Inner View: Rest in Peace Danny Doyle
by John O’Brien, Jr.
Irish folk singer Danny Doyle passed away at his home in Manassas, Virginia on August 7th, at age 79. He was one of the most significant influences in my Irish writing life. He shared his life and his music with me with openness and our shared love for the great story songs, not only for my first book, Festival Legends: Songs & Stories, but in great stories before, and after, perhaps not suitable for print.
Danny set the standard, and had an impactful career around the world sharing his love for the songs of Ireland. His passion, humor and gifted performances gave him seats next to next to Bernstein, Sinatra, and so many more. He played most major Irish festivals, including many appearances at Cleveland Irish Fest, and tv stations and shows around the whole world.
On Wednesday, August 7th, Danny went home to God. May he Rest in Peace, knowing his impact and knowing he brought great, great joy to so many, many people. To his wife Taffy and loved ones, you remain in our thoughts and prayers.
Following is an excerpt of the biography I wrote on Danny from my first book, Festival Legends: Songs & Stories.
“After a while, people started drifting in and soon I was singing Irish ballads for Ms. Sinatra, Robert Stack, Robert Mitchum, Henry Mancini, James Coburn and God know who else. They loved Finnegan’s Wake, and as I sat there teaching them the chorus, I suddenly thought, ‘what the hell am I doing here, I’m Danny Doyle, a coal-man’s son from the back lanes of Dublin.’ All I could do was laugh.” – Danny Doyle
One of the great Irish ballad singers to ever play an Irish festival, a concert hall or a palace, Danny Doyle has captured audiences throughout the world with his songs and stories, stories often told to him by his mother and his great-grandmother, or learned in the back room of some distant pub. His great-grandmother’s bright memories of the strike and lock-out in Dublin 1913, the violent drama of the 1916 Easter Rising and the following War of Independence, 1918-1922, fascinated the young Dublin man who soaked up the tales that now make up much of his stage presentation.
Danny, born in Dublin in 1940, is one of three boys and five girls. They lived in a damp two room basement flat on Herbert Place, by the banks of the Grand Canal near Baggot Street Bridge. “A somewhat Bohemian area,” Danny says,” of whom someone wrote ‘no small area of any city anywhere has been trod by so much genius.’ Something of an exaggeration perhaps, but still, there is a great deal of truth in it.”
Renowned literary personalities and neighbors Brendan Behan (1923 – 1964) and Patrick Kavanagh (1904 – 1967), who heard the young Doyle singing in the church choir in St. Mary’s, Haddington Road, Dublin, encouraged his interest in Irish song. Behan’s appreciation was often expressed with the occasional shilling or two.
Danny avers he was fortunate to be born into an Ireland still immersed in the Irish oral tradition. This tradition had flourished since the arrival of the Celts, five hundred years before the coming of Christ. The new nation, one that had survived the centuries old attempts to subjugate it, was emerging into a dramatically changing new world and “the national radio service, Radio Eireann, did much to foster the folk tradition and celebrate the new nationhood with programming that reflected the Irish heritage and character,” said Danny.
Danny is eternally grateful to the radio of his childhood, which helped him to learn of the depth and richness of Irish culture. He remembers that, “There was for me excitement in the discovery of every new song, play, poem and story.”
As a teen-ager Danny became intensely interested in folk songs. Since his early childhood he had heard much of these songs sung around his home in Dublin, from his mother and especially his great-grandmother, Bridget Fitzgerald, from Kilrush, County Clare. But now, through the songs, he developed a fierce curiosity about Irish history, for he had learned little of it while in school.
“They gave us a litany of dates, a broad overview and not much else; they served us up the big picture, never the small stories that collectively make up the whole-cloth of our past. But my curiosity for the living, breathing history, the heart-beat of the incredible characters who make up our Irish story, was found at home,” Doyle recounts.
Danny tries to bring his past and even the generations before that; to bring all of Irish history, to the stage. He presents a broad, meticulously researched show, so that we may understand where our ancestors came from, what made them what they were and therefore, who we are. Danny doesn’t just transport his listeners, he engulfs them. Danny strives, as Sam Ferguson, a 19thcentury poet says: “to link his present with his country’s past and live anew in the knowledge of his sires.”
