“Although the band has had its share of sadness, there were plenty of good times. We travelled the world with our music, and had some grand experiences,” says fiddler John Sheahan, the man who is the heart of the Dubliners, the very core of the Dubliners’ sound.
Over the years the Dubliners featured some of the greatest voices ever to grace Irish music – Luke Kelly, Ronnie Drew, Bobby Lynch (the incredibly gifted singer who was John Sheahan’s first musical partner way back in the early sixties) and Ciaran Bourke. Sadly, they have now all passed on.
However, the heart of the Dubliners remains, with John Sheahan on the fiddle and Barney McKenna on the tenor banjo.
The harmonious tone of John Sheahan’s fiddle: not scratching along as traditional fiddles in the past were sometimes wont to do, but tuneful, mellifluous and voluminous, was responsible for turning on many millions all over the world to Irish music, from the early 1960s onwards.
This central mainstay of the Dubliners’ sound was complemented by Barney McKenna’s tenor banjo, creating a totally new direction in folk music.
It’s hard to credit now, but when Barney McKenna was first starting out with John Sheahan, the tenor banjo was little used outside céilí bands; a forgotten, almost music hall joke instrument.
The mandolin, or even the mandolin banjo, was the instrument back in the day, although no-one knows for sure why the Italian instrument became so popular in Ireland.
Perhaps because of its passing resemblance to the sound of the harp, coupled with its relative cheapness, it was favoured. The combination of banjo and fiddle captivated generations of musicians.
The musicology of the Dubliner is legendary, and in years to come university dissertations will be written about the Dubliners’ role in this ancient music. Equally legendary is the band’s reputation on the road, and their predilection for the odd drink or two.
As one of the band’s roadies said about touring with the Dubs, “It might take us four hours to get to a gig somewhere up the country: and then bejayz four days to get home.”
John Sheahan supports that observation. “Oh aye, that was true. Trying to get the lads to gigs on time wasn’t easy. Trying to get them home was even harder. I’ve seen times when I’ve had to pay a barman a fiver to close the bar. Sometimes the lads got wise to this and paid him a tenner to keep it open,” he adds sadly.
After forty years in the business, John can look back on precious memories. But it was the early years which probably made the biggest impression.
“There’s no doubt that the sixties was a special decade for us,” he says. “There was a whole new ballad scene, and we were smack bang in the middle of it. Our attitude was ‘Here we are, take it or leave it’. The way we presented the music made it exciting. The guitars were the key to it, I think. Before that, Irish music had been played in céilí bands on accordions.”
Again, it’s hard to credit that using guitars in Irish music alongside fiddle and banjo, was a revolutionary step. So too, for that matter, was Luke and Ronnie singing in Dublin accents. Until that point, largely speaking, traditional singing was the reserve of the rural singer. But the Dubliners changed all that.
The guitars were certainly key, as was the singing, but John’s own personal musical history was crucial too: that irresistible mixture of Irish traditional music coupled with polished baroque refinement.
The soaring, classical sound of his fiddle gave a luscious, sophisticated quality to the music, while Barney McKenna’s banjo provided the hard edge, etching out the melody.
An irresistible cocktail, and believe it or not, hugely innovative. Until the Dubliners, instrumental ensemble playing was emphatically not a big part of traditional Irish music: especially not with guitars, fiddle and banjos. The Dubliners changed that for ever.
These days, when not on tour, life is less hectic for John Sheahan. “When I’m not touring and I’m at home in Peacockstown I usually like to doss in bed late. Believe it or not I quite often compose tunes in bed: so if someone tries to get me up too early I can always say g’way: I’m working.”
The recipe seems to work. Many of his compositions have strong characteristics of baroque music and several of these have been arranged for the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.
His most famous piece is the Marino Waltz, used extensively by Bord na Móna in a television and radio advertising turf. Yes, really.
The Marino Waltz now has a sequel: the Marino Casino. The Casino in Dublin has nothing to do with gambling. It’s a neo-classical extravaganza of a building, a monster of a barracks, and one of the architectural glories of Ireland.
