“Luke Kelly was Ireland’s best-known folk singer — he was also a lifelong socialist.”

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“Remembering Luke Kelly.”

Granted, I mention Luke Kelly fairly often here at this pro bono publication. Pedantry suits me, and I’m grimly determined that readers know who he was and what he stood for.

Luke Kelly truly was a troubadour of the downtrodden.

THE BEER BEAT: A pint of bitter, please, because it’s The Dubliners at the The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, 1977.

Luke Kelly’s last performance, 1983.

Entirely coincidental to the yearly arrival of St. Patrick’s Day, the missus has been watching an Irish television series called “Striking Out.”

Set in Dublin and Wicklow, it’s a soap-opera about lawyers and their role in a political scandal connected to the real-world Irish property bust ten years ago, and the reason I bring it up is apart from the performers’ accents, scenic drone panoramas of the local landscape and occasional pint of Guinness, there is little to set this drama apart from one situated in London, New York City or Shanghai.

I’m not necessarily objecting to any of this. After all, modernity. While my memories of Ireland 30 years ago are missing mobile phones, specialty coffee carry-out cups and nattily attired Eurofessionals, it is unreasonable to expect the planet to stop spinning while we revert to rural thatched Irish stereotypes of the sort embraced by people who don’t actually live there, celebrating their St. Patrick’s Days with green beer and car bombs.

Or by me, while reading this excellent account of Luke Kelly’s political grounding and its musical context. This hero of mine died 34 years ago, and his country has changed quite a lot since then.

What hasn’t changed is the power of ideas, or the way music can express them — and I submit to you that this is why Luke still matters.


Ireland’s Red Troubadour
, by Ronan Burtenshaw (Jacobin)

Luke Kelly was Ireland’s best-known folk singer — he was also a lifelong socialist.

… In this earliest phase of his musical development, he saw his socialism and his growing love for folk music to be inextricably linked. “The music of the left-wing,” he thought, “was romantic and rejuvenating.” As his talent grew Luke took to spending his weekend touring Irish pubs with the Connolly Association selling its newspaper The Irish Democrat. As one of its leading members Sean Redmond would recall to Des Geraghty, “the drill was quite simple. He would go up to the stage or music stand, sing a few songs, then announce that he was here selling the Connolly Association’s newspaper and he expected everyone to buy one.”

But by 1962 the paths of politics and music were beginning to diverge. Seeing great potential in his intellect and application, George Thompson arranged for Luke Kelly to go to university in Prague to further his political development. Availing of this opportunity would almost certainly have meant giving up his musical career—so a choice had to be made. Although still committed to socialist politics, Luke had by this time caught the folk music bug. He turned down the chance to study in Prague and packed his bags for a trip elsewhere, returning to his native Dublin as it was beginning to sway with the winds of the 1960s.

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