Fifteen years later, it’s still heart-wrenching for musician and singer Ben as he recalls the final hours of one of Ireland’s best-loved entertainers
Joe Dolan, our Elvis Presley, died shortly after 3pm that afternoon in the Mater Hospital after earlier falling ill at his home in Foxrock, Co Dublin. He was 68 years old.
Fifteen years later, it’s still heart-wrenching for musician and singer Ben as he recalls the final hours of one of Ireland’s best-loved entertainers.
Mullingar-born Joe’s shock death left a huge void in the lives of his fans, but none more so than in the life of his older brother Ben, who had performed alongside the incredible entertainer for nearly 50 years.
Speaking today on our Sunday World podcast, My Country Life, Ben reveals that while Joe battled various health issues, he never complained or gave his family any indication that he might die.
He says: “It wasn’t that you could sit down and talk to Joe, no more than any of our family. I had a brother, James, in England and when he was in the hospital he told the wife not to tell any of us. He collapsed the day he was leaving the hospital and died. Nearly all our crowd don’t want to be annoying the family.”
Ben remembers the first time Joe was told he had a serious health issue was back in 2005 when he had a hip replacement.
He says: “After getting the hip done the doctor told him, ‘You know, Mr Dolan, you’re a diabetic.’ Diabetes is a serious complaint, but I believe you can live with it all your life if you treat it right. Joe didn’t really. Looking back on it, I wouldn’t say he treated it right. He used to drink vodka and water, that was his drink.”
Joe took a year out of the spotlight as a performer after he had his hip procedure and then made a triumphant return to the stage. “When we came back on the road, the first date was in Dublin in Vicar Street and it was like he had never left,” Ben says.
However, as time went on Joe’s health started to break down and, in what would be his final concert, he collapsed on stage at the Abbeyleix Manor Hotel in Co Laois in September 2007.
“It was all sudden in the end,” Ben says. “He went into hospital at Christmas. I was up with him two or three days before Christmas. He was in bed, but he was full of beans. He said, ‘I’ll be out for Christmas.’”
Joe never spoke about the seriousness of his illness. Ben asked a doctor, ‘Could this thing be fatal?’, and was told, ‘Well down the road it could be.’
He says: “I said, ‘Sure it’s down the road for the whole lot of us, when you put it that way.’ He didn’t really say much more.” Joe was discharged from hospital to spend what turned out to be his final Christmas in his Dublin home.
Ben recalls: “He got bad on St Stephen’s Day and went unconscious in the ambulance on his way to the hospital. In the hospital they said he was brain dead.”
At this point on the podcast Ben becomes emotional. “To me, it’s still sad,” he says as he struggles to regain his composure. “The bad part was, ‘Will we switch it off?’ He was on a machine…I can still hear it. We were all called in, but ‘Will we switch it off?’ was down to me at the finish. That was the bad part.”
Of the nine Dolan siblings, which included a brother who died aged four, Ben is the only surviving member today.
He says: “When Joe died, Dympna died, Ita died, Imelda died, Paddy died and Vincent died…all in 10 years .
“I’m the last man standing and I’m definitely not going anywhere, no matter who calls me. If the gigs keep coming in, I can’t afford to die… not for the money, but for the pleasure.”
However, Ben, who is now packing in crowds with his Remembering Joe show that features his family and Joe’s band doing all the hits, reveals that he struggled to regain his passion for performing.
He says: “After Joe died I hadn’t the heart to do anything. I got such a shock. It really knocked me for six. It was a big loss to me.”
He jokes: “I know I should be doing something else, but at this stage of my life I can say it’s my retiring tour I’m on and we won’t name when it’s over.”
As he heads for 90 years of age the sax player and singer jokes that he’ll go on “forever and ever,” adding: “I’m looking forward to every night as if it’s my last. Bal Moane the comedian told me one time, ‘Look at every day as if it’s your last and one day you’ll be right.’”
My Country Life – The Story of Joe Dolan is now available. For Remembering Joe show dates go to joedolan.com