Last Clancy standing

 

INTERVIEW:Before Van Morrison, before U2, Ireland (and the world) had The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. A fine new documentary by Alan Gilsenan marks out the group's sole survivor, Liam Clancy, as a storyteller of the highest calibre - and what a story, writes DONALD CLARKE

THE SHELBOURNE HOTEL has been squatting on St Stephen's Green for more than 150 years, but, to people of a certain age, its bars and staircases always summon up memories of the 1970s. Before luxury hotels sprung up on every Dublin corner, the Shelbourne served as a vital way station for the era's key celebrities. Look: there's Richard Harris and John Huston. Is that Edna O'Brien sharing a glass with JP Donleavy? Hang around long enough and you would surely catch sight of a Clancy brother. While Van Morrison was still something of a niche act, and U2 were just shedding their bondage nappies, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem remained the closest thing the country had to a musical supergroup. They were, of course, never exactly cool. Dressed in thick jumpers and fishermen's caps, they sang the sort of ballads to which even Americans knew the words. But they were very famous indeed.

So, the Shelbourne seems like the right place to meet the mighty Liam Clancy. Possessor of a voice that is both sweet and booming, Liam is, sadly, the last member of the group still above ground. Now, having said goodbye to Bobby, Tom and Paddy Clancy and, as recently as 2007, having lost his old mate Tommy Makem, Liam Clancy remains an avatar of a lost age. It must make a man think.

"It's inevitable. Everything passes," he says, before reaching for an oxygen cylinder and attaching the tubes to his nose for a spell. "I am on my last legs. I need a bit of oxygen every now and then. 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."

Yet it can't be denied that he looks rather fabulous. Still proudly wearing his trademark cap, his feet wriggling in the Shelbourne's slippers, Clancy is a good colour and, despite his pulmonary difficulties, he has no difficulty belting out an array of disgraceful, well- structured yarns. That talent is also on display in a fine new documentary entitled T he Yellow Bittern: The Life and Times of Liam Clancy.Alan Gilsenan's film places Liam in a huge hangar at Ardmore Studios, and sets him loose on one of the great show-business sagas.

The youngest of the Clancy brothers - the other three of whom all served in the RAF during the second World War - Liam, now 74, was raised among the unglamorous streets of Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary. Looking back, he remembers the country as being "run by Ayatollahs", and remarks that his home area had "barely changed since medieval times". It must, therefore, have been a shock to encounter an exotic American moneybags with a crate of recording equipment. Diane Guggenheim, heiress to the mining empire that bears her name, developed an enthusiasm for Irish folk music and, in the mid-1950s, toured Ireland in search of strong singers.

Liam was swept along by her enthusiasm, and accompanied her to Armagh, where she recorded Tommy Makem's mother, the renowned folk singer Sarah Makem. Later, Guggenheim lured Clancy, whose ambitions were then in acting, to New York, and introduced him to bohemian Greenwich Village. But it soon transpired that she had developed a dangerous obsession with the young Tipperary man.

"She was 32 and I was 19. She was twice- divorced and I had been brought up a strict Catholic," he marvels. "And, of course, I'd never come across anybody who had been deep in psychoanalysis before. Later I saw the movie Fatal Attraction, and I thought: 'Jesus, that's what I went through with Diane.' Except those two characters were from the same culture. At that point, the extent of my world was the rain- sodden streets of Carrick-on-Suir."

Guggenheim threatened to commit suicide when Clancy refused to have sex with her, and the unfortunate woman eventually ended up in a mental institution. By this point, Clancy, deeply disturbed by the incident, had put his acting ambitions on hold, and was allowing the lucrative distractions of folk music to lead him elsewhere.

"Tommy Makem had gone to New Hampshire, working on the cotton mills," he explains. "We had agreed to meet later in New York, and get into acting. We eventually got a job together playing two priests. Then, while we were doing that, a club opened called The Fifth Peg, later known as Gerde's Folk City. Now, whereas acting paid $45 a week, we got $125 for singing a few songs. There's no choice there."

In The Yellow Bitternwe hear how, in later years, following innumerable fallings out between the group, Tommy Makem became a somewhat austere fellow. The impression given is that he was the puritanical northerner to the Clancys' more dissolute Munster men.

"Ah no. That only emerged later on," he says slightly sadly. "He was as devil-may-care as the rest. He was a joker, always great fun. He got serious somewhere along the line."

Gerde's Folk City was the club where Bob Dylan played his first professional gig, and the great man is quoted on the poster of The Yellow Bittern, describing Liam as "the best ballad singer I ever heard in my life". It was, however, as part of a group that Clancy finally encountered proper fame. He had never known his older brothers as adults and, when he met up with them in New York, he was slightly appalled to discover that they had American accents. Still, he plugged his ears, and, with Makem in tow, became part of the world-conquering The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.

Their big break came in 1961, during an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The headline act cancelled and, originally booked to do just two songs, the group stormed their way through a triumphant 20-minute set. A year later, the boys sold out Carnegie Hall.