While bringing the songs to the stage, Danny also shows us much more than just singing; he brings to life the milieu, the social, political, joyous, humorous and tragic events and times in which the songs germinated – all in a way that grips the audience and takes them on an emotional time machine, right back to the days written about in the songs and poetry. Danny’s voice is enough to make you take note – here is a phenomenal singer – but the presentation of his songs and stories is like a sumptuous, endless multi-course meal, full of surprises and wonderful tastes and memorable, often humorous conversation.
Danny’s great-grandmother, Bridget Fitzgerald, had been involved in the awful eight months long strike and lock-out in Dublin in 1913, the curtain-raising event that led directly to the rebellion in 1916.
Doyle’s mother and great-grandmother sang the songs and told the stories, always explaining the related background, and young Danny listened well, “in,” he explained, “a permanent state of quizzical wonder and intense curiosity.”
At that time Dublin presented the most extra-ordinary contrast in poverty and magnificence. The once fashionable Georgian mansions, built for 18thcentury aristocrats, now housed more than one third of the city’s population, each mansion housing more than one hundred people, one family per room. The death rate was the highest in Europe, exceeding that of even Moscow and Calcutta. This was the domicile of the laboring class, who, for a pittance in wages, worked a seventy-hour work week.
Behind the once stately facades, now crumbling and decaying, lay a hidden city of desperation and disease. There was also anger, and a defiance of unjust authority. Too often stricken, the laboring class in 1913 struck back. Irish Transport & General Workers Union bosses James Connolly and Jim Larkin called a general strike. The intransigent masters of Dublin, the employers, declared; “Let them submit or starve.” Larkin shouted back his now famous line: “If they want revolution, then God be with them.”
Danny’s great-grandmother was in the thick of the violent events of the time and told him about that awful and often violent period in Dublin history. The striker’s meetings and demonstrations were declared unlawful and riots broke out daily without warning. She told him how the police attacked the strikers and with their heavy batons, they beat savagely on flesh and bone. The dead and injured lay in scores on the streets of the city. She remembered one man being dragged to jail and although his jaw was shattered, he roared; “Up Jim Larkin! Bayonet nor baton can stop us now. The workers are loose at last.”
The strike lasted eight months. The men, beaten by the hunger of their wives and children, were forced to renounce the union, but the resentment of injustice, the scheming and brooding, would continue, indirectly even leading to the point where a fresh blow would be struck on Easter 1916, when the liberation of the world’s oldest political prisoner, Ireland, would commence.
During the dark days of that rebellion, Danny’s great-grandmother, a member of Cumann na mBhan(The Organization of Women), would act as a courier, carrying messages between the rebel positions, or ferrying the seriously wounded to the hospital, running the gauntlet of burning buildings and British machine guns.
“Granny Fitz thought that any songs other than rebel songs were not worth singing. ‘She was a fierce, implacable, rebelly woman,’” he said, with palpable pride.
The Doyle family occupied the lowest possible rung on the social ladder in Dublin. Danny’s father was a coal man, selling coal, logs and turf from the back of a horse and cart. Out in all weathers, ill-clad and hardly nourished, he was often sick, sometimes for a month or more.
Even though he was a very young man/child, Danny would have to step in and make the deliveries. This Dickensian existence made a deep impression upon the young teen-ager: “I determined there had to be a better life than the one my father was forced to follow. On a day in 1953, I got an inkling of what that life might be. An unusual and unexpected event brightened up the grey, drab, colorless lives, we often lived,” Danny explains.
One day in Herbert Lane, just across from his father’s coal yard, an Irish Army truck pulled up outside a crumbling coach house. An officer and soldiers of the Second Field Engineers proceeded to unload materials that looked suspiciously like Irish Army supplies: timber, toolboxes, ladders, cement, paint of a camouflage hue, rolls of latrine canvas and more. For months and months, the sound of hammering, sawing and drilling could be heard until finally the work was finished.
