The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem

By Ronan Nolan
THE Clancys hailed from Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary. Their mother loved a singsong – the least excuse would do, according to daughter Peg – and their father was an opera buff. Aunt Mary Jo’s in William Street was a popular house for gatherings, songs and set dancing. “I enjoyed it and learned a few folk songs there,” said Paddy.
Paddy (1922 – 1998) was the eldest of the boys. Next, in ballad terms, came Tom and Liam was the youngest. Sister Peg Clancy-Power sang in both English and Irish and recorded one record on the Folk Legacy label. Both Paddy and Tom served in the RAF and were experienced actors. The two brothers emigrated to Canada in 1947 and after a year there made their way to New York via Cleveland, Ohio, where they did various jobs from house painting to taxi driving while pursuing acting careers.
Back home in Ireland, Liam Clancy accompanied the American folk music collector Diane Hamilton of the Guggenheim family in late 1955 on a trip around Ireland recording songs and tunes in their natural settings – kitchens and parlours. During that trip he heard the singing and music of Seosamh O hEanaigh (Joe Heaney), Willie Clancy, Seamus Ennis and Sarah Makem. He also formed an enduring friendship with Tommy Makem.
The following year Liam and Tommy Makem went to America and joined Paddy and Tom Clancy who were by then running the Cherry Lane theatre in Greenwich Village. As the folk revival was making headway they rented out space for folk concerts, eventually promoting folk concerts there themselves.
“We just could not make a living out of acting and we had to supplement our income,” Liam recalled in an interview. “Tommy and I started singing in a place called The Fifth Peg in Greenwich”. They soon found themselves getting $125 a week compared to $45 for acting off Broadway. They also listened to American folk revival groups such as The Weavers and The Kingston Trio. Liam developed his guitar technique, Paddy played the harmonica, Tommy Makem the banjo, war pipes and tin whistle.
Bob Dylan was an early visitor at Clancy performances. ”Topical songs weren’t protest songs,” Dylan wrote in his memoir Chronicles. “What I was hearing pretty regularly, though, were rebellion songs, and those really moved me. The Clancy Brothers — Tom, Paddy and Liam — and their buddy Tommy Makem sang them all the time.”clancy-brothers
Dylan took the melody of Brennan on the Moor for his song Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie. The Clancys returned the compliment, when they sang Dylan’s When The Ship Comes In at his 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden in October 1992.
“The only thing for Irish songs at that time was, earlier on, John McCormack and people like Bing Crosby. Here we came, and maybe we had one mike for the four of us to sing on. So you roared as loudly as you could so you could be heard,” recalled Tommy Makem.

Tom Paxton was a huge fan. “I idolised The Clancy Brothers,” he told the Galway Advertiser in 2011. “I remember one of the first times I saw them and hearing Liam sing the Scottish ballad ‘Lang A Growing’. I was mesmerised, I scarcely drew a breath during the song; I listened so intently to it that I had memorised it straightaway.

“I felt that the Clancys ‘hung the moon’ as we used to say in Oklahoma, meaning they were wonderful, and I never changed that opinion. I remember taking my daughter to see their reunion concert in Carnegie Hall. They hadn’t performed together in 25 years but they were as sharp as ever. I told my daughter that would have been Tom Clancy’s work, he was the drill sergeant of the group!”

Beating out the sound
Liam Clancy remembers working on technique: “Brennan on the Moore was a famous old ballad but it was sung mournfully. We were in this apartment in Greenwich Village and I was sitting on this couch that had springs in it. And I said ‘Let’s try and get the sound of … if we could belt it out like the highwaymen. Get the sound of galloping horses.” He was bouncing up and down on the springs, beating out the sound of a galloping horse and singing to its rhythm.”
“We knew we had established something new – a new way of singing old songs.”
In 1956 they recorded their first album Irish Songs of Rebellion on Tradition Records, formed by Paddy Clancy and Kenny Goldstein. This was followed up shortly by another LP Fill your Glass with Us. By 1961 they were playing in the Blue Angel, one of New York’s largest night clubs.
Paddy Clancy used to tell a story of how they came by their trademark Aran ganseys. “It was a very cold winter in New York and my mother in Ireland read about the snow and the frost in New York. And her three sons were in America. So she knitted three Aran sweaters and she sent them out.
“We had a Jewish manager, Marty Erlichman. He saw them and said ‘That’s it. I’ve been looking for some identifiable costume for you. It’s perfect!’”
Utilising their instrumental armoury and the store of songs from the Clancy and Makem families, songbooks and Ewan McColl tapes, they added stage banter to manly harmonies and passionate choruses to create a unique repertoire for the American folk audience. Their acting days helped shape their stagecraft and their trademark Aran ganseys made them stand out. Suze Rotolo, the girl on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, recalled in her memoir of the Village in the 60s that “these guys made singing a theatrical event: above all, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were actors who sang.”

