A Chat with Dropkick Murphys’ Ken Casey
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By Kathy McGee Burns
The Dropkick Murphys are an Irish American punk rock band formed in Quincy, Massachusetts in1996. Their front man, bassist/vocalist Ken Casey has been with them from the beginning.
Have you ever heard their music? Well, let me describe it: feisty, loud, yelling, screaming, rough, in your face and boisterous. Are you getting the message? On the other hand, Ken Casey is boyish, kind, sentimental, sincere, and generous to a fault–generous with his time, talent and money! This is quite a dichotomy.
Ken was born in Milton, MA, the town with the most people of Irish descent in America. His mom, Eileen Kelly and dad, Ken Casey, only had the one child but Ken felt adopted by every family in town. Ken Casey, Sr. died when Ken was very young but his hero, his Grandda, John Kelly took him under his wing and helped him to form the principles Ken lives by every day.
John Kelly was a Teamster who taught his grandson the plight of the Irish working class, the experiences of Irish immigration in Boston and what it is like to be the low man on the totem pole. He emphasized that you need to stand up for yourself and give back what treasures you get. John Kelly told his grandson, “Gratitude is an action.”
At first, Ken says, he was doing a million things for many charities. Then friends began suggesting that he start his own. They said, “Your fans will get involved and feel a part of it,” he told me when we talked recently.
Now, Ken Casey is doing just that. He has formed The Claddagh Fund which is a charity foundation based on the attributes linked to the Claddagh: “Friendship, Love and Loyalty.” It was started in Boston with the help of the great hockey star, Bobby Orr. The band was able to incorporate a lot of fundraising activities with their events and to date, the Dropkick Murphy’s have raised about $1 million.
I was introduced to Ken’s music when I joined the Claddagh Fund’s board of directors and I have to admit I’m still adjusting to it. It is quite different from local Irish music legend Vince Gallagher singing “Emigrant Eyes.” The Irish music that the Dropkick Murphys do is familiar—“Finnegan’s Wake,” “Black Velvet Band,” “Wild Rover”– but “reformulated and modernized for the younger ear,” Ken told me.
He told me that Pete St. John, who wrote the Irish favorite, “Fields of Athenry,” came to see the Dropkick Murphys perform the song and loved it.
Many of the songs they choose mirror the social conscience of the band. The song “Broken Hymns” reflects a young man’s perspective of the Civil War:
“Now the battle hymns are playing
Report of shots not far away
No prayer, no promise, no hand of God
Could save the souls of the blue and grey
Tell their wives that they fought bravely
As they lay them in their graves”
Then there is the song called “The Hardest Mile,” about Duffy’s Cut, the site in Malvern where in 1832, 57 Irish railroad workers were killed—some by cholera, others at the hands of area vigilantes who were afraid they were going to spread the disease.
“Now ghosts dance a jig on an unmarked grave
A slug full of lead was the price they were paid
Vigilante justice, prejudice and pride
No one in this valley will be seen again alive.”
The best, to me, though, is their song “Boys on the Docks”, which is a tribute to the memory of John Kelly:
“And the boys on the docks needed John for sure
When they came to this country he opened the door
He said “Man. I’ll tell ya, they don’t like our kind
Though it starts with a fist it might end with your mind.”
Ken Casey tells a charming story about Bruce Springsteen. He first met “the Boss” when Springstein showed up to a Dropkick Murphy’s gig in New York City, with his son. Ken was still on the bus when he got an urgent call, “Someone wants to see you. “ He rushed to his dressing room and there HE was. Well, here’s the tearjerker, on St Patrick’s Day 2011, to a sold out crowd, in Fenwick Park, they both sang “Peg of My Heart, to Ken’s Grandmother, Peg Kelly. You can see the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2R2cG2Ah4Y
The Claddagh Fund now has a Chapter here. Ken says that Philadelphia reminds him of Boston with its tight-knit communities and a network of friends.
They’re counting on we generous Philadelphia Irish to help make the Claddagh Fund a success here. And by success, I mean raising money for the five underfunded charities it’s supporting in the city, including:
Build Jake’s Place, whose mission is to build playgrounds for children of all abilities;
StandUp for Kids, which helps homeless and runaway kids on the streets;
Peter’s Place, an organization that helps grieving children and families;
Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service and Education Center, which helps veterans with employment, training and related educational services and offers assistance to veterans who are having tough times;
Limen House, which provides a temporary home for recovering substance abusers.
The latest fundraiser will be the First Annual Celebrity Golf Tournament to he held on Monday, September 17, at Woodcrest Country Club, 300 Evesham Road in Cherry Hill, NJ. There are plenty of sponsorships available, ranging from $250 to $10,000 and a foursome costs $1,250. For more information, contact Claddagh Fund Philadelphia Director Kate McCloud and 267-644-8095, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It should be a great day for golf and celebrity watching. Here’s what I’m hoping: That Bruce Springsteen shows up with his clubs and he and Ken serenade Kate and I with “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.”