The Irish Army officer, Captain Alan Simpson, invited Danny and his father in to have a look. They couldn’t have been more astonished at the sight that greeted them, Doyle recalls:
“We were standing in what looked like an early Victorian theatre seen through the wrong end of a telescope, a strange combination of a doll’s house and an opera house. The moon-lighting Irish soldiers had built a theatre with a tiny stage and seating for fifty-three people. The walls were painted maroon and Irish Army green. The seats were covered with latrine canvas. The stage lights were large tin cans that had previously carried ammunition. There were gilt pillars and a tiny coffee bar in the corner.”
The elder Doyle became caretaker and Danny “was appointed general factotum” (jack-of-all-trades), moving scenery, raising the curtain and running the box office. Here he met the traveling players, learning songs and recitations from them. It was from this experience that he got his first inkling of what an uneducated teen-ager with no academic qualifications might do with his life.
“At thirteen years [old], the Pike Theatre gave me an education in European drama. At that tender age I saw the works of Ionesco, Beckett, Ugo Betti, Diego Fabbri, Ibsen, Shaw, Sartre, and the gritty plays and songs of my neighbor, Brendan Behan.”
On leaving school at age fourteen, Danny decided it was time to satisfy a burning need to explore the world beyond his hometown. “For as long as I could remember I had gazed longingly at the Dublin Mountains, wondering daily what exotic locales lay beyond them, what new songs and strange stories were waiting to be savored out there in ‘the wilds’ as we called them.”
Danny was soon able to answer those questions, for he would shortly go to work as a messenger boy to help out with the family finances. So, with camping gear packed on his bike, he set off to explore the world outside of Dublin. “In the local library I had seen black and white photos of County Kerry. The pictures depicted magnificent scenery and mile long deserted beaches. Kerry it would be. Pedaling like a mad Dervish, I reached Rossbeg Beach near Glenbeigh [this is about two hundred miles from Dublin] in three and a half days.”
In the local Kerry pubs at night, Danny would drink lemonade, intoxicated with the strange talk and wondrous songs of love, loss, war, death and marriage. Ballads about bacon and cabbage, pints of porter, tales of murder and of a de-frocked priest and another concerning a mad goat, filled his ears and touched his soul. He was hooked. “I realized that Irish folk song would become the unrelenting quest of my life.”
Then in the early 1960s, the Irish music scene took a dramatic turn, and all was changed. Four “Hearty & Hellish” Irish troubadours burst onto the world stage and by themselves created an international audience for Irish folk song which, in turn, prompted the beginning of a recording industry in Ireland.
“There is not an Irish ballad singer alive today that does not owe the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem an enormous debt. I was in abject admiration of them, never missing their wonderful concerts in Dublin. They were heroes who became my friends. When I was a raw recruit, they treated me as if I were an old friend, and an equal. The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem didn’t simply open doors for all of us, they kicked them down!”
Traveling around the folk clubs of Great Britain, Doyle learned literally hundreds of esoteric songs, many of them Irish. When he arrived back in Ireland in September 1966, the country was in the grip of the folk song revival.
With his repertoire of little-known songs, Danny became an immediate and significant success. Sean McCarthy’s song, Step It out Mary, Doyle’s first number one hit, was followed by two more in the same year, the second of which, Whiskey on a Sunday, was, for many years after, the best-selling single in Ireland.
It was another life altering moment for the young Dublin man. The hit records and best-selling albums kept coming; including; Step It Out, Mary(1967); The Irish Soldier (1967); Whiskey On A Sunday (1967); Lizzie Lindsay (1968); The Mucky Kid (1968); The Green Hills Of Kerry (1971); A Daisy A Day (1972); Leaving Nancy (1978) and The Rare Auld Times (1979). The Rare Ould Times is often considered Danny’s signature song or anthem. Other trademark songs that once heard, belong only to him, include; The West’s Awake, Grace, The Foggy Dew, Dublin Me Darlin’, The Band Played Waltzing Matilda and Down by the Glenside.