Between 1961 and 1966 the group appeared four times on the Ed Sullivan TV Show. During the 1966 show, one of the acts, Pearl Bailey, failed to turn up and the Irish were given her time allocation as well. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem capitalised on their 16 minutes of fame and their performance was a huge success.

In 1963 they had played a set of over two hours in Carnegie Hall, later released as an album.
But it took longer to win over a section of Irish-America which shuddered at reminders of past stage-Irish excesses and anti-Irish prejudice. The ghost of those days when the Irish held the shitty end of the stick was symbolically put to rest in January 1963 when the Clancys and Tommy Makem performed for Jack Kennedy in the White House. The show was broadcast by CBS. Among their songs, an ironic We Want No Irish Here. As Liam recalls those early years were “like suddenly finding myself in the middle of a really great party, that just went on and on and on”.

Back Home

Back in Ireland, television clips from the Sullivan and White House performances had a huge effect. TV presenter and author Shay Healy was a folk singer in the Sixties: “There was drama and humour in it. It was a sort of performance that we hadn’t seen before. It put the joy back into the songs.” Meanwhile Ciaran Mac Mathuna on his influential Job of Journeywork radio programme was playing tracks from Clancy Brothers LPs he had picked up while recording Irish musicians in the States in 1962.
The first ballad session, as we know it today,  had taken place in the Abbey Tavern in Howth on the outskirts of Dublin. By chance Liam Clancy was staying in the Dublin home of Peggy Jordan who was organising musicians for the venue, so he became one of the first performers at those early sessions at the Abbey Tavern which marked the start of the Irish ballad boom.
The Clancy Brothers made a triumphant visit to Ireland in 1963. Shay Healy recalls when they sang to a sold-out Olympia Theatre in Dublin: “They even sang a song from the top window to the hundreds outside who couldn’t get tickets.” And their influence extended to Scotland. Bill Smith, co-founder of The Corries, has credited the Clancys and Makem with “opening a door where no-one even knew a door existed”.
In his book Luke Kelly, A Memoir, Des Geraghty recalls them turning up a Fleadh in Co Clare:
“They were a new sight for regular Fleadh-goers and had a dramatic impact on all of us – this family from Carrick-on-Suir, in their bainín jumpers, bringing a sense of polished entertainment to some very old worn songs.

“There is no doubt that the unexpected and enormous success of the Clancys fuelled a new professionalism among Irish musicians and gave a great impetus to the movement that was emerging; but of course there was also a lot of uncertainty about this commercial and obviously well-organised and rehearsed group back from America. They didn’t fit either the old or the new stereotypes but they were clearly a force to be reckoned with. They had great stage presence and exuberance and were definitely going places.”

Liam Clancy forged a deep friendship with Luke Kelly of the Dubliners, often swapping songs. It was from Liam that Luke learned both English and Irish versions of the song The Jail of Clonmel or Priosún Chluain Meala. The Clancys also presented Luke with a Merlin banjo.

Tours and Albums

The group went on to produce 55 albums and made countless tours of Ireland, Britain and America. As a teenager I recall a concert they gave at a dance in the early Sixties in Seapoint Ballroom, Galway. The dancers swung to either the Monarchs or Dixies Showband. Around midnight the Clancy Brothers – fresh from an earlier performance in Claremorris – came on stage to a rousing reception. For a few short years, there was an easy overlap between folk and popular music in Ireland.
But in time,  the Clancys and Makem became victims of their own success. Even as they strove to perfect their vocal interplay and develop their performances – which in the early days would often incorporate recitations of favourite poems and theatrical excerpts – the bandwagon was riding roughshod over their sound’s finer points.
Said Liam in 2008: “As the crowds got bigger, the more raucous songs became the favourites, and all the subtleties we’d built in got forgotten,”
In 1969 Tommy Makem left the group after serving out his one-year notice. Several years later Liam left. He said in the film documentary The Yellow Bittern (2009) that he left after Tom accepted Hollywood work at a time they were contracted to tour Australia. Being the younger brother had posed many difficulties for Liam over the years.

