With their silver hair, beards and centuries-old repertoire of traditional Irish folk, The Dubliners were unlikely rock stars.
But when it came to living the rock and roll lifestyle, the lads from the Liffey put most younger bands to shame. Tales abound of lost weekends, impromptu pub gigs, wild after-parties and Guinness-drinking binges that went on for days. And they have inspired generations of Gaelic musicians — from The Pogues to Irish-American Celtic-punks Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys.
Seemingly indestructible, they last year clocked up 50 years and celebrated with a sold-out night at the Royal Albert Hall. However, it was to be their swan song. In May, their banjo playing founder member ‘Banjo’ Barney McKenna, died. Fiddle player John Sheahan announced the band’s retirement in the autumn — ending the chapter with a set on Jools Holland’s New Year’s Eve Hootenanny and a tribute gig to Barney in January.
And that is where the story might have ended. But this bunch of Irish Rovers weren’t ready to stop, so members Sean Cannon, Eamonn Campbell, Patsy Watchorn and banjo virtuoso Gerry O’Connor — who had been brought in to replace Barney — got the band together again. Calling themselves The Dublin Legends, they are, once again, doing what they do best... playing and partying.
For one member in particular, it’s a blessed relief. Bushy-bearded guitarist Eamonn has been a Dubliner since 1987. But a bout with cancer looked likely to end his musical career along with that of the band.
Yet 66-year-old Eamonn is a fighter — and is not only well, but is cheerful and funny. “Things are grand,” the father of six tells me, from his home in the Irish capital. “I had an operation and then I contracted TB, but it’s no big deal. I just have to take 11 bloody tablets every day before I eat.
“It ruined the start of the year but I’m still here. And it can only get better.”
On Wednesday, Eamonn and his ‘Legends’ play the New Theatre, Oxford, on a tour of the UK which will see them playing such rousing sing-alongs as Whiskey in The Jar, Dirty Old Town, Seven Drunken Nights, Molly Malone and Black Velvet Band.
“This is the first tour we are doing and I’m looking forward to it,” says Louth-born Eamonn. “I have to take it easy and can’t be jumping around the stage — but I am still one of the youngest in the band.”
He adds: “It will be The Dubliners in all but name. Unfortunately things turned out the way they did. I’d have preferred to have carried on as the Dubliners but John [Sheahan] called it a day, and he had the name registered.
“I’d been doing it for 26 years and didn’t want to stop. I had never worked with the same musicians for so long. It was like a family. When Barney died, John said it was Barney’s wish that the group would cease to be. But there’s no way of checking. But what’s done is done, and I’d say we are very happy.”
It is largely down to the gravelly-voiced Eamonn that so many people have heard of The Dubliners. He was the driving force behind the band’s tie-up with folk-punks The Pogues — which gave them their biggest hit, the dancefloor-filling The Irish Rover. It was a relationship which took the band way beyond the traditional Irish music scene and set the bar for Celtic rock.
“The Dubliners opened the door for a lot of other bands,” he says.
“The highlight was probably being on Top of the Pops with The Pogues. That was my idea. It was really exciting.”
It was a move that would take them way beyond the music pubs of Ireland. “We played a gig in Norway and there were all these big guys with Mohawk hairdos and earrings. We thought they were at the wrong concert.
And how did they get on with The Pogues’ dentally-challenged frontman? “Shane MacGowan is brilliant,” he says. “He’s a much misunderstood boy. He’s always portrayed as a drunk but is a real poet and a gifted songwriter. And he’s really staunch.
“We could still teach them a few things, though. We’ve had some wild nights together. We’d leave the bar at 10 the next morning, in a fog.”
“Then there was the time we played the Fleadh (festival) in Finsbury Park,” he recalls. “We ended up sleeping in a squat and woke up days later with Paddies all over the place.”
What state were they in? “We looked like we’d enjoyed ourselves!” he laughs.
“What you see on-stage is what we are off-stage: five guys, most with beards, who play acoustic instruments with no gimmicks. It’s full steam ahead with us — and the music reflects that.”
New Theatre, Oxford
Tickets: £21 atgtickets.com/oxford