Ómós: Jimmy Kelly

Croí Eadroim by Des Geraghty

Jimmy Kelly rang me from his hospital bed to warn me of his imminent departure, telling me with typical humour, that he was “in rag order” and had developed pneumonia. But his death – on May 26 – although expected – was still a terrible blow. In mourning his sad loss, I believe it’s fitting that we also celebrate his remarkable life and remember the great joy and happiness he managed to share so generously with all who knew him.

In my case, my friendship with Jimmy and the extended Kelly family goes back well over half a century and during those years we shared many happy hours together – singing, playing music, having a jar or working for the trade union and labour movement. We had been friends since the days of Scéim na gCeardchumann and the early Fleadh Cheoils in the 1960s.

Jimmy Kelly (Photo: Clé Club)

Jimmy had a great musical sense. He sang from the heart and infected us all with his huge enthusiasm for life, music and song. He and the late Tom Crean were a wonderful duo at union conferences and other venues. They were founder members of the Clé Club in Liberty Hall. Jimmy also loved performing with the John Kelly Gang as well as the People’s College Choir where he had so many good friends. He used to sing at the Góilín and more recently himself and Pat Goode provided us with wonderfully humorous entertainments together.

Jimmy was a lifelong trade unionist of serious conviction, from the days of his membership of the Gold and Silver Smiths’ Union to working with the Workers’ Union of Ireland, the Federated Workers’ Union of Ireland and then, from 1990, after the FWUI-ITGWU merger, with SIPTU until his retirement.

He was a dedicated union official and never hesitated to give his services to workers and never lost his belief in the values of the labour movement. He was loyal to the great traditions of Larkin and Connolly and sought to realise their dreams for the workers he represented over the years. Equally, he was a proud Dubliner who never sacrificed his Dublin accent, when singing, for any version of the mid-Atlantic drawl.

Given that Jimmy died on a day of great celebration of women’s rights in Ireland, I am reminded of the historic 1912 strike of women textile workers strike in St Lawrence in the USA which gave rise to the wonderful slogan: Not just Bread but Roses too. Jimmy certainly embraced and personified that concept and spirit – combining the demand for better pay and conditions with a strong desire to be able to laugh and sing and enjoy the good things in life.

The memoir: written by musician and former union leader, Des Geraghty

Jimmy was a very powerful singer. But like all members of a talented family of singers, he had a big challenge to carve out his own identity as a unique performer. Yet he did this with great gusto and success. It was Jimmy who inspired me to write my personal memoir of his brother Luke, after speaking at his grave in Glasnevin all those years ago. In more recent times, Jimmy and I had been working together to have Luke and the Dubliners remembered with a fitting public sculpture in the city of Dublin.

My only regret now is that Jimmy will not be with us to see that project through to a successful conclusion. But rest assured, I will make every effort to ensure that before too much longer we will all be gathered again to witness the unveiling of that sculpture.

Like his brother Luke, Jimmy used his singing to express his deeper emotions about life and especially The Joy of Living by Ewan MacColl.

Take me to some high place of heather, rock and ling
Scatter my dust and ashes, feed me to the wind

So that I may be part of all you see, the air you are breathing
I’ll be part of the curlew’s cry and the soaring hawk
The blue milkwort and the sundew hung with diamonds
I’ll be riding the gentle breeze as it blows through your hair
Reminding you how we shared in the joy of living

Who but Jimmy could turn Three Lovely Lasses from Kimmage into a satire on housing with the line:The TD just before the election, Said he’d get us a house

Who but Jimmy could turn Three Lovely Lasses from Kimmage into a satire on housing with the line:
The TD just before the election,
Said he’d get us a house near me Ma

or capture again the threat of nuclear destruction in The Big Fat Man in Charge of the Terrible Knob with the final retort:

You don’t have to kill the whole bloody world to make the people free.

Jimmy’s sensitive rendition of The Prisoner of Clonmel reminded us of the heartbreak and sorrow of imprisonment. Also the pain of love rejected and exiled from home in that great traditional classic, Bunclody, which he sang so well.

He also sang in the traditions of Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, Zozimus, Dominic Behan, Frank Harte, his brother Luke and the Dubliners.

Another favourite for many of us was Jimmy’s singing of the beautiful love song:

You are the call, I am the answer
You are the wish, I am the way

You the music I the dancer
You are the night and I am the day

Perhaps, in death, Jimmy can also be remembered for his rendition of those immortal words of another old favourite which he loved to sing on occasions:

Come fill up your glasses with brandy and wine
And whatever the damage I’ll pay,
So be easy and free while you’re drinking with me,
I’m a man you won’t meet every day.

Jimmy certainly was a man you won’t meet every day! While he was loyal to the Irish tradition, he was also an innovator, an internationalist and many other things besides. There is a sean-fhocal in the Irish language which says:

Maireann croí eadroim i bhfad – A light heart lives long

and I believe the memory of Jimmy Kelly will certainly live long in all of us who were privileged to have known him.

Des Geraghty


Jimmy Kelly and Tom Crean

Tom Crean

Memories of Jimmy Kelly are inextricably linked with the late Tom Crean for many people familiar with the Dublin traditional music scene in recent years.

Jimmy and Tom were work colleagues as trade union officials in first the Federated Workers’ Union of Ireland and subsequently SIPTU. But they were also comrades-in-song both as soloists; as members of the People’s College Choir; and as a duo with wonderfully complementary voices – with Jimmy’s slightly raw tenor a perfect fit with Tom’s mellower baritone.

But more than their vocal blend was the mutual understanding in their performance – generating an infectious energy or a reflective calmness in their audience – depending on the song.

Tom, of course, had previous, as they say – both as one of the founder members of the great Tradition Club in Slattery’s of Capel Street, Dublin, in the 1960s and as one of the groundbreaking a capella quartet, the Press Gang, who popularised part-singing in Irish traditional music – which has continued to this day through the Voice Squad.

Tom’s deep knowledge of songs from a wide variety of sources made him the vital cog around which many a singing session turned – with his ability to suggest an appropriate song to follow up on a particular theme, location or style to continue the flow of the session.

While both Tom and Jimmy were highly accomplished solo performers, it was inevitable that they would be asked to duet if they happened to be in the same place at the same time. However, the partnership came to an end five years ago this month when Tom sadly passed away.

Together they lifted many a session with their characteristic rendition of The Jug of Punch (The 23rd of June) and the rousing finale to a night’s singing with The Parting Glass:

So I’ll gently rise and softly call ‘Goodnight and joy be with you all.’

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