Then in 1975 he linked up with Liam Clancy in a successful partnership that was to last until 1988 and is best remembered for their version of Eric Bogle’s anti-war ballad  And The Band Played Waltzing Mathilda. Paddy and Tom and brother Bobby and nephew Robbie O’Connell, continued to perform together. But the group had become déclassé.
In the 1970s and 80s Tom returned to acting. He appeared in TV series — among them The Incredible Hulk, Charlie’s Angels and Little House on the Prairie. Back in Carrick-on-Suir, Paddy and his wife Mary bought a farm and raised Charolais and Simental cattle. Liam settled in Ring – once home to the great singers Nioclás Tóibín and Labhrás Dráipéir and now Danú – in the Waterford Gaeltacht where he built a recording studio. They all did get together for a big reunion show in the Lincoln Centre in New York in 1984 and also got together again for concerts in Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Galway. Tom Clancy died in November, 1990.
In 1996 there was an emotional reunion between Paddy and Liam Clancy. “He’d come down to Ring when I think he realised he was very ill”, Liam recalled in a RTE/TG4 documentary made shortly after Paddy’s death.
“Like every family we had our disagreements over the years. But we had a fairly serious falling out over … Oh, we were doing cruises in the Caribbean. Once you got involved in business you don’t understand, very often things get very rocky. And we had our problems and our battles and so on.
“But he came down to Ring and we had a get-together down in Mooneys. We had a couple of pints and we hugged each other. ‘What the hell were we fighting about, a few dollars, or some misunderstanding. Let’s have a song’. So we had a great session that night’.”
In 1996 they regrouped: Liam and Paddy and Bobby Clancy and nephew Robbie O’Connell. They released an LP Older but No Wiser and embarked on a farewell tour. In March, 2009, Columbia/Legacy Records released the re-mastered original recording of the memorable Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem concert at Carnegie Hall on March 17, 1963, with political songs and stage talk restored.

Paddy died of cancer in November 1998. An RTE news clip showed the moving graveside ceremony as Liam and Bobby Clancy, Ronnie Drew, Finbar Furey and Paddy Reilly, accompanied by John Sheehan, sang The Parting Glass, and the nation marked the passing of an era in Irish traditional music. Bobby Clancy passed away after a long illness on September 6, 2002. Liam’s son Donal plays with Ring-based Danu. Robbie O’Connell tours sometimes with Paddy’s daughter Aoife Clancy, formerly of Cherish the Ladies.

Liam was due to perform at the Clancy Brothers Festival in Carrick-on-Suir in June 2009, but was taken ill. He later told The Irish Times: “I got this virus in California and it attacked my immune system. It’s called pulmonary fibrosis – scarring of the lungs. That’s what killed my brother. There’s no cure, but it seems to be moving quite slowly in my case.” He could socialise, but with an oxygen mask nearby. He attended Alan Gilsenan’s documentary about his life The Yellow Bittern in Dublin in September 2009.

Liam Clancy died in a Cork hospital on December 4, 2009.

©Ronan Nolan 2000-11.

The Clancy Brothers Music Festival
Co Tipperary
June 4 – 5

See Also:

Profile Liam Clancy at Irishrollcall.

Liam Clancy Website. Read interesting comments his noticeboard.

The Mountain of the Women: Memoirs of an Irish Troubadour, by Liam Clancy (2002).

TV Documentary
The Legend of Liam Clancy
is a two-part profile broadcast by RTE television in 2006.

Film Documentary

The Yellow Bittern, dir Alan Gilsenan, 2009

4 Responses for “The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem”

  1. Ted Canty says:

    In 1965, a bunch of the boys, including myself, went to puck fair in killorglin. We took over a pub the name of which escapes me but is now the Bianconi Inn. We were iall into folk music and knew all the songs of the Clancys, the Dubliners, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary. So we had a great sing song. While singing, in slipped Liam Clancy and a Friend. We went weak at the knees. He sat down among us, gave his attention to whoever was singing and sang when called on. In no way did he dominate the sing song but just joined in the choruses and became part of the crowd. No superstar antics and he was a superstar. One of the great memories of my life.

  2. Madelon Michel says:

    In the 60s (when I was young) the Clancy’s and Tommy came to Holland and sang in a folkclub in Haarlem. It was a wonderful (summers) night and when the club closed it wasn’t enough. I remember walking in procession through sleep dark Haarlem, loudly singing ‘The soldiers of the rearguard’. What a memory………………
    And now they are gone. But they will not be forgotten!!

  3. pandapolly says:

    The following comments were transferred from the old Ramblinghouse site on March 8, 2010 –

    michaelkeogh,2 months ago
    me and my brothers lived in carrick on suir and often went camping to bareys which is right beside the clancys house. we often went to their house and they all were the nicest people you could ever meet. they would bring us into their house and give us minerals and fruit from their orchard im sorry to this day that i dident get a photograph of the family with myself in it .their mother was so nice to us and so were the lads themselves. its such a pity that their all gone what a family what a brilliant group of musicans the potery will tell the rest
    will miss you all
    michael keogh from marion avenue in carrick on suir

    michaelhoare, 3 months ago
    Liam Clancy
    greatest ballad ireland ever had ,Seen Liam sing back in the 70s ive been trying to sing his songs ever since ,I hope liam is up their somewhere with his brothers ,
    and Tommy Makem may god rest their souls I bet heven is a happier place with liam tommy singing with the angels god bless liam clancy . – Mike from limerick

    sangwoojeon, 4 months ago
    Escriba su comentario aquí
    I like the folk songs of the world, especially songs from Irish, Scottish give me good feeling
    to share . I like to enjoy singing with my guitar.
    And I am preparing a recording with some folksong from the world,
    could you recommend some beautiful songs to me ?

