An Evening with Ronnie Drew and Special Guest Mike Hanrahan, Irish Arts Center, New York City, USA (March 9, 2004)
Over the pasty forty years, few Irish traditional bands have been as widely revered as the Dubliners. During their prime from the mid-sixties until the mid-seventies, the Dubliners' sound was characterized by three distinct and contrasting voices: the pleasant tenor of Ciarán Bourke, the potent baritone of Luke Kelly, and the rickety bass of Ronnie Drew. In particular, Drew's voice has always been especially unique, and has suited him well when singing both very serious and comic numbers. Illness sadly claimed the lives of both Kelly and Bourke in the eighties, but Drew, who left the Dubliners ten years ago, remains a vital interpreter of Irish folk songs.
Tonight, Drew and accompanying guitarist Mike Hanrahan gave the American premiere of their new show, an extension of their previous performance piece Ronnie I Hardly Knew Ya, at the Irish Arts Center in New York. Drew described his own voice as "more of a storytelling voice," and there were indeed many stories told tonight. Most of these stories revolved around real-life characters who not only defined the Dublin he grew up in, but also wrote or inspired many of the songs that became a part of the Dubliners' canon and Drew's solo repertoire. The performance took place in a small theater that seats about a hundred people.
The show commenced with Drew reciting from a poem called "Dublin" by Louis McNeese, which led into the first of several stories making reference to pubs and whiskey. This story segued naturally into the opening song "Finnegan's Wake," a comic session standard the Dubliners helped make famous. After this, Drew talked about the Irish workers who went to England during the Second World War to rebuild the country while the young English men were busy fighting. These workers were often badly mistreated by their bosses, the most notorious of whom was the subject of the second song "McAlpine's Fusiliers." Then Mike Hanrahan performed one of his own songs, "Firefighter," written for his deceased father. He had to clarify that the song was written before 9/11 and had nothing to do with the events of that day.
Drew returned after this song to recite a poem by Dublin native Brandon Beane, before telling an amusing story concerning a joint performance involving the Dubliners and the Pogues. He and Pogue Terry Woods were both trying to stay sober, but that went straight out the window once they were finally dragged into the pub by their bandmates. Drew had promised Woods a ride home, but was no longer in any condition to make good on the offer, leaving Dubliner Barney McKenna, who was not all that sober himself and had never driven a car with automatic transmission, to drive Drew's car. When Drew woke up the next morning in a cell with Woods and McKenna, McKenna jokingly suggested that Drew sing "The Auld Triangle," a Dubliners song about life in a Dublin prison. Naturally, Drew ended the story there and sang that song.
Drew then sang "The Captains and the Kings," a song satirizing the English upper class, before continuing with two more Dubliners classics, the hilarious "The Sick Note" and the sad ballad "Red Roses for Me." Next he talked about Dublin playwright Sean O'Casey, and sang a song from his play The Plough and the Stars. Then he recited a poem by Paul Durkin ridiculing the emerging Irish upper class, especially the landlords, for their condescension towards the poorer city folk. The first half of the show ended with Drew singing Shane MacGowan's "The Great Hunger," about the 1847 potato famine.
At the start of the second set, Drew walked out and recited "Ode" by nineteenth-century poet Arthur O'Shaughnessy. "We are the music makers, we are the dreamers of dreams." Then he sang "If Ever You Go to Dublin Town in a Hundred Years or So," by Dublin songwriter Patrick Kavanagh, whom Drew often drank with in the sixties. Kavanagh was one of many "eccentrics" in Dublin who crossed Drew's path, and Drew proceeded to recount a few anecdotes concerning them. One such person, a jazz enthusiast, had a peculiar habit of practicing his trumpet at a place not far from Dublin where the Irish Sea receded for three miles at low tide. Once this person was arrested because the authorities believed he was sending signals to the German U-boats. Anyway, he was also the source of the Dubliners song "Monto," about Dublin's red-light district, which Drew then sang. After this Drew got back to Kavanagh, who convinced Luke Kelly to sing his "Raglan Road" with the Dubliners. Before singing this song, Drew conceded that Kelly's version was the definitive one. Having heard multiple versions of the song myself, I'm inclined to agree.
Then Drew left the stage, leaving Hanrahan to perform two songs. The first of these was a new song, "Garden of Roses," about the recent scandals involving priests who sexually abused children. This is as much of an issue in Ireland as it is in America, and the older generation took it particularly hard. He then followed with "Beautiful Affair," his most famous song from his days with the band Stockton's Wing. This song was written during time he spent in a hippie commune that had occupied a burned-out boathouse.
Drew returned after this song to invoke Dublin's most famous literary figure, James Joyce. He recited a humorous fictitious letter Joyce wrote from the perspective of his publisher, to explain why he found one of Joyce's stream-of-consciousness stories to be indecent. After this, Drew described some of his early jobs, including one as an English teacher in Spain. This introduced "La Quinta Brigada," Christy Moore's song about the Fifteenth International Brigade. Many Irishmen fought and died in this brigade's vain attempt to aid the Spanish resistance to Franco's Fascists. Drew and Hanrahan then both sang "We Had It All," a song Hanrahan wrote about the good memories to the two singers have of their respective former bands. The evening wrapped up with the Dubliners song about the legendary prostitute Dicey Reilly. Drew prefaced this song by recalling the days when English judges still presided over Dublin courts. These judges were becoming increasingly exasperated by the growing refusal of even the pettiest of criminals to recognize the court's legitimacy. One Monday morning, after a particularly rough week, Dicey Reilly was the first defendant in the courtroom. The head judge asked her, "Do you recognize this court, young lady?" "Why yes," Reilly replied, "I recognize every one of you."
Ronnie Drew is not only a cultural icon in his own right, but a great repository of the vast cultural wealth of his native Dublin. I doubt that many scholars could match his knowledge of Dublin's literature and folk songs. Despite nearing his seventieth birthday, Drew does not suffer from a lack of energy and vigor, nor has his ability to sing and tell stories been compromised. When I saw only one chair on stage, I was concerned that Drew would sit for the whole show, but ironically the chair turned out to be for the much younger Hanrahan. (Hanrahan also doubled as the sound engineer, and needed to keep the sound board close by.) Drew's voice may sound a bit worn relative to the Dubliners' recordings of forty years ago, but if anything, it has even more character now. Both Drew and Hanrahan were in fine form on the guitar as well. Hanrahan handled all the lead runs, but I'm not convinced that Drew couldn't have put on as good of a show by himself. Ultimately, though, this show is more about Dublin that it is about Ronnie Drew. Dublin has been shaped by many interesting figures, some more famous than others, and Drew has made a life out of telling their stories. Judging from tonight's performance, Drew still has plenty of stories to tell.
Drew and Hanrahan will continue to perform at the Arts Center for an extended run that ends on March 21.