"After The Ed Sullivan Show, crowds suddenly began stopping us on the street, looking for autographs," he says. "I remember Tom looking around and saying: 'Jesus. We're f***ing famous!' Then straight into Carnegie Hall, and then a tour round England.

"Then we branched into Australia. I remember somebody once asking if we'd planned all this. There was no time to plan. It's like we were thrown onto a raft on the Colorado rapids for 10 years. It was all we could do to keep afloat."

The Yellow Bitternshould help Liam Clancy recover some of the respect he deserves. The group recorded stirring, skull-rattling versions of songs such as Kevin Barryand Brennan on the Moorand, in the mid-1960s, their albums sold by the lorry-load in Ireland. Some more puritanical folk musicians were, however, a tad suspicious of the show-business aura that hung about them. With those jumpers and those hats, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem did conform to certain stereotypes of the stage Irishman.

Clancy laughs good-naturedly.

"We had a manager, Marty Erlichman," he says. "He once asked us to cut 10 minutes from our show to give this unknown girl a break: Barbra Streisand. Anyway, Marty said to us: 'I can make you stars if you do what I tell you.' We came home after Christmas and my mother had knitted these sweaters. We brought them back and Marty said: 'That's it!' You have to remember it was part of the business then. You had to have an identity. Marty insisted." Clancy goes on to explain how, much later, he received a letter from a knitwear manufacturer in Donegal who, by the mid-1960s, was preparing to emigrate. The sweater craze took off, and he was able to remain at home, marry the girl he loved and create a large family. Indeed, you might argue that all those jumper shops in Nassau Street, Dublin airport and every other Irish tourist trap would not exist if Marty had not had his sartorial brainwave. Yes, the Clancys created one ideal of the robust, cosily dressed Paddy.

"God yeah, for years they were called Clancy Brothers sweaters," a currently sweaterless Liam says. "That's our sackcloth and ashes. I tell you, they were good for one thing: keeping the weight down. You sweated so much you never got fat."

The Clancys may not have been cool, but, if contemporaneous records are to be believed, they could have drunk a combined force of Mötley Crüe, Black Sabbath and Lynyrd Skynyrd under the table, out the door and into the gutter. Nobody ever confused Liam Clancy with Val Doonican. "I looked at one of our set lists. I found it in an old suitcase. We once did 35 concerts in 21 nights," he says. "Of course there was a lot of drink. We'd fuel up with whiskey to get up to speed on our way to the next gig. There were a hell of a lot of parties. We were under contract to Playboy, I remember. Hugh Hefner would have these parties and there'd be all this champagne about. We were given these little champagne glasses and he'd say: 'You don't give an Irishman a glass that size.' We ended up with tankards of champagne."

Even if you haven't heard the Clancy myth, you can probably guess where this story is heading. As the jolly 1960s mutated into the less merry 1970s, the group encountered all the usual rock'n'roll calamities. One accountant made a mess of their taxes, and his replacement only managed to get them deeper in debt. Personal feuds developed and, eventually, giving in to the pressures of work and bad living, Liam Clancy suffered a very serious breakdown. He describes the incident movingly in The Yellow Bittern.

"It was much more than just the drink," he says. "It's something that runs in the family. I can remember, as a teenager, people saying my mother 'suffered with her nerves'. I had anxiety attacks and panic attacks. And the stress of touring brought it on again."

He admits that, even now, he occasionally suffers from "his nerves". Still, there is no doubting that Liam Clancy is one of the great survivors. In the 1970s, broke and without a recording contract, he made his way to Canada and embarked on a notable television career. Eventually, he made up with Tommy Makem and, until 1988, the two men performed throughout the world as a successful duo. Further reconciliations came with his brothers and, in 1996, four decades after they ran into one another in New York, an incarnation of The Clancy Brothers took to the road again.

Throughout all the glories and catastrophes, Clancy has kept a home in Ring, Co Waterford. He still lives there with his wife, and maintains that pottering about the area is the thing that has "kept him sane". Mind you, for all his eccentricities, Liam Clancy strikes me as a man with a proper sense of his place in the world. Early on in our conversation, he tells a lengthy anecdote about travelling from Alaska to Los Angeles with Tommy Makem in the early 1980s. The flight took them past an erupting Mount St Helens and, eventually, to the smog and noise of southern California.

"You just see this liquefied, vaporised manure in the air," he says. "Then you suddenly realise there is a human settlement in there. Below you see these homes full of stars, who think the world can't get by without them. Then you are at the concert, and you, who would be this infinitesimal speck from the air, are playing before all these other specks. You have to keep that sense of perspective."

What an impressive figure this man is. He may require oxygen to get through the day. He may not be able to sing any more. But he still looks as if he could chew the average contemporary celebrity into gristle. "I'm doing fine, for the most part," he smiles. "For a guy who's dying, I'm not doing too bad." Well, I think Liam Clancy's pretty darn cool.

The Yellow Bittern: The Life and Times of Liam Clancyis on general release