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For every inspirational Phil Lynott or poignant Luke Kelly - acutely talented originals that no other place could have produced - we have a Daniel O'Donnell or a Joe Dolan

For every inspirational Phil Lynott or poignant Luke Kelly - acutely talented originals that no other place could have produced - we have a Daniel O'Donnell or a Joe Dolan

originally published: January, 2008


It used to be the ambition of the Irish showbands, who dominated the popular music scene in Ireland in the 60s with a blend of country music and pop covers, to send them home sweating. The finest singer from that era - perhaps the only one of them with a modicum of authentic talent - was Joe Dolan, who has just died in his late sixties in Dublin.

In a small country like Ireland one has to take what one gets by way of art and entertainment. There are, despite diasporal evidence to the contrary, less than five million of us. Some of us are very rough and some are very smooth. Some are both. For every inspirational Phil Lynott or poignant Luke Kelly - acutely talented originals that no other place could have produced - we have a Daniel O'Donnell or a Joe Dolan. Not that it is fair to class the vivacious and likable Dolan alongside the slushy and lachrymose O'Donnell.

His best recording was a late 60s local hit, Tar and Cement. His worst was the execrable More and More, my mother's favourite and many other Irish mother's favourite. His style was vaguely reminiscent of Freddy Fender but without Fender's musical intelligence or astute choice of material.

Dolan enjoyed forty years of female adoration in Ireland in addition to scoring a top 5 hit single in England and five consecutive No. 1s in Apartheid-era South Africa. There was obviously something about the seemingly harmless Joe which appealed to the citizens of genocidal regimes, for he was also unaccountably popular in Israel.

I first heard rumours that he was gay when I was at school. We derived immense schoolboy mirth from the fact that one of his early hits was Because I Love You in My Own Peculiar Way. Only last month I discussed Dolan while having dinner with an old friend in London, a man with a working knowledge of Dublin's notorious late 70s Burgh Quay rent boy scene. "Joe Dolan couldn't be kept away from there. They had to drag him out of the place." my pal said.

No doubt Ireland's rancid tabloid press - utterly third world and post-colonial in its nastiness - will leap on this aspect of the Dolan story once the clay has settled on his grave.

By the time I sat down with my mother - a few months before she died in 2000 - to watch him do the "welcoming the new millennium" show on RTE, he was well past his best. Years of lucrative cabaret gigs had reduced his once considerable bag of tricks to a wailing warthog of a voice and a somewhat paunchy appearance.

He was subsequently taken in hand by a few smart-alecks who got him to record an album of contemporary material by the likes of Oasis and REM. Not quite as cool or as transgressive a project as the brains behind it imagined, much like the new Ireland is not quite as postmodern a place as some of its inhabitants like to think, it had some moments. Perhaps a wailing warthog was exactly what was needed to make Everybody Hurts sound like a real song. He knew how to sell you a song.

So he died as popular as he'd ever been, an ambassador from a planet that expired light years ago, The Land of the Showband. Other survivors from that epoch like former prime minister Albert Reynolds and property millionaire-cum-third rate Sinatra copyist Dickie Rock accompanied him to his grave. The priest said he'd given a lot of money, discreetly, to charity. I'm sure that this is true because, unassuming and friendly, he didn't seem to be a bad sort.

And he always sent them home sweating.

See Joe Dolan in action on YouTube or Luke Kelly or Phil Lynott. Don't bother about Daniel O'Donnell.

Joe Ambrose

Joe Ambrose has written 12 books, the most recent being Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. He is currently writing a book about the Spanish Civil War.

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