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The Ronnie I remember

Actor Phelim Drew told David Hennessy about his show in memory of his father, the Dubliners legend Ronnie Drew, which comes to the Irish Cultural Centre next month.

Dubliners legend Ronnie Drew is to be remembered by son Phelim and The Drew House Band in a special concert coming to the Irish Cultural Centre.

Ronnie’s is the iconic voice behind Dubliners hits such as Seven Drunken Nights and The Irish River and is widely regarded as one of the most iconic folk singers in Irish history.

His son Phelim Drew, a well known actor, will host the poignant night, entitled Remembering Ronnie, in honour of his late father.

Phelim told The Irish World: “I’m very much looking forward to it.

“Hopefully it will be a very entertaining personal evening, where there will be lots of laughter and a lot of personal stories.

“This is a show that I’ve been working on for a while, and I’m really happy with where we are with it at the moment in terms of the structure and the content.

“I start off with a song that my father would have sung back in the early days, and then talk a little bit about his upbringing.

“The whole show is peppered with quite a lot of funny anecdotes because each individual member of the Dubliners was a very strong character in their own right and there are so many wonderful stories that I love to share as well as my own stories of Ronnie, my own kind of memories of him as a child.

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“I have one particular memory where I remember we had a neighbour who had been a radio operator in the Second World War in the American Navy.

“And he was interested in science and his son was a friend of mine, and I thought I should take an interest in these things.

“I remember going into my dad one day and I said, ‘Dad…’

“And he looked at me kind of a bit wary and he said, ‘Yes’.

“And I said, ‘You know when the sun comes up, where does the moon go?’ And I said, ‘You know when the moon goes up, where does the sun go?’

“And he said, ‘Phelim. Don’t ever ask me a question like that again’, Phelim laughs.

“And I said, ‘Well, Declan’s dad…’

“And he says, ‘Well go down and ask Declan’s dad’.

Ronnie Drew and Phelim.

“That was the kind of character he was.

“And he wasn’t being overly serious but he had a great sense of humour, and a very dry wit.”

Can Phelim remember a time when the penny dropped his dad was not like other dads? “I can distinctly remember the first time I saw them in concert.

“And I remember the atmosphere being absolutely electrifying and this was in the days when you didn’t need smoke machines to create an atmosphere because everybody in the audience was smoking.

“I remember sitting on a friend of my mother’s knee and watching the lads up on what would have been the boxing arena in the stadium in Dublin.

“It made a huge impression on me even though I was probably only about four or five. It’s one of my earliest memories.

“And from then on, I think we just accepted who he was.

“It wasn’t a case of going around thinking, ‘Oh, my dad’s famous’.

“It’s just what he did for a living and you got used to kind of walking the streets with him and everybody saying hello to him.

“You just accepted that as the norm. That was our normal, you know?”

An original member of The Dubliners, which was originally called The Ronnie Drew Ballad Group, Ronnie formed the band with  Luke Kelly, Barney McKenna and Ciaran Bourke. His time with the band would see them performing on Top of the Pops as they broke new ground for a traditional band.

Phelim says these were not achievements that Ronnie spoke about a lot as he was not one to blow his own trumpet.

“I think fame was not on the agenda of the Dubliners.

“You know, they wanted to play to as many people as possible.

“In the case of Luke, my father, Ciaran, they were interpreters of other people’s work.

“So they were really interested in sourcing interesting material.

“And the fact that they ended up on Top of the Pops was as much a shock to them as to anybody else.

“But I think he was quite proud of the fact that these five bearded guys from Dublin got onto Top of the Pops.

“And then of course, going to America and appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show and all that helps to kind of elevate their status in terms of people wanting to go to see them.

“Because they never took their success for granted.

“But they definitely took it in their stride because they weren’t fazed by fame. They weren’t fazed by famous people.

“In fact, there’s one lovely story about them meeting Peter Ustinov.

“They were in awe of him because of his classical training and his classical reputation, but also his academic reputation.

“And Barney McKenna said to him, ‘Peter, you’re my second favourite actor’.

“And Ustinov said, ‘Really Barney, who’s your favourite?’

“Barney said, ‘You know the Indian out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?’

“They had these encounters with people.

“I remember years later- probably in the ‘80s- I was shocked to hear that my father had a few drinks with Johnny Cash when he came to Ireland.

“He never really bragged about the people that he met or the stages that he went on, even though they filled the Albert Hall.

“When I went abroad to Holland for the first time, when I was 14, I was gobsmacked to see them play for like 2,500 people when in Ireland the biggest places I saw them play were theatres like the Olympia and the Cork Opera House.”

Ronnie Drew passed away on 16 August 2008 after long suffering with throat cancer.

Is this show emotional for Phelim? “It is very.

“It just felt like the right time.

“I’ve always loved playing music, but I’ve always been shy of being compared unfavourably to my dad.

“I’d be a bit more confident as an actor than I would be as a singer.

“So this is relatively new territory in terms of putting myself out there as a singer but it’s something that I felt I needed to try and get over.

“A couple of years ago, I started listening back to the Dubliners’ back catalogue and songs kept leaping out at me, not the obvious ones, not The Black Velvet Band, or Seven Drunken Nights but maybe more obscure songs that the Dubliners recorded that I remember and that I love.

“Of course in the show, there will be songs that people recognize and can even sing along to, but there are other songs that maybe they might not have heard for many a long year.

“I think doing a show with The Irish Rover, The Wild Rover, Seven Drunken Nights- That’s another show maybe, this show is more personal.

“So there is a nice mixture between the songs that we play and then, of course, the personal stories and the funny anecdotes.”

Phelim has already taken the show around Ireland.

“The audiences are reacting really well to it.