Former Minister of Arts, Síle de Valera, commissioned 18 Irish composers to come up with something in honour of our most famous buildings: and naturally John got the Casino. And before you ask: yes, he did compose it in bed.
The fiddle player has also branched out into other activities in bed. For the last few years, of a morning when he’s snugly wrapped up in his duvet, the Dubliners’ first violinist has taken to writing poetry.
And very good verse it is. His work so far ranges from lines about e-mail (Silent Messenger), through to a Japanese traditional haiku on the Fiddler’s Art, and on to that most romantic of poetic forms, the sonnet
There’s probably a sonnet or two, or maybe even a limerick, about the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Dubliners. This year will remember and celebrate the lads’ meeting together at O’Donoghues.
The story that they all met one day when all five of them separately bent over to pick up the same five-pointed starfish on Dollymount Strand is, alas, untrue.
Nobody knows where that story came from; much more likely, according to more orthodox histories is that the Dubliners met at O’Donoghue’s the epicentre of traditional music in Dublin.
However it happened, Irish music as it stands today, with a world-wide reputation, owes far more to the Duliners than is probably given credit.
The Dubliners will be appearing at the Albert Hall on March 13. “It’s the one I’m really looking forward to,” says John. “We’ve played it already three or four times – as far back as the seventies. But it looks great on the CV! It’s still one of the half dozen great venues in the world.”
One of the great venues of the world, definitely; and it will soon be graced by one of the finest bands in the world, the Dubliners. And that is not an exaggeration.
Ghosts there will be aplenty at the gig, and they will be acknowledged. But as well as contemplation, there will be celebration, merriment, music and song; and of course levels of craic well in excess of EU rules.
All it remains for me, a humble fan of the Dubliners for a large tranche of those first 50 years, is to say: here’s to the next 50years.
One of John Sheahan’s sonnets
He wrote this for a German lady who introduced him to the dynamics of writing sonnets…
Sonnet For A Sonnet Teacher
I offer you this sonnet as a gift
For sharing with me the secrets of this
Poetic form; the shaping and the drift
Of words, and all the many skills I’d miss
Without you. I’d written some verse before,
But way back then I was ploughing a lone
Furrow, wearing my fiddle fingers sore,
Counting haiku syllables on my own.
You taught me tender pentatonic rhyme,
And how to tease stray love words into tune,
Weaving a spell with sounds that would in time
Retrieve my footsteps from a sonnet ruin.
Now, I must finish with a couplet rhyme,
I failed before, but surely, not this time!
The Dubliners’ 50th Anniversary Tour
Wednesday, March 7: Cardiff St David’s Hall
Thursday, March 8: Plymouth Pavilions
Friday, March 9: Cheltenham Town Hall
Saturday, March 10: Nottingham Royal Concert Hall
Sunday, March 11: Leicester De Montfort Hall
Monday, March 12: Norwich Theatre Royal
Tuesday, March 13 : London Royal Albert Hall
Wednesday, 14: Manchester Opera House
Thursday, 15: Reading Hexagon
Friday, March 16: Northampton Royal & Derngate
Saturday, March 17: Birmingham Town Hall
Sunday, March 18: Leeds Grand Theatre
Monday, March 19: Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
Dubliners’ fascinating facts:
Luke Kelly gave the Dubliners their name – after the James Joyce book, not their residence.
On April 10th, 1838 Theobald Matthew from Cashel founded his total temperance society. With the famous words “Here goes in the name of the Lord” he set about ridding Ireland of the scourge of drink. By one of those happy coincidences, this day also saw, in 1987, the Pogues and the Dubliners enter the upper echelons of the British charts with their rendition of The Irish Rover. It is assumed that at the celebrations party held that night, the works of Fr. Matthews were not widely discussed.
Luke Kelly is the only Irish singer to have a bridge named after him in his native city.
It’s rumoured that Barney McKenna was turned down by the Number One Army Band because he didn’t have good enough eyesight.
It’s reckoned that the Dubliners are now the longest serving Irish ensemble – with the exception of the Artane Boys’ Band, who’ve been going for more than a hundred years, but who, by definition, don’t have any of their original members.
John Sheahan’s most treasured possession is his fiddle. Barney McKenna’s is his cigar cutter.