Drew, Ronnie (Joseph Ronald Augustine) (1934–2008), folk singer, was born 16 September 1934 in 'Beaufort', Glasthule (Sandycove), Dún Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, eldest of three sons and two daughters of Patrick ('Paddy') Drew, carpenter, and Margaret ('Peg') Drew (née Maher), a seamstress before her marriage; his parents were award-winning ballroom-dancing partners who eloped when Peg's parents opposed their marrying. They moved soon after Ronnie's birth from a rented flat to 37 Oliver Plunkett Avenue, a council house in a new estate in Monkstown Farm. On the birth of the next child when Ronnie was three, he was sent to live with his maternal grandparents in a posh house on Tivoli Terrace, Dún Laoghaire, which his grandfather – a carpenter by trade, who became a footpath inspector with the corporation – had purchased after winning a substantial sum in the sweeps. Remaining in the latter household till his early twenties, Ronnie was pampered by his grandmother and three childless aunts. The family (his grandmother especially) entertained social pretensions and aspirations, and Drew in time rebelled against their expectations that he attain some secure, respectable position, becoming thereby someone who 'went to work in a suit'. (Ironically, in his performing career Drew often took the stage besuited, the contrast with his folk-song repertoire notwithstanding.)
Restless youth and early balladeering
After attending an infant class in St Joseph's School, Tivoli Road, Dún Laoghaire, Drew received primary and secondary education at the CBS, Eblana Avenue; an indifferent student, stubbornly resistant to rote learning and attracted only to English and Latin, he left without obtaining the intermediate certificate, then attended the local vocational school. Until his voice broke, he sang as a boy soprano in a church choir. Easily bored by mundane work and by routine of any sort, for several years he attempted several occupations but settled into none: electrician's apprentice, factory worker, sales assistant in a Dublin drapery and then in the electrical department of Brooks Thomas. In later years he described his youthful self as a daydreaming loner, self-absorbed (but also self-contained), lacking ambition and direction, and entertaining interests and tastes deemed eccentric by his peers, preferring traditional balladry, live theatre, and radio drama to sport, dances or the hit parade.
Emigrating briefly to London in 1955, he worked in hotels as a kitchen porter and lift operator, while living in a series of squalid lodgings. Within several months he returned home to interview successfully for a position as a 'temporary male night telephonist' in the central telephone exchange in the Dublin GPO. There, for the first time in his life, he encountered a coterie of kindred spirits – aspirant artists, writers and actors, and miscellaneous odd men out – who queried mainstream values, were receptive to aberrant ideas, and avidly discussed literature and the arts. Leaving his pensionable position after a year (to his family's bewildered consternation), Drew lived in Spain (primarily in Seville) for portions of the next several years (late 1950s–early 1960s), giving English lessons to private students, taking lessons in flamenco guitar, and acquiring a basic fluency in Spanish, returning most years to Ireland during his students' summer holidays.
Drew's interest in Irish traditional music and folk song was sparked by such Radio Éireann programmes as Balladmakers' Saturday night and Ceolta tíre, and he attended live performances in musicians' clubs and at the fleadh cheoil. He spent a summer as a paid singer-guitarist in a hotel in Glenbeigh, Co. Kerry (where he learned to ride horse, thus igniting a lifelong passion). Invited in summer 1961 by actor-producer John Molloy (1929–99), who observed him singing and telling stories after a funeral, to perform in the former's Gate theatre productions, Drew sang Dublin street ballads as a curtain-raising and interval act to his own guitar accompaniment, acted in small parts in two plays, and appeared in sketches in the stage revue 'The real Molloy'. Thus acquiring an Equity card, on returning to Spain he briefly worked as an extra on the set of Lawrence of Arabia. Back in Dublin in 1962, he resumed appearing as singer, musician and actor in Molloy's Gate revues, sometimes accompanying Irish dancers, sometimes joined by other musicians, including tenor banjoist Barney McKenna (qv). Every Friday night, Drew and McKenna met Molloy in the latter's local, O'Donoghue's pub on Merrion Row, to collect their pay. At Christmas 1962, Drew asked the owner if they could perform a few numbers; thus began the informal but regular sessions of traditional music and folk song in O'Donoghue's back room, which helped to ignite the Irish 'ballad boom' of the early 1960s (providing a locally performed variant of the style being propagated with commercial success by the USA-based Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem; it was Drew, influenced by Spanish flamenco, and Liam Clancy (qv), influenced by American folk and blues, who independently introduced guitar accompaniment to Irish folk singing).
