It's been more than 35 years since Ronnie Drew made his debut in America in 1968, performing with The Dubliners on the legendary "Ed Sullivan Show" in New York City. The band had had a Top 10 single in Britain and Drew and his band mates were considered an irreverent and rebellious bunch. Armed with guitars, banjos and fiddles, they were hard drinking rogues with an unpolished folk-punk sound, a social conscious and a knack for carousing.
All things considered, the Big Apple was a perfect stage for The Dubliners, both for the music and for the revelry, and it was one that Drew came to love. After "The Ed Sullivan Show," Drew made New York a regular fixture, making tour stops with both The Dubliners and as a solo performer.
"I've always enjoyed my visits to America," he said recently at a quiet public house in Hell's Kitchen, "and New York in particular because it's such a diverse place. There are so many things you can do and eat and…"
With a throat that's seemingly lined with gravel, Drew speaks through a long, thick gray beard in a deep, raspy Dublin accent. His voice is commanding, but here it tails off. He thinks for a moment and then puts a tongue-in-cheek addendum on his previous thought.
"The only thing I don't like about New York now is that you can't smoke. So I'll have to, at my age, seriously think about revisiting New York, or not."
Drew, who turns 70 in September, is an avid cigar smoker, and it's easy to understand why he might sound sarcastic. The man likes to relax, especially between shows, and relaxing for him means smoking a cigar.
"At this stage of my life," says Drew, "one of the few things I enjoy is when I have a meal, a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, and a cigar. I like to sit down and take it easy."
This could prove difficult in New York, where the singer, guitarist and raconteur has two weeks of shows booked at the Irish Arts Center on West 51st Street. The show is titled "An Evening with Ronnie Drew" and is a mixture of songs, poetry and anecdotes written by or about such Irish writers as Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan. "The shows are always great [with Ronnie]," says Mike Hanrahan, another accomplished Irish artist who accompanies Drew on guitar. "But after all these years, he still gets nervous. The cigars help."
"It was somewhere around 1970 that I really got into it," he says. "Before that I had smoked a lot of cigars in Holland and a lot of Cubans in Spain, but I still wasn't sure what was what."
Today, Drew says his favorite brands include Montecristo and Bolivar, but adds that the Trinidad is "a very special cigar." He gets most of his cigars in Spain, where he vacations frequently and hits up the tobacco shops.
"I am very fond of Spain," he says. "I used to teach English there in the 1950s and I return there often. I get my puros there as they're cheaper than in Ireland or England. So usually, I have a few friends there so I stock up."
In New York City, Drew also plans to pop into the tobacco shops like De La Concha and Davidoff, which are near his hotel. Although he smokes primarily Cubans, he loves testing the merits of non-Cubans. Asked if he was looking for anything in particular, Drew said that he just tried a Joya de Nicaragua Antaño, which he described as "strong and very good," and was hoping to pick up a few more to bring home.
As for the antismoking law in New York, Drew isn't letting it get him down and says because of the law, he's making it a point to smoke.
"What I really don't like is the choice being taken away from me," he says with that old rebelliousness coming through. "I mean, I'm not an insane smoker. I don't have to smoke 24 hours a day, but when the choice is taken away from me, then it becomes important that I do smoke."
Still, Drew is respectful of the law, even if he can't completely understand the reasoning behind it.
"I can understand not being able to smoke in a dining room," he says. "But there should be places where you eat, then have a smoking room where you can go."
Drew pauses for a moment to sip his coffee, then stands to go smoke a cigar in the outside smoking area in the back of the bar. He pulls a Montecristo from his case and says:
"And I don't mean out in the fughin' back alley."
"An Evening With Ronnie Drew" runs through March 21 at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan. For more information visit www.mikehanrahan.com or call 212-757-3318.
Photos courtesy of Photocall Ireland
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