“We’re getting standing ovations at the end of our shows.

“If people are coming to the show, it’s because they’re interested in hearing the background stories around about Ronnie, and the Dubliners.

“I grew up with the earliest incarnation of the Dubliners and they were like family to myself and my sister.

“I used to travel with my dad quite a bit when I was old enough.

“It’s nice to be able to share those stories with people, and I think people really respond well to that.”

A graduate of the Gaiety School of Acting, Phelim made his acting debut in Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot in 1989.

“I was (young). I was only out of drama school.

“I suppose I was 19 at the time. 18 , 19.

“I had a very, very small role in that film, but it was wonderful to be in that environment.”

Phelim would work with the late Alan Parker years later in the Frank McCourt adaptation Angela’s Ashes.

“I really enjoyed working with Alan Parker. He was a really nice man, I have to say.

“He had that sort of London kind of working class no nonsense way about him.

“But my father was a bit of a no nonsense character as well. So I kind of got on well with him.”

Phelim’s other film credits include The Commitments, Into the West.

Was his father always supportive of his acting? “Both my parents were very supportive right from the beginning.

“It was something that I felt the need to do, and that’s really important when it comes to being an actor because it’s quite a tough business to get work in so you have to have that need to do it.

“And over the years, the acting work has crossed over into music.

“In the last number of years, I did a play called The Risen People, by James Plunkett on the Abbey stage, and there was a lot of music and movement in that.

“And then I went on to do Once, a new musical. I did that over three successive summers at the Olympia theatre.

“I just felt I got more confidence doing that and that’s what led me to kind of pursue this idea.”

Are there ambitions to do more singing in the future perhaps? “My ambition is only ever to do the project I’m working on as well as I can, and hopefully people respond well to it.

“At the moment I’m working on broadening my skills as a singer and musician, but I love the theatre, and I would love to go back. I’d love to do a play at some stage because I do miss that.

“In the climate that we’re in at the moment, there seems to be less theatre work, and there are less people coming out to plays at the moment because maybe they feel a little bit nervous about sitting in an auditorium after what’s happened over the last few years.

“But I’ve got a few strings to my bow, and I’d like to be able to play all of them.”

Phelim performs a show in honour of his father, would he go one step further and play him if the chance arose? “I don’t think that would be appropriate to tell you the truth.”

Phelim has acted on the stage in London. A play called Love in a Bottle took him to the Tricycle as it was known then in Kilburn.

He also did a tour of Hinterland by Sebastian Barry that came to the National Theatre in association with the Abbey Theatre as well as Jamie Murphy’s Brothers of the Brush at the Unicorn Art Theatre.

Most recently Phelim has been seen in Fair City playing the troubled priest Father Liam. “I was delighted (to be involved).

“Like anything as an actor, particularly the older you get, it’s nice to get something that you can really have a journey within, and that role was a really interesting role.

“What I liked about him was he was a very real character.

“He came from an underprivileged background and a challenging background and he turned his own life around.

“He didn’t come from a family where it was expected that he would join the priesthood.

“It was something that he chose himself because he was interested in working with young people, working in the community.

“He was an interesting character. I enjoyed playing him.

“I found it challenging because I wasn’t used to working that fast and you could be overwhelmed quite easily.

“But it was really well written. It was fantastically directed. I got to work with amazing actors and actresses, particularly Aisling O’Neill and Tina Kellegher.

“It was a joy.”

Phelim warned last year of online scammers after himself being scammed out of €7,000 when trying to buy a camper van.

“I’ve kind of put it behind me now but it was definitely a huge blow at the time.

“Years ago, myself and my wife bought a camper van and we had many happy holidays with the kids when they were smaller.

“Unfortunately, we had to sell the campervan to finance the work we were doing on the house.

“It was something that we really wanted to try and do, particularly with the restrictions and that sort of thing.

“The website that I bought the caravan through looked really professional and I felt very foolish afterwards.

“Obviously, I felt very foolish for falling for it.

“But I did feel that it was important to let people know about it.

“In general, I would be quite a private person but I kind of thought that it was important.

“And unfortunately in Ireland, we pay an awful lot more for things like cars, motorbikes, caravans, camper, vans than you do in Britain.

“I suppose that’s because of excise and VAT and greed.

“I was really delighted that we were gonna get this relative bargain.

“I lost quite a bit of money and it was very upsetting for quite a long time.

“I got the Irish police involved, the guards, I got the British police involved. And I contacted my bank and the receiving bank.

“And unfortunately, after a year and a half, nobody has even bothered to come back to me about it.

“It’s unfortunate, but that is the way it is, and time is a great healer.

“And hopefully, I’ve learned my lesson.”

Before we let him go, we ask Phelim if he will give us one more story of his father as a taster of his forthcoming show at the ICC.

He says: “The famous story about my dad, which a lot of people know, is the fact that he walked into a bar one day.

“He had been off the drink for a while and it was obviously common knowledge in the area that he wasn’t drinking.

“And one day he stopped into a bar in Bray, which is quite near Greystones where we live.

“And he walked into the bar quite early in the day and there was a man sitting at the bar nursing a pint.

“Ronnie walked past him, and he signals to the barman for a gin and tonic.

“He took a drink out of the gin and tonic, hoping that it would have the desired effect, because he was obviously feeling a bit under the weather.

“And the man along the bar looked at him sideways and he said, ‘I thought you were off the drink’.

“Ronnie looked at him and he says, ‘As a matter of fact I am but I have a gin and tonic every now and again. I find it helps me to mind my own business. Would you like one?’”

Phelim Drew and the Drew House Band bring Remembering Ronnie to the Irish Cultural Centre on Saturday 9 July.

For more information, click here.

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