The Dubliners: beginnings
The ballad boom's foremost exemplars, The Dubliners, were not so much formed as 'fomented' (Ir. Times, 11 May 1988) out of the O'Donoghue's sessions. As the boom magnified throughout 1963, Drew enlisted other O'Donoghue's regulars to play with him in similar sessions that were multiplying in other Dublin pubs, and in more formal concert settings in hotel lounges and theatres. Though the personnel would vary, a core foursome emerged of Drew, McKenna, Luke Kelly (qv) on vocals and five-string banjo, and Ciarán Bourke (1935–88) on vocals and tin whistle, a lineup frequently augmented by singer Dolly McMahon (wife of broadcaster and traditional-music enthusiast Ciarán Mac Mathúna (qv) and by Mary Jordan on spoons; when a collective name was necessary for promotional purposes, they were billed as 'The Ronnie Drew Group' (or variously, 'The Ronnie Drew Ballad Group'). A major event in the fomentation was the 'Ballad tour of Ireland' (May 1963), a hit stage show in the Gate theatre featuring Drew's circle of singers and musicians, devised by Molloy, who linked the songs with spoken tales about the twelve counties represented. By summer 1963 the Drew group had a weekly residency in the Abbey Tavern in Howth (moving to the town's Royal Hotel after a row with the Abbey over pay) and were headlining midnight ballad concerts in the Grafton cinema. Over winter 1963–4 they began gigging in Irish venues beyond the Dublin region and securing dates in Britain.
For the purpose of their first album, on Transatlantic Records, the group was renamed 'The Dubliners', purportedly inspired by the book by James Joyce (qv), which Kelly was reading at the time. The album, recorded before a live studio audience in Cecil Sharpe House, London, in 1963, appeared as The Dubliners with Luke Kelly in July 1964, during Kelly's eighteen-month departure from the group to pursue an independent career in Britain. He was replaced by singer-guitarist Bobby Lynch, who brought with him his performing partner, fiddler John Sheahan; this lineup released another live album, The Dubliners in concert (1965). On Kelly's return, Lynch departed but Sheahan remained, thus forming the classic, five-man Dubliners lineup of 1965–74, which attained international stardom. The first album by the new combination, Finnegan wakes (1966), comprised extracts from a stage show of the same title headlined by The Dubliners in the Gate theatre (April–May 1966), produced by Jim Fitzgerald (qv); one of the tracks, released as a 45-rpm single, gave the group their first chart hit: 'Nelson's farewell', written by Galway Joe Dolan (1942–2008), about the recent dynamiting by republicans of Nelson's pillar in Dublin.
The Dubliners: stardom
Throughout these years, The Dubliners received valuable assistance from Dominic Behan (qv), who performed alongside them, supplied them with songs of his composition (including such staples as 'McAlpine's fusiliers' and 'Surrounded by water'), and introduced them to recording industry executive Philip Solomon (qv), who took over their management and signed them to his record label, Major Minor. At Solomon's behest, Behan advised on honing the group's stage act, set structure, and choice of material. Their first record for Major Minor was the single 'Seven drunken nights' (1967); sung by Drew, the lyric was a version that Drew had learned from sean-nós singer Joe Heaney (qv) of the archetypal Child ballad 'Our goodman', about a gormless cuckold who discovers mounting evidence of his wife's infidelity but is continually deflected by her increasingly implausible explanations. Unofficially banned by RTÉ for its 'questionable' content, The Dubliners' version included only five of the nights; Drew joked that if he sang all seven stanzas he would land in jail. Enjoying substantial airplay on Radio Caroline (in which Solomon held a large stake), the record reached no. 1 during twenty-one weeks in the Irish charts, and peaked at no. 7 in the UK, meriting The Dubliners an appearance on BBC's Top of the pops.
With their bushy beards, ribald material, strapping delivery, raucous stage personae, and hard-drinking lifestyles, The Dubliners subverted both the purist preciousness surrounding Irish traditional music as promoted by mainstream cultural organisations and the middle-of-the-road blandness of the more commercial céilí bands, while injecting an urban, working-class and contemporary dimension to an Irish folk-music tradition largely perceived as rural and atavistic. To Glasgow comedian Billy Connolly, The Dubliners were 'folk music's Rolling Stones' (Drew, 104). The titles and sleeve art of their six albums on Major Minor (1967–9) referred to drinking, a reference that was intrinsic to the group's image and reality. In his memoir, Drew recounted his own pattern of long periods of heavy drinking alternating with several months of sobriety, and occasional spells when particularly excessive alcohol consumption made him physically ill and 'the nerves would go a bit' (Drew, 66), necessitating medical attention.
Drew possessed one of the most distinctive and recognisable voices, whether singing or speaking, of any Irish entertainer: a deep, gravelly, raspy baritone, of which he said: 'I'm not sure whether it is a blessing or a curse, but at the moment I'm making a living with it' (sleeve notes, Twenty-one years on, quoted on Balladeers website); his diction, while idiosyncratic, was clearly enunciated. With large, sunken, saucer-like eyes, a penetrating gaze, and a wide, sensual mouth, he had a perpetually melancholy, mournful expression. His hair and beard, jet-black in his younger years, gradually greyed as he aged.
