but the Dubliners - minus original members Ronnie Drew and, of course Luke himself who died in 1984 - are still on the road today something he has much admiration for, if some gratitude that’s it not him.
“They are still very popular. In March they were in England for 10 days and they were booked out with the attendance. Someone said to me, ‘so what’s their secret?’ ‘I dunno maybe people go to hear them because they might not get to hear them again, they might be all dead!’”
While he might be glad he doesn’t have the hectic schedule of the Dubliner’s he does sing himself, predominantly at the People’s College Choir on a Tuesday night and occasionally when asked he’ll sing folk songs accompanied with a few other musicians, workers songs, just like his brother.
With the likes of Luke, many of the Fureys and all of the Clancy Brothers now passed, on it seems the gap for contemporary folk singers is huge with few outside of Damien Dempsey stepping forward to take their place
Jimmy, while acknowledging the gap exists, believes that it is only a matter of time before someone fills the big shoes of people like his older brother who was “busy doing it all”.
“There seems to be a gap but I’m sure the songs are being written, they just haven’t been aired yet... there’ll always be people who want to put down what’s going on.”
Jimmy Kelly plays the Athy May Day Festival with Tom Crean on Saturday April 30. For further details check out siptu.ie.