Michael McDonagh is transported back to the magic of the Dubliners by this live show which, he says, you really shouldn’t miss.
As a student back in1966 I first met Ronnie Drew of the legendary Dubliners in O’Donoghue’s pub in Dublin. Later, I became friends with them and I was privileged to have worked with the Dubliners on occasions over the intervening, years after I had made my own career in the music business, starting at the Transatlantic label that had signed them.
The Dubliners, described as the “Spiritual Godfathers” of Irish Folk music had been so important and influential in the history of Irish music and culture and are regarded as true legends. So it was with some trepidation then that I set off for the Millfield Theatre to see a production billed as Seven Drunken Nights, as I was anxious that any attempt to capture the magic of this unique band would not do justice to the respected memory of this wonderful group.
But my fears were misplaced and I need not have worried.
From the very beginning, the large format programme showed a good deal of thought and respect had clearly gone into this production of this show.
This was not going to be a pastiche by a group of imitators but, rather, a serious attempt to reflect the history of our treasured Dubliners. Ronnie Drew, Barney McKenna, Luke Kelly, John Sheahan, Ciarán Burke and later Jim McCann, Seán Cannon Paddy Reilly, Eamonn Campbell and Patsy Watchorn, were all larger than life characters who toured their brand of Irish folk music and ballads across the world for 50 years, selling 30 million albums. Their legacy can never be underestimated.
The Dubliners were giants on those concert stages and even on Top Of The Pops in both 1967 and 1987.
Seven Drunken Nights is the work of Dublin born musician Ged Graham and producer Ross Mills, who had previously produced the popular Ireland’s Call. Ged, who lead the band and narrated the story, has assembled a handpicked cast of talented musicians to perform those songs that we all know and love.
The show opens with a scene depicting the Dubliners performing on RTÉ’s Late, Late Show Tribute for the group’s 25th anniversary in 1987. No time is wasted in rocking into old favourites like The Black Velvet Band, The Wild Rover and The Irish Rover, encouraging the audience to clap along and join in the singing from the off.
Moving from the RTÉ TV studio to a stylised version of O’Donoghue’s pub back in the early ‘60s Ged tells us how teacher Ronnie Drew, recently returned from Spain, teamed up with banjo player Barney McKenna to sing folk ballads around Dublin. Central to the story is their 1967 hit for the Major Minor label Seven Drunken Nights, which earned them an appearance on BBC’s Top of The Pops and catapulted them to concert stages all over the world. RTÉ had banned the full version of the song causing the group to appeal to then Taoiseach Jack Lynch to intervene. This controversy did them no harm at all and made them even more popular with the Dublin students who flocked to their shows.
In those days music was not usually allowed in Dublin’s pubs but O’Donoghue’s allowed Gentleman Busker Tommy Barton to play his banjo and sing a few songs to entertain the UCD and Trinity College students who usually congregated in the pub’s back room. This opened the door for Ronnie Drew, Barney, Ciaran, Luke and John Sheahan to establish themselves there, first as the Ronnie Drew Group and later as The Dubliners.
Including Tommy Barton’s son Billy in this line-up of musicians enabled the show to slow its pace for a bit to allow him tell the moving story of his father and his own poor childhood hanging around the back door of the pub waiting for his dad. It was in that alley that Ciaran Burke came across him and gave him his first penny whistle, which he treasures to this day.
The story of the Dubliners included heartbreak as continuous touring and riotous living took its toll. In 1974 Ciarán Bourke collapsed on tour in the UK and was diagnosed with a brain haemorrhage so he could no longer play with the group. He died in 1988.
In 1980 Luke Kelly collapsed onstage and he became the first of the original band to leave this mortal stage when he died in 1984, aged just 43. Since then we’ve lost Ronnie (2008), Barney (2012) and Jim McCann (2015) leaving just John Sheahan from the original line-up still alive.
After a fast paced and rousing first half the show switches tempo as the action moves to a recording studio for the Phil Coulter Sessions and classics like Scorn Not His Simplicity and The Town I Love So Well. But before long it gets back to the stomping and hand-clapping that we all love so much as that 25th Anniversary is re-visited with a look at the Celebration Album and the RTÉ TV special as they sing The Rare Old Mountain Dew.
The show’s finale, a heady concoction of favourites like The Irish Washerwoman, Molly Malone, The Auld Triangle, Whiskey In The Jar and a reprise of The Irish Rover had the packed theatre jumping to the rafters in joyous celebration.
For those who can remember seeing the Dubliners live this show served as a warm respectful nostalgic trip down memory lane. For younger audiences who will never have seen them, this evening’s entertainment was an emotional evocation and reminder of what we have lost.
• Seven Drunken Nights will tour again next year. Don’t miss it.