The Dubliners: “A Time To Remember”

Ireland’s famous quintet bring the flame of tradition and memory to Vienna for five days of melodies and humor

On The Town | Christopher Anderson | October 2009

A recent five-night stand by the quintessential Irish folk group The Dubliners answered the question of what to do when members from years past pass on: you keep playing with them anyway.

At the timeless old cabaret theater Metropol on the edge of the Gürtel, the Irishmen made another annual visit to Vienna in September to reminisce about former founding members Luke Kelly, Ronnie Drew and Ciaran Bourke, while keeping the music alive for future generations.

Formed in 1962, the Dublin bards have weathered the test of time and haven’t let age or loss stand in the way of the music, the melodies and the memories... oh, and the beer.

As it goes without saying, the theme of alcohol laced the evening from the outset in a rendition of "Banks of the Roses," a ballad about the so-called Irish triangle: a man, a woman and a drink. To introduce original member Barney McKenna for a tune sung shortly after, fiddler John Sheahan joked:

"I was going to say he likes fishing songs, but he also likes drinking songs."

As the murmur of laughter subsided the stout man set aside his banjo, hobbled to the microphone and bellowed through his scruffy beard the opening lines of a raspy ode about a wealthy landowner lamenting his former carefree days of vagaries past. At the chorus, the other four stepped up and effortlessly harmonized:

"So be easy and free, when you’re drinking with me! I’m a man you don’t meet everyday."

Sheahan continued with a homage to Luke Kelly, who succumbed to a brain tumor in 1984, and felt the epitaph on Luke’s grave summed him up best: "Luke Kelly, Dubliner".

"When Luke sang a song, his version became the definitive one," Sheahan said. A slide show accompanied his solemn reading of Kelly’s poem entitled, "For what died the sons of Róisín." Then, as if being resurrected, a video of the hirsute singer appeared on screen. He opened the tune "Maids When You’re Young, Never Wed an Old Man," reminding the ladies of an intimate reason why that might be a bad idea. On the real stage, the others stepped up and chimed in as if he had never left. At the end of the daring song, the crowd in the video cried out, and the crowd in the theater erupted in riposte.

Themes of Ireland’s rocky past and the plight of the expatriated were echoed in the songs that followed. "Kelly the Boy from Killane" told of John Kelly leading the bold Shemaliers from the south to the north during the Wolfe Tone rebellion in 1798. The popular tune "The Black Velvet Band" told of a prisoner’s path from "that neat little town of Belfast... to Van Dieman’s Land," aka Tasmania, a resounding rendition that got people singing along and jumping. The newest addition to the group Patsy Watchorn evoked the Troubles in a heart-wrenching version of "The Town I Loved So Well", about Derry in Northern Ireland.

There was certainly room in the set for humor. A distant beer bottle broke, unleashing a crashing echo through the theater, inspiring Barney to cry out, "Prost!" The crowd roared. As much traveling as they have done, they surely have picked up a few words in languages like German.

A resonating rendition of "The Auld Triangle", a five-part a capella lament for life in prison along Dublin’s Royal Canal, led into the short break. As in old theaters, a bell rang after fifteen minutes and everyone began returning to their seats. Stagehands brought out fresh beers to the empty stools on stage. Another tintinnabulation and everyone was ready for the second set… save the musicians. Ten minutes later the bell rang again; by then the beers had lost their froth. Their belated return? McKenna expained, "Wir haben zu viel Tee getrunken!" (We drank too much tea!)

Later, in an interview with The Vienna Review back stage, Sheahan was relaxed.

"We don’t prepare it, it’s spontaneous," Sheahan said of the humor. "We never memorize what we are going to say. I prepare some points but I like it to be natural." So is the music.

The Dubliners dedicated the opening song of the second set to guitar and tin whistle player Ciaran Bourke, forced to leave the band in 1974 due to illness, and who passed away in 1988.

"He was the only one with a university education, and fell in love with life and the lure of living," Sheahan said. After a brief pause, he added regretfully, "He was also a drinker."

Continuing with an endearing instrumental inspired by Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, between Sheahan and guitarist Eamonn Campbell, followed by the mournful "I Wish I Had Someone to Love Me" by Barney, the band wrapped up their "Time to Remember" with a tribute to the fallen heroes of World War II, and one of their own fallen heroes, Ronnie Drew.

The ensuing video showed Ronnie’s beaming eyes and tense pursed lips as he told the fate of McAlpine’s Fusiliers. The band again joined in without skipping a beat.

"There is emotion when talking about old members," Sheahan later admitted. "It’s natural. People are gone, but their spirits are here."

With the eulogies and reflection internalized like prayer, the band broke into lively tunes of celebration, a few reels, crescendo-ing to a ringing rendition of "Dirty Old Town" that helped the whole audience discover its voice. Applause segued into laughter and more plaudits as Séan Cannon, the singer in the middle, and the only one without some form of facial hair, announced the next tune.

"We’d like to finish off with a song by Metallica," Séan joked, a reference to the fact that the heavy metal band too recorded a version of the well-known "Whiskey in the Jar". The good ole Irish version seemed too good to be true, and the crowd couldn’t get enough.

"That’s enough!" Barney bellowed, in response to the long and loud applause. Only the Irish can get away with humor like that.

The equally famous "Wild Rover" closed the second set followed by an encore of the almost "touristy" "Molly Malone". Doesn’t the band get tired of playing the same songs night after night? Sheahan says he never tires of the tunes.

"There is something about the music that keeps you going," he said. "The music gets easier and the traveling gets harder!"

Unwinding in the dressing room after the show, Eamonn echoed this sentiment.

"There’s not enough time to do anything or to go anywhere!" he exclaimed while nursing a pilsner and a cigarette behind a coat rack that made him look like a prisoner of sorts. But the five nights of concerts showed no sign of wearing the sixty-something down, especially as he spontaneously broke into Elvis’ snappy "All Shook Up". The prison-like frame reminded him of another Elvis tune. "Let’s rock, everybody, let’s rock…" he sang through a smiling salt-and-pepper beard. "Dancin’ to the jailhouse rock!"

Such zest exuded the spirit of perseverance that stands strong against the vicissitudes of life and death. In a time when bands form and dissolve like clouds over a verdant Irish landscape on an overcast day, The Dubliners have discovered the enduring elements of music that have survived a 47-year journey around the world: cultivating the legacy of those who have come before you, singing through strife, never losing your sense of humor, still finding the diamond in a worn-out and overused medley.

Before retiring to his hotel, Eamonn offered one final tune. "We’ll meet again… don’t know where… don’t know when... but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day." He grinned as he crooned the Vera Lynn tune, and then added one parting wish in his weathered voice:

"May we all be around the same time again next year."

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