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.”
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 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.
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
June 4 – 5
The Mountain of the Women: Memoirs of an Irish Troubadour, by Liam Clancy (2002).
The Legend of Liam Clancy is a two-part profile broadcast by RTE television in 2006.
The Yellow Bittern, dir Alan Gilsenan, 2009