The Fount of All Earthly Wisdom (runaground) wrote in u2,
The Fount of All Earthly Wisdom

I promised something a little more singable this time around, right?

U2 & a Band of Bowsies - The Ballad of Ronnie Drew

Before we begin, though, a quick follow-up on Viva Davidoff... remember how I said that I'd never seen a single shred of evidence supporting the interwebs claim that it's an "exultation" to the Swiss tobacco company? Well, this took me a little bit to dig up, but I found THIS to refute that claim. Go on, listen to some of the samples on Amazon (including four albums prior to Passengers) and tell me that "Viva Davidoff" doesn't refer to him! I couldn't find any good direct connections between Brian Eno and PC Davidoff but this HAS to be the real reason for the title, don't you think?

Okay, so, let's get on with today's song...

Who is Ronnie Drew? Why does he matter to U2?

It took time for Irish music (of any kind) to become popular outside of Ireland. One of the first bands to have success along those lines were The Dubliners; two of their recordings ("Seven Drunken Nights", and "Black Velvet Band") made it into the British charts in the Sixties, and their popularity then increased dramatically over time. They played the Ed Sullivan Show, the Royal Albert Hall, and at numerous other high profile venues around the world.

The Dubliners have been called "the spiritual godfathers" of modern Irish music. They generally didn't release original compositions; instead, they brought traditional Irish instrumentals, ballads, street music, and bawdy songs to the masses.

Ronnie Drew was the lead vocalist for the majority of The Dubliners' run.
[His] gravel voice and deadpan humour endeared him to all age groups. He lent an endearing quality to the working class Dublin accent, so often despised as "Jakeen" [(lower-class)] by the rest of the country. His voice also was that of the street: Dublin has a long tradition of street balladeers. In the decades before the Sixties, the singer and the street musician might perform outside a pub before going in to make a collection, or get paid by the publican to move on.
Drew left the band on two separate occasions to focus on solo work, but his contributions to The Dubliners are almost certainly for what he will always be most known. He is considered by many as an embodiment of Irish culture and life itself.

Groups like The Dubliners, The Clancy Brothers, and The Chieftains helped to set the global stage for future Irish acts. Without them, who knows if Irish punk/rock would ever have caught on in the same way?

U2, and particularly Bono, held Ronnie Drew and The Dubliners in high regard:
"You can take the hardest rock band on the earth and they sound like a bunch of girls next to The Dubliners," Bono, the lead singer of U2, once said of the group.
In 1987, at the 25th Anniversary celebration for The Dubliners on the Late Late Show (see the video linked at the end of this post), after U2's performance of Springhill Mining Disaster, Bono was asked about the influence of Luke Kelly, the other "main" member of The Dubliners:
Bono: Yeah, I would say, you know, if we’ve got something of the soul of Ronnie Drew and the rest of the guys, I’d like to think we’ve something of the spirit of, of Luke Kelly just he, as a singer he inspired me to sing... I mean I grew up in my house, they, you know, Christmas time and other times on the weekend -- in fact, any time drink was brought out -- you’d sing some of his songs, and I’m still singing them because I think they’re worth singing.
If you listen to enough U2 bootlegs, you're sure to have heard them cover a lot of songs that Ronnie Drew and The Dubliners helped to make famous: Whiskey in the Jar, Dirty Old Town, The Auld Triangle, The Wild Rover, Springhill Mining Disaster, and Molly Malone.

The circumstances leading to the song

In late 2006, Ronnie Drew was admitted to a hospital to undergo tests for suspected cancer. Shortly after, he began treatment for throat cancer. The chemotherapy caused him to lose his trademark hair and beard. From an article in the Independent:
When Bono rang to ask how he was doing with the cancer, Ronnie Drew just did what he does best: he put on another performance.

After shooting the breeze for a while, Bono asked: "Well, Ronnie, do you think the doctors can fix it?"

Well, says Ronnie, in his best gravel-under-a-steamroller voice, "I hope they don't do too good a job - I've gigs to do!"

Where would Ronnie Drew be with a normal voice?
Sadly, Drew's wife of 40+ years passed away in mid-2007 (also due to cancer).

The song's genesis

The idea to do a song for Ronnie Drew supposedly came during a dinner between Bono and Simon Carmody. Carmody is a long-time friend of Bono.
“Simon seemed to think that Robert Hunter was a big fan of Ronnie,” Bono revealed. “Hunter is a fascinating character. He learned German to translate some of the works of Rainer Maria Rilke and his translations have become recognised as among the most faithful, and the best, by academics and experts – which is a very interesting story in itself.

“To be honest, I can’t quite remember how it all happened,” he added. “There was some vino involved, it has to be said, but – as far as I can recollect – myself and Simon were waxing lyrical about the great man. I think the idea was that we would all try and write a song for Ronnie to sing... but in translation, ‘a song for Ronnie’ became ‘a song about Ronnie’. Simon suggested asking Robert to get involved in writing the song. We contacted him and got through – and he was really up for the whole thing.”

“Me and Bono were just out having a meal and a bottle of wine, and talking,” Simon recounted, “and Bono had this idea about Ronnie Drew – like, why don’t we do a song for him? It was just a feeling, that it would be a nice thing to do something really joyful and up and positive.

“We were talking about lyrics and lyricists, the way you do, and I mentioned Robert Hunter. I was always a huge fan of the Grateful Dead, American Beauty and all of that, and Robert Hunter is just a genius lyricist. And there are so many folk references in the Grateful Dead’s work – you get a vibe off people and I sensed that he’d know all about Ronnie.”