Soon Danny was touring the world from Romania to Moscow; Monte Carlo to Malta, Rio de Janeiro to Sydney, New Zealand to Canada, as well as the United States, and many points in between.
“I feel that the song is more important than the singer and I consider myself merely a servant of the songs, a conduit for passing them on to others. The focus should not be on us performers, what we ballad singers and musicians do should not be a ‘show-business ego trip.’ The focus should be on the history, the people, the sufferings, sacrifices and joys from which the ballads and music came.”
In the late 1970s, Danny had “a discussion with myself,” as he put it, and came to a career altering decision. Tired of the lighter musical fare he had been singing since the beginning of his career in “show-business,” he avowed, that from that point on, he would only do work he absolutely believed in. He promised himself that he would only work with people he admired and could learn from, people who would expect a lot from him, in terms of performance and honesty.
He found a young Limerick musician and budding record producer, Bill Whelan, who had never been involved in Irish folk music. They would go on to collaborate on seven albums, one of which, The Highwayman, was described by the magazine, In Dublin,as “One of the best folk albums of all time.”
Working with Danny in the studio, Whelan was introduced to the extraordinary talents of Donal Lunny, Liam O’Flynn, Andy Irvine, Davy Spillane and others. It would be a life changing time for the brilliant Whelan as well, who absorbed every note and nuance played by these superb artists. Out of this immersion would eventually come Whelan’s incredible success, Riverdance.
“Without the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, I wouldn’t have a career,” Danny continues earnestly. “I loved the original Dubliners, especially Luke Kelly. Although dead more than twenty years [Luke Kelly passed away in 1984 of a brain tumor], he is still head and shoulders over all of us and the best Irish ballad singer ever.”
When asked what singers he listens to now, he gave an interesting answer: “There are many fine singers out there and I enjoy them, but I find that at this stage in my life I learn more about expressive singing from watching really good actors than I do by listening to vocalists. That may sound puzzling and even paradoxical but let me explain. What a really good actor does is; he internalizes the emotion of the piece he or she is playing. Instead of engaging in scenery chewing histrionics, the actor shows the emotions of the moment through subtle facial and body language, thus making the moment powerful.
“It is a very intricate art and I constantly strive to incorporate it into my singing. The late, great Luke Kelly was a master of this. He measured the meaning and intent of a lyric then sublimated the feelings it expressed. The performance and song were the more powerful for it. Some Irish ballad singers would do well to learn this technique instead of just roaring out a song from start to finish.
“I became an Irish folk singer because I’m not qualified to do anything else. Leaving school at age fourteen in 1954 was an economic necessity, and besides, they weren’t teaching me the things I cared about, the music and history. But thank God for folk music, it saved my life. I am forever grateful for the rich gift handed to me by our culture. It is something I discovered when very young, and more than fifty years later, the gift is still giving. It constantly reveals itself, bringing again that excitement I felt as a youngster at the discovery of a new song or story.
“I was born and raised in Ireland, a place of memories and plentiful ghosts, in Dublin town hard by the banks of the Liffey’s Guinness-coloured waters. The city was a great teacher, giving me history and legend, stories of the commonplace and heroic, legends more real than dull facts; the bawdy, rowdy grist of the ballad maker’s mill.
“The poet Brendan Kennealy wrote that ‘All songs are living ghosts and long for a living voice.’ I sometimes visualize the living voice of my great-grandmother sitting in the chimney corner of her single room in the fetid slums of Dublin, conjuring into spectral life, through song and poem, heroes, rebels, rogues and lovers, the song-time history of Ireland.”
The legacy of Danny’s body of work will continue to educate and inspire future generations – long may it live. For just as he was inspired by singers before him, Danny has inspired a whole new generation; to pick up a guitar, to learn the songs and to spread the love of Irish music and history through song, thorough research and the passing on of our rich heritage, the whole world over. Doyle’s performances – not just the gorgeously sung song, but the relating, with drama or great humor, of the people, places and events related to it, cause the song, and performer, to be emblazoned in our memories, forever.