The other side of the Motorcyle Adventurer

Thanks to his films, we can follow in the trail of the pioneer Carl Clancy without a bike


The reports that I have been writing for the past week in the newspaper (and which also may be read online through searching my name) concern Carl Stearns Clancy and his motorcycle partner, Walter Rendell Storey.

Clancy was an Irish-American and, together with his friend Storey, he left the United States in the Autumn of 1912 and came to Ireland, with two Henderson motorcycles. Eventually, on October 23rd 1912, the pair set off from the Phoenix Park (on Irish number plates and with Irish licences) to attempt to become the first men to motorbike around the world – a feat almost every motorcyclist since then has wanted to emulate, as indeed many have.

Clancy and Storey went from Dublin to Donegal and thence to Belfast, Scotland, England, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. They over-wintered in Paris where, for reasons unknown, they split up, Storey going back to the States and Clancy carrying on alone.

From Paris, he went south into Spain and from there to North Africa, by ship to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), South East Asia, China and Japan. Another voyage brought him across the Pacific to the west coast of America from where he rode the Henderson to New York.

The Belfast-based motorcycle journalist and author Geoff Hill and his motorcycle partner for the journey, former road racer Gary Walker, are re-enacting what Clancy did and I’m along for the ride as far as Spain.

We’ve reached Paris which is a good time to pause and examine Clancy a bit deeper because he could just as easily be remembered for several aspects of his life – rather than being not much remembered at all. His achievement was substantially forgotten until Dr Gregory W Frazier (who will be the subject of a separate blog) resurrected his story through editing Clancy’s reports for a motorcycle magazine and republishing them in a book, Motorcycle Adventurer .

So, while it may seem odd, under the circumstances of re-enacting Carl Clancy’s around-the-world pioneering motorcycle ride to say so, but he really should be remembered also for the pioneering film maker he was.

OK, so he was the first biker (of which he know) to ride around the world but take a look at his film career: hHe was producer on 14 films; director of 13 and the writer of three. Here’s the list, with dates:

He produced

1928 Over the Bounding Blue with actor Will Rogers (short);

1928 Reeling Down the Rhine with Will Rogers (short);

1927 Exploring England with Will Rogers (short);

1927 Winging Around Europe with Will Rogers (short);

1927 Prowling Around France with Will Rogers (short);

1927 Roaming the Emerald Isle with Will Rogers (short);

1927 With Will Rogers in London (short);

1927 Through Switzerland and Bavaria with Will Rogers (short);

1927 Hunting for Germans in Berlin with Will Rogers (short);

1927 With Will Rogers in Paris (short);

1927 Hiking Through Holland with Will Rogers (short);

1927 With Will Rogers in Dublin (short);

1926 Churchyards of Old America (documentary short); and

1922 The Headless Horseman (which can be seen online).

He directed

1948 The Adventures of Junior Raindrop (short) (credited as Carl S. Clancy);

1947 Kingdom of the Wild (documentary short);

1928 Over the Bounding Blue with Will Rogers (short);

1928 Reeling Down the Rhine with Will Rogers (short);

1927 Exploring England with Will Rogers (short);

1927 Prowling Around France with Will Rogers (short);

1927 Roaming the Emerald Isle with Will Rogers (short);

1927 With Will Rogers in London (short);

1927 Through Switzerland and Bavaria with Will Rogers (short);

1927 Hunting for Germans in Berlin with Will Rogers (short);

1927 With Will Rogers in Paris (short);

1927 Hiking Through Holland with Will Rogers (short); and

1927 With Will Rogers in Dublin (short).

He wrote the script for three movies –

The Adventurous Sex (1925), Six Cylinder Love (1923 adaptation) and The Headless Horseman (1922 adaptation).

That’s some output, with most of it crammed into two years, 1927 and 1928, if the films were silent and the industry had not developed the technical or artistic sophistication of later years. But then, that’s the way with pioneers, no?

And Clancy’s connection to Ireland, or at least his identification with the country, was more than skin deep. We know from Motorcycle Adventurer that he had feelings for Ireland.

His father was born there and emigrated to the US, with contemporary documents recording him as a “clergyman” which suggests that he was Protestant and may well have come from the northern part of the island, as did very many emigrants to the US, a fact written out of the Kennedy and nationalist-dominated lens through which Irish-American history is viewed. It was in homage to his father’s legacy that Clancy and Storey began their adventure in Dublin.

But look at Clancy’s list of films – Roaming the Emerald Isle with Will Rogers , and With Will Rogers in Dublin. Is either in existence? If so, could they be seen?

