Two Lukes

'Two for Luke': Dublin's rocky road to two Luke Kelly statues

Next week’s unveiling(s) ends over two years of debate on whether the city needs two Luke Kellys.

Luke Kelly. Dubliner Luke Kelly sings 'On Raglan Road' in 1979

DUBLINERS WILL NEXT week see one of its iconic sons return to its streets when not one, but two Luke Kelly statues are unveiled either side of the River Liffey.

Organised by Dublin City Council, the official unveiling of both sculptures will be undertaken by President of Ireland Michael D Higgins and Lord Mayor of Dublin Nial Ring, an event that will end a long-running saga between two sculptors and their patrons.

Calls for a Luke Kelly tribute stretch back to 1985, one year after his death, according to local independent councillor Christy Burke.

Kelly was born in 1940 and grew up in Sheriff Street in Dublin’s north inner city. One of the original members of The Dubliners, formed in 1962, his powerful singing voice marked him out as one Ireland’s finest folk singers until his death in 1984 aged 43. 

His best-known recordings include ‘On Raglan Road’, ‘The Auld Triangle’ and ‘The Rocky Road To Dublin’. 

It wasn’t until 2016, however, that one – then suddenly two – tributes to the Dubliner came on the cards. 

Burke put forward a motion in 2004 to commission and install a tribute to the Dubliners legend.

When the council finally came round to the idea a decade later – Burke making it a priority when he became Lord Mayor in 2014 – it commissioned artist Vera Klute to design a bust of the singer.

Around the same time, however, it was offered another Luke Kelly. 

‘Long overdue’

This statue, designed and sculpted by John Coll, best-known for his Patrick Kavanagh bronze along Dublin’s Grand Canal, was offered to the city as a gift by a Drumcondra man, the late Gerry Hunt, who’d originally intended to place the statue in his back garden. 

In August 2016, Hunt wrote to the City Arts Office to offer the bronze statue “cost free to Dublin City Council for the people of Dublin city”. 

All that Hunt asked was that the council find a suitable location for his Luke Kelly statue and maintain it. 

In creating his bronze Luke Kelly, sculptor Coll has said that he read Des Geraghty’s 1994 memoir of Kelly for inspiration. 

“The way Luke performed his music was unique,” says Coll. “The intensity of purpose, the emotional charge, the texture of his voice were completely his own.”

There was a snag with patron Hunt’s offer, though. 

The council had already commissioned its own Klute version of Luke Kelly and was reluctant to override or compromise its own commission. Cue a year-long saga over what to do with the two Lukes. 

Throughout late 2016 and early 2017, council officials debated behind closed doors about what should be done about the statues and, in July 2017, they decided that the city would accept both statues. 

“The proposal we wish to make, in the end, is that we propose to [accept] both,” the city’s Arts Officer Ray Yeates said at the time, making it clear that, in breaking its own rules around commissioning, taking both Luke Kellys was an exception. 

It would be another 18 months before an official unveiling was confirmed. Between then and now the council had to work out the mechanics; where both statues would be placed and how it could affect the streetscapes. 

On next Wednesday, the 35th anniversary of Kelly’s death, Coll’s Luke Kelly – a bronze work of the singer seated while playing the banjo – will be unveiled at South King Street at 2pm while Klute’s Luke Kelly – a large marble bust – will be unveiled at Sheriff Street at 3:30pm.

A concert, featuring Glen Hansard and former Dubliner John Sheahan, is set to take place at Liberty Hall later that evening.

“It’s long overdue,” says Burke. “But it’s Luke’s day. They say ‘keep the best ’til last’ and so they did. Two for Luke.”

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