The Dubliners had humble beginings. They played for their own enjoyment and pints of porter in the bathroom of O'Donoghue's pub in 1962. They soon got paid and were known as The Ronnie Drew band which consisted of Ronnie Drew, Ciaran Bourke, Barney McKenna and Luke Kelly. They used to do regular shows at The Abbey Tavern in Howth where they met Bob Lynch andJohn Sheahan, a new duo which performed at the interval. Bob and John would sometimes remain on stage and play with the group. People began to remark how good the new lineup sounded and so it all began. They dreamt that within a few years, they'd be rubbing shoulders with The Beatles, The Who and Jimi Hendrix while later sharing the bill with Cliff Richard and The Beach Boys at Wembley Pool arena to an audience of 10,000.
After reading James Joyce's Dubliners, Luke Kelly renamed the group, The Dubliners. However, he was soon to leave the group and return to the UK to study under Ewan McColl. Bob Lynch and John Sheahan were now permanent but Bob was to leave within a year with the return of Luke.
In 1967, The Dubliners shot to stardom, with the release of the now famous "Seven Drunken Nights" which was banned from RTE at the time. It went to #5 in the British charts. A series of hit singles and chart topping albums followed and in 1968, The Dubliners made their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in America followed by a European tour.
Tragedy struck in 1974 when Ciaran Bourke collapsed on stage in Bournemouth with a brain hemorrhage. Me never performed again and died in 1988, having taken an active interest in the group as well as guiding them along the way. 1974 was also the year of Ronnie's departure. He wanted a solo career. Luke Kelly was a good friend of Jim McCann, a renowned ballad singer and it was felt that he was the natural replacement for Ronnie Drew. In 1979, Jim left and Ronnie returned. A year later, Luke collapsed on stage in Cork with a brain tumor. He made a remarkable recovery and played some three weeks later. But over the coming years, Luke's health continued to deteriorate and old friends, Sean Cannon, Jim McCann and Paddy Reilly would regularly stand in for him. Luke died in 1984 and Sean Cannon became a regular member of The Dubliners.
They celebrated their 25th anniversary in 1987 with an album and a special Late Late Show which achieved the highest ratings in an Irish television show. They collaborated with The Pogues with a rendition of "The Irish Rover" which did very well in the British charts. Ronnie was asked by the young floor manager if he knew where he was going. Ronnie replied: "I was here son before you were born."
1987 saw a resurgence in the popularity of The Dubliners as well as a bridging of the generation gap. They accepted U2's invitation to join them on tour and played to stadiums of over 70,000 teenagers. In 1892, they were 30 years old and brought out the Thirty Years album. Five years later, Ronnie Drew left for the second time and Paddy Reilly replaced him. Today, they have reformed for this special tour with a credibility rating that the most street-wise band would give their eye-teeth for.
I caught up with John Sheahan (fiddle, tin whistle, mandolin, concertina, guitar and vocals) recently over the telephone a couple of hours before he joined the group on stage in Sweden. With their reputation as hard-drinking men, I asked John who is the wildest man in The Dubliners! "That's a leading question. It depends on who you ask. They used to say Barney was the wildest but I think we've all quietened down. We don't drink like fish anymore. The drinking image has been exaggerated a bit. It's got to do with the nature of our songs and the fact that we look a bit wild. But too much emphasis on the drinking can be a bit annoying because it ignores the music," he said.
John Sheahan has been married for 35 years. Being half the time away from home doesn't create problems, he says. "We do about 100 gigs a year and a lot of tours. But I have a good family relationship and my wife grew up with the lifestyle. I think a lot of absences can be good for a marriage.
The music scene in Ireland is very healthy at the moment, says John. "When we started in the '60s, music was pigeon-holed. Now, there is a greater relationship between traditional and pop music." However, when asked about Louis Walsh's achievements in the Irish music scene, he says it's just a marketing exercise which has no~ng to do with music. "It's all about looks, it's not really doing anything for music." John admires U2 and cites The Dubliners as a major influence. Bono, he says, has valid political points of view "although I think the press automatically assumes that musicians have valid things to say about politics. Bono makes a lot of good points but I don't generally read a lot of that stuff."
Anti-establishment is how John likes to describe The Dubliners. "We've never conformed. We do things our own way. He served his time as an electrician with the ESB and as a draughtsman. "When I decided to join The Dubliners, I had to give up my pension. It was a risk for about three or four years. But here I am, 30 years later. It's a priviledged position to be in. On the new album, there's a song by John Duhan called "Don't Give up tii it's Over." That really reflects the spirit of the group. We keep going from year to year. Altogether, we've recorded 12 new tracks for the album with Ronnie Drew and Jim McCann coming back to us for the occasion." The RTE ban on "Seven Drunken Nights" in 1967 was narrow-minded and stupid. We just laugh at that kind of thing," says John. However, John says he finds himself hankering back to the past, the '60s and '70s, where "family values were stronger. There was a feeling of regeneration back then. Now, everything has been swallowed up. Pubs are not the same as they used to be. A lot of them have turned into night clubs with burly bouncers on the door. I sometimes go back to O'Donoghues but there's a lot of yuppie types there."
Whatever about hankering back to the old days, no one is going to deny the fact that a lot of unpleasantness was swept under the carpet, including sexual abuse. In a recent interview, Eamonn Campbell said that he was sexually abused as a boy by the Christian Brothers in Drogheda and recently reported it to the Commission to Inquire into Sexual Abuse. "I felt emotional with hate at what this arsehole had got away with. He was abusing the whole class. I still haven't heard anything back," he is quoted as saying.
I ask John whether drink eventually killed Ciaran and Luke. "Maybe it was a contributing factor in Ciaran's case but as I said, the drink thing has been exaggerated. People like to generalize about it. The fact is, we grew up in pubs. Pubs were the root of our music." Have the members of The Dubliners made a lot of money! "We made a lot and we spent a lot," he says, quite simply. Andjust before he gets ready to go on stage in Malmo, on the southern tip of Sweden, John Sheahan starts quoting poetry that he himself has written.
"I'm a fairly spiritual person and I like to write," he says, adding that some day, he may write a novel. But in the meantime, he and his friends in The Dubliners have a pretty gruelling schedule.