In them, Clancy (via Will Rogers) takes us through what he called “the oldest and the youngest of European nations”. There are scenic views of Glendalough, interspersed with Rogers’ commentary and jokes about Irish relatives in the US, references to Home Rule and the struggle for independence.

Clancy also shows us the estate of Richard “Boss” Croker, onetime powerbroker in Tammany Hall, the outfit that, attached to the Democratic Party in New York, sought to control the city and look after (mainly) Irish emigrants. Croker was buried in May 1922 near his favorite horse in the grounds of his estate, Glencairn House in Sandyford, current residence of the British ambassador to Ireland. In Clancy’s film Rogers chats with Croker’s widow and introduces viewers to Mrs. Rogers.

We are taken also to the Lakes of Killarney, the ruins of Ross Castle, and a pig market, where we meet the Earl of Killarney. The camera pans a group of children – the future police force of the US, says Rogers, writer of the script.

According to the Will Rogers Museum, there’s a copy of In Dublin . A target for The Gathering, perhaps? Both it and Roaming were distributed by Pathé Exchange, Inc.

At least one source I have found identifies Clancy as editor-in-chief of Pathé News at some stage in his career.

That connection lead to Nanook of the North (also known as Nanook of the North: A Story Of Life and Love In the Actual Arctic ) which was apparently distributed by Pathe when Clancy was editor.

Nanook was a ground-breaking silent documentary film made by Irish-American, Robert J Flaherty in 1922. Flaherty was one of seven children of prospector Robert Henry Flaherty (an Irish Protestant) and Susan Klockner (a German Roman Catholic) and, like Clancy, seems to have been more than casually aware of his heritage.

Flaherty directed Man of Aran , the 1934 documentary that portrayed the harsh traditional lifestyle of the residents of the Aran Islands. It was a major critical success.

For some years, Man of Aran overshadowed the achievement of Nanook but historians and critics of US cinema now regard Nanook as the more significant achievement.

It is considered the first feature-length documentary. It follows the lives of an Inuit, Nanook, and his family as they travel, search for food, and trade in northern Quebec, Canada. Nanook, his wife, Nyla, and their baby, Cunayou, are introduced as fearless heroes who endure rigors “no other race” could survive.

In 1910, Flaherty was hired as an explorer and prospector along the Hudson Bay for a Canadian railroad company. He knew nothing of cinematography but learnt on a course in New York and by 1913 he was back in northern Canada filming and he never looked back.

Nanook was hailed almost unanimously by critics, and was a box office success in the United States and abroad. In 2005, the film critic Roger Ebert said the character Nanook, was “one of the most vital and unforgettable human beings ever recorded on film”.

In 1989, Nanook was one of the first 25 films to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Like Nanook , Man of Aran showed people’s attempts to survive under extreme conditions, casting locals in the various role, and is clearly has important cultural significance for Ireland.

Our motorcycle hero Clancy would seem to be connected to both.

Will Rogers, the actor with whom Clancy was so strongly associated was a more than averagely interesting figure in his own right. He was born in 1879 in Oologah, Indian Territory, now part of Oklahoma. Oologah was part of the Cherokee Indian Nation and indeed Rogers himself was part Cherokee.

He graduated from military school and his first real job was in the livestock business in Argentina, transporting pack animals across the South Atlantic from Buenos Aires to South Africa for use in the Boer War (1899-1902). He stayed in Johannesburg for a short while, appearing there in Wild West shows where he drew upon his expertise with horse and lasso.

Returning to America, he brought his talents to vaudeville and by 1917 was a Ziegfeld Follies star.

Apart from his film career, he was also something of a journalist, as indeed were both Clancy and Storey. Rogers wrote a weekly column for the New York Times which, in 1922 was so popular, it was syndicated in more than 500 other US newspapers daily.

The articles dished out down-to-earth, biting criticism of politics, politicians, big business and the imbalance of the wealthy and the poor. In all, Rogers wrote more than 2,800 daily articles up until his death. HL Menchen, the influential essayist and critic of American life, wrote that Rogers was “the most dangerous man alive” because of the power his comments had on an adoring public – perhaps only slight exaggeration.

Rogers’ film career went viral, to adopt a contemporary aphorism, with sound. Suddenly audiences could hear his rural twang as he dished out homespun wisdom and wit.

In Clancy-esque fashion, he died while on an adventure – as a passenger in a small plane flying near Point Barrow in Alaska in 1935. The plane was flown by the then well-known aviator, Wiley Post, who also lost his life.

It is now fully known what happened but Post was also known as One-Eyed Wiley Post, which may go some way to explaining events.