And so it proved. “Bono has a whim of iron,” Carmody laughed. “When he gets an idea he delivers. His attitude was just: ‘let’s see if he’d be up for it’. Book a studio. Just do it. And it’s been incredible, the way it’s taken shape.”
So, Robert Hunter, lyricist for many of the Grateful Dead's songs, agreed to write lyrics.

A bit more from the Independent about the motivation for the song:
"When you're fighting cancer your mood is critical. We want Ronnie to know how much he is really respected and loved," stated Bono.

"This is a big fight for him. But he will win it. But like any fighter, it's easier if there's a crowd cheering. Ronnie is like the King of Ireland, and we are his subjects."
The song itself

The Ballad of Ronnie Drew was recorded in Windmill Lane Studios on January 14/15, 2008, in Dublin. As you likely know, Windmill Lane is pretty much "U2 HQ".

The "Band of Bowsies" has a lot of connections to U2, some of which have been detailed by u2wanderer here. The u2wanderer link also lists all of the contributors to the track.

The one interesting bit about the actual music performed is that Edge is playing a Tres, a Cuban double-stringed guitar that Morleigh gave him for Christmas. It definitely lends a folksier-feel to the tune. Supporting U2 for music are The Dubliners and Kíla.

The song was released to Irish radio on February 19, as a digital download on February 22, and as a CD release exclusive to Ireland on February 29. There was supposed to be a DVD release but it never happened, unfortunately. You can watch the video of the recording at - it was filmed by John Carney, the director of the movie Once.

Song lyrics can be found at @U2.

Ronnie chose the Irish Cancer Society to be the beneficiary of all profits collected from sales of the song. You can see the newsletter that mentions the song here (pdf file, hosted by - relevant pages are the cover and page 23). As of the printing of the newsletter the song had helped to raise over 14,000 Euros for the cause.

Normally I'd not post an mp3 as this was for charity but it seems like the only place still offering it is and you have to live in Ireland to purchase it through them. The CD was a limited run and can't really be found anywhere either. So here's my own mp3 rip. You can contribute to here.

The song was premiered on TV on the Late Late Show on February 22, 2008. Almost a million people tuned in at some point or another. Ronnie was in attendance as U2 and the Band of Bowsies took to the stage for a rousing rendition of the song.
Dressed in a sober black suit, with a red patterned scarf around his neck, the beloved founder of The Dubliners said the performance was "great" and "magnificent".

"I'm speechless. I am really knocked out and honoured and grateful. I don't think I deserve it" he told Pat Kenny.
Watch the performance on the Late Late Show here.

My thoughts

Okay, so... the lyrics are certainly nothing to write home about. The chorus is weak to say the least. But as a tribute, I think it more than gets the job done, and it's definitely one that can get stuck in your head for a time! I think the music is fantastic, and remains true to Irish traditional melodies. If this were a regular release I think my verdict would be quite negative, but for what it is, I love it. Best line: "And if you're not Irish, it isn't your fault!"

Your thoughts...

...should be posted in the comments!


Ronnie Drew passed away on August 16, 2008 after battling hard against the throat cancer. The Telegraph ran an exceptional obituary - it is in many ways a much better overview of Ronnie Drew's life than the Wikipedia article I linked above.

In November 2008, a poll was conducted in Dublin to determine who was everyone's favorite Dublin citizen of all time: Ronnie Drew won. For the record, Bono came in sixth. :)

Ronnie's memoirs were completed by his family (posthumously) and published in 2009.
I feel I must have a talent somewhere for doing something but I'm still not terribly sure what it is. I suppose it's a talent for being myself.
Additional related audio/video

A bit about The Ballad, and the close of an RTE One special by Gerry Ryan about Ronnie Drew's passing. If you're interested, the entire documentary is online in 5 parts (One/Two/Three/Four/Five)

Ronnie Drew - Van Diemen's Land
From his self-titled solo LP in 1977, Van Diemen's Land is a fairly popular topic for Irish artists. See the Wikipedia entry for Van Diemen's Land, and also on John Boyle O'Reilly, the subject of U2's version of Van Diemen's Land and to whom U2's song is dedicated.

U2 - Springhill Mining Disaster
U2 perform The Dubliners' version of SMD for Ronnie and the gang on the Late Late Show on 16 March 1987.

The Dubliners - The Auld Triangle
U2 join The Dubliners, The Pogues, Christy Moore, Jim McCann, The Fureys and Davey Arthur, and Stockton's Wing on the Late Late Show to celebrate the 25th anniversary of The Dubliners.

Larry Mullen Jr - Dirty Old Town
Zooropa Basel (Switzerland), 30 June 1993

Edge Karaoke - Whiskey in the Jar
Popmart Dublin, 31 August 1997

U2 - Bad
Elevation South Bend (Notre Dame), 10 October 2001 - Bono adds a bit of "Molly Malone" into Bad.

U2 - The Auld Triangle
360 Tour Dublin, 24 July 2009 in honor of Ronnie Drew (thanks U2gigs)

Further reading

"Keeping the Faith", Rolling Stone, March 14, 1985
A brief tale of Ronnie Drew meeting Larry in a West Germany hotel bar in the early 80s. Drew's kids loved U2!

"Drinkin' in the Day"
The Ronnie Drew song that Bono wrote with Simon Carmody for Drew's 1995 solo album "Dirty Rotten Shame". Lyrics at u2wanderer. Here's Bono singing 30 seconds of it at an airport.
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