    B. Keating, 9 months ago
    is it possible to still get their albums? I am interested in the one done in Carnegie Hall. I have 3 albums and have had them since the 60′s and I still enjoy listening to them. Have any of them been put on cd’s?

    Marne, 9 months ago in reply to B. Keating
    The Carnegie Hall album has recently been reissued as a CD. I read one posting on Liam Clancy’s message board, where delivery from Amazon took two weeks. You may have to spend some time searching around on Google.

    russellcuff, 10 months ago
    To those of you who have not heard of The High Kings, I think you are in for a tremendous treat. Bobby Clancy’s son Finbarr and Finbarr Furey’s son Martin are part of the group. Their concert in Dublin is available on DVD and their CD is available at their website They offer a fitting tribute to those that have gone before. A long and happy career to The High Kings!

    Russell Cuff, Salt Lake City, Utah (USA)

    Alan White, 7 months ago in reply to russellcuff

    I grew up in Sheffield, England in the ’60′s. There was plenty of opportunity to switch between the ‘swinging sixties’ pop and folk scenes, but groups such as the Clancy’s made a refreshing change and influenced the traditional english ‘folk clubs’. I was recently (17th July) working in Ireland and happened to be in New Ross, County Wexford where the High Kings were performing at a free open air concert at the ‘JFK Dunbrody Festival’ – the memories all came flooding back.

    Bill Goodwin, Wyomissing PA, 11 months ago

    I first saw the group perform at Brooklyn College in the early 1960′s–knocked my socks off as I had never that type of Irish folk music growing up Brooklyn, NY. Now I always a travel with a few tapes or CD’s in the glove box . Even took a few with me when we cruised the River Shannon out of Portumna and played the hell out of them all the way to the top of Lock Nern and back . As what appeared to be the only American boat in the water, I particularly enjoyed blasting both the Clancy Bros and Johnny Cash for the German boaters who seemed to outnumber everyone.

    Jeffrey Lyon, 1 year ago

    Can someone please give me some assistance. I recall a ballad they did and an unable to locate it, or recall its name. It was of a woman who ‘came from the sea’ when her husband was lost at sea she wen to save him only to be lost forever back to the sea, from whence she came. I want to share it with my sons. Thank you

    Patrick, 1 year ago in reply to Jeffrey Lyon

    “Peter Kagan and the Wind”. Search for a live performance. Enjoy!

    Paul McClintock, 1 year ago

    I met Tommy Makem while we were both hospitalized in Dover, N.H. in 1956. We were young hellions and raced wheelchairs back and forth in the ward. Things WERE a lot different then!
    The hospital staff didn’t have a chance! Along with Tommy and me, there was another young fella named Raymond Hourihan.
    Tommy had injured a hand in a meat grinding machine while at work but apparently healed quite well.
    Tommy stated at the time that his dream, along with the lads that he sang with (The Clancy Brothers!) was to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show.
    Imagine the cheering that went on in our Irish household when that dream was finally achieved!

    An unforgetable memory,

    Paul McClintock

    Becca, 1 year ago

    I listened to the Clancy Brothers greatest hits. My favorite song is Johnny McADOO

    1 year ago
    Ramblinghouse holds no brief for Claddagh Records in Dublin, but they are most likely to have the Carnegie album, if available. Google will bring you there.

    Ron, 1 year ago

    Back in 1965 my late friend and fellow doctor from Scotland John Angus Smith and I were lonely migrants in Melbourne. He possessed one LP the famous Carnegie Hall concert .Over a few jars and a dram or two we would meet every weekend and play this single record.We knew very word and joke and tune by the ned of the year there!
    Wher can I buy a CD of that concert? It would bring back memories of youth to an ould man!!


    shamrock23, 1 year ago

    Hi there,

    There is a song by the Makem Sons and some of the lyrics go as follows:

    And he never came home and he never came home and his conscience wont leave him alone….

    Does anyone know the title of the song?


    Arkansas Red, 1 year ago
    What is meant by the line in the song The Cobbler, “…I’ve served me time at old camp”? Is it prison/jail or the army?
    Arkansas Red

    Marne, 1 year ago

    At Ramblinghouse, we think it is an army camp. If you could repair soldiers’ boots to their satisfaction, you were a good cobbler.


  4. pandapolly says:

    “Let’s not have a sniffle
    Let’s havbe a bloody great cry
    And always remember the longer you live
    The sooner you bloody well die”.

    -Goodnight Liam.

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