Solomon promoted The Dubliners as an international folk act. They gigged extensively throughout Britain, playing the first of many Albert Hall concerts in autumn 1967. Their music introduced by Radio Caroline to continental Europe, they toured there regularly, attaining a substantial and enduring following in central Europe, Scandinavia and the Low Countries. Despite a 1968 USA tour, which included a St Patrick's day appearance on the nationwide Ed Sullivan variety television show, they failed to penetrate the American market, their music and image clashing with American conceptions of Ireland and the Irish. After they switched record labels to EMI in 1969 (and then to Polydor in 1973), The Dubliners' next six albums were produced by Phil Coulter, who introduced more varied instrumental arrangements and higher production values, but tempered the hearty, rough-hewn robustness familiar to their live audiences. All five band members appeared in a stage play, 'Richard's cork leg', directed by Alan Simpson (qv), who edited and wrote additional material to an uncompleted text by Brendan Behan (qv), which played in the Abbey theatre, Dublin, and in the Royal Court, London (1972).
Solo interlude; Dubliners' revival
Shaken by the illness of Ciarán Bourke (who suffered a brain aneurysm in April 1974, and never again performed with the group, though remaining on payroll till his death), to whom he was especially close, and wearied by the band's heavy touring schedule, Drew left The Dubliners to pursue a solo career (1974–9) (replaced till 1978 by Jim McCann (qv)). He released two solo albums: Ronnie Drew (1977) and Guaranteed Ronnie Drew (1978); the latter included not only songs, but poems, stories and recitations. The first Dubliners' album after Drew's return, Together again (1979), included many songs in the modern folk idiom by contemporary composers, such as Pete St John, Ewan MacColl, Eric Bogle and Ian Campbell. Reduced to a foursome by Bourke's incapacity, The Dubliners then suffered the loss of Luke Kelly, who, in the four years of his terminal illness after collapsing with a brain tumour in 1980, performed only intermittently with the band (which in 1982 was permanently augmented by Sean Cannon). Drew appeared, opposite Johnny Logan and Twink (Adèle King), in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical 'Joseph and the amazing technicolour dreamcoat' in Dublin's Gaiety theatre (August–September 1983).
From the early 1970s, The Dubliners had fallen out of fashion in Ireland, overtaken by the more musically sophisticated traditional revival groups (Planxty, De Danaan, The Bothy Band) and by trad-rock fusion bands (Horslips, Moving Hearts). Performing less often in their home country, they continued to gig in Europe and Australia, where they retained large and enthusiastic followings. A re-ignition of their Irish career coincided with the twenty-fifth anniversary in 1987 of the band's formation, which was marked by release of a double album, Celebration, comprising mostly new material alongside some old numbers in new arrangements, and featuring collaborations with several guest artists; a special, tribute programme of RTÉ television's Late late show; and a collaboration with folk-punk band The Pogues on a raucous recording of 'The Irish rover', with Drew alternating stanzas with Pogues frontman Shane McGowan. Released as a single, 'The Irish rover' became an Irish no. 1, also entered the UK charts, and was performed by both bands on Top of the pops; the collaboration exposed The Dubliners to a younger and musically progressive audience. The Irish comeback revived Drew's own interest in the band, forestalling thoughts he had been entertaining of departing again on an independent career. Another double album, Thirty years a-greying (1992), Drew's last with The Dubliners, also featured collaborations with trad and rock artists – including a duet by Drew and Rory Gallagher (qv) on the latter's composition 'Barley and grape rag' – and confirmed The Dubliners' newly attained status as the 'grand old rogues' of Irish popular music.
Second solo career
Drew's solo album Dirty rotten shame (1995), produced by Keith Donald, with sleeve art by Jim Fitzpatrick, was the most sleekly produced and packaged album of his career, and included songs written for him by McGowan, Elvis Costello (the title track) and Bono, and covers of Christy Moore, Mark Knopfler and Ry Cooder. The recording of the album and its subsequent reception determined him to embark on a second independent career. Bored with The Dubliners' constant recycling of the same repertoire, nagged by a sense of staleness, of confinement within a formula ('it became a bit like the civil service in the end' (Drew, 73)), he had revelled in the freedom of exerting sole artistic control over a project, and yearned to explore new genres and to collaborate with a range of performers whose work he admired. His subsequent career was distinguished by noteworthy collaborations with non-Irish musicians. He made recordings and performed concerts in Ireland and elsewhere with the Italian classical and world music composer and pianist Antonio Breschi (aka Antoni O'Breskey); the album From Dublin to Bilbao (2007) is a compilation of all thirteen tracks they recorded together over thirteen years. Drew guested on two albums by the French Breton singer Gilles Servat, Sur les quais de Dublin (1996) and Touche pas à la Blanche Hermine (1998). He appeared on The Celtic poets (1997), an album by Jah Wobble's Invaders of the Heart, reciting poems to the band's instrumentation, most notably a startling rendition of 'Bagpipe music' by Louis MacNeice (qv).
Drew performed on stage and recorded two albums (A couple more years (2000) and El amor de mi vida (2006), the latter covering material by Nick Cave, Neil Young, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and Warren Zevon) with Irish traditional singer Eleanor Shanley. From 1997 he toured in a one-man stage show, 'Ronnie, I hardly knew ya!', a mixture of song, story and recitations, drawn from the works of Dublin writers and Drew's own observations of the city and its people. The album An evening with Ronnie Drew (2004) comprised extracts from a stage show of that name which he also performed widely. He released several other solo albums, the last being Pearls (2008), and joined all the surviving Dubliners for a fortieth anniversary tour (2002). Throughout these years, his performing partner, co-writer, producer, tour manager and friend was Mike Hanrahan, formerly of the band Stockton's Wing.
Character; personal life; last years
An inquisitive autodidact who wore his self-learning lightly (and bowed to the superior erudition of Luke Kelly), Drew had a quick, dry, impudent wit, and an irascible edge to his character. He detested pretention and smug respectability, to the extent of concealing his own wide reading and thoughtful reflection. Hating bureaucracy and social injustice, he never forsook his socialist sympathies (though he relished winding up the more radically inclined Kelly with barbed remarks about the failings of eastern European communism). Living wholeheartedly for the day, he 'had difficulty with the notion of planning for a future that might never happen' (John Sheahan, quoted in Drew, 187). Self-deprecatory about his own talent, in his memoir Drew reflects on the complacency induced by continual performance before uncritical, adulatory audiences; insists that The Dubliners were sometimes good, mostly run of the mill, but never great; and describes a poignant incident late in his career when, invited on stage in Ronnie Scott's club in London, he received high praise for his rendition of 'Raglan Road' from a visiting African-American jazz musician who had never before heard of Drew or The Dubliners, and knew nothing about Ireland: 'And that probably meant more to me than the Albert Hall or anything … That was the one time' (Drew, 74).
A keen horseman (though riding much less after a 1979 hip injury), Drew owned horses, two of which won prizes in the Dublin horse show; he was made an honorary member of the mounted unit of the New York Police Department (1969). Venerated (one might say patronised) by segments of 'official Ireland' in his elder years, in 2006 he was grand marshal of Dublin's St Patrick's day parade; in the same year, a bronze cast of his handprints was placed in the pavement outside Dublin's Gaiety theatre.
Drew married (21 August 1963) Deirdre McCartan (1940–2007), an actress who co-managed the coffee shop attached to the Pike theatre, daughter of medical doctor and politician Patrick McCartan (qv). From a staid, refined, middle-class professional background (her mother declined to attend the wedding, and for years referred to Drew as 'the minstrel'), despite her bohemian proclivities (compulsively hospitable, she kept an open house that perpetually overflowed with guests on stays ranging from several hours to several years), Deirdre was an immense practical and moral support to Drew, 'the steady hand on the tiller of their marriage' (Ir. Times, 31 May 2008); they had one son (the actor Phelim Drew) and one daughter (Cliodhna Dunne). After living in rented accommodations in the Dublin south city centre and Ballsbridge, in 1971 they purchased a house, 'Benevenagh', Killincarrig Road, Greystones, Co. Wicklow.
Diagnosed with throat cancer in October 2006, Drew was devastated by Deirdre's death in June 2007, within six weeks of the recurrence of the lung cancer for which she had been treated three years previously. In several searing interviews, he spoke candidly of his bereavement, the rigours of his medical treatment, and his anxieties at the prospect of death. Having lost his scalp and facial hair under chemotherapy, he remarked, with characteristically erudite but unsentimental wit, that what terrified him most about his illness was looking in the mirror each morning and seeing Nosferatu. 'The ballad of Ronnie Drew', a tribute co-written by Bono, The Edge and Robert Hunter (of The Grateful Dead), recorded by an array of Irish artists, was released in February 2008 as a benefit for the Irish Cancer Society, and reached no. 1 in the Irish charts. A documentary about Drew, September song (dir. Sinead O'Brien), was broadcast in RTÉ television's Arts lives series (27 May 2008). Drew died 16 August 2008 in St Vincent's Private Hospital, Dublin. The funeral from Holy Rosary church, Greystones, to Redford cemetery was said to have been infused with 'all the charm and spirit of an old New Orleans jazz funeral' (Ir. Times, 20 August 2008). Drew left a sketchy, unfinished memoir that was completed by his children, incorporating excerpts from interviews published throughout his career and reminiscences by friends and colleagues, and published as Ronnie (2008).