Last Clancy brother relished being emotionally trapped by a song
WITH HIS brothers, Tom and Pat, and Tommy Makem, Liam Clancy lit a fire beneath a moribund Irish ballad tradition in the 1950s and 1960s and reclaimed a wealth of working class songs, including Shoals of Herring, Jug of Punchand Leaving of Liverpool.
The youngest of the Clancy brothers, he grew up in Carrick-on-Suir, where he learned the words of his first song, The Croppy Boy. Even then, he relished being emotionally entrapped by a song, and later, he would speak affectionately of how he followed the advice of singer Ewan McColl, who believed every song should be sung as if the singer didn’t know how it would end – all the better to inhabit it utterly.
In 1955, Liam travelled to New York in the company of song collector Diane Hamilton. In 1959, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem recorded LP The Rising Of The Moonon Pat’s record label, Tradition Records.
Liam was widely acknowledged as the strongest singer in the group. His love of poetry and his facility with recitation allowed him to marry republican tales with accounts on perils of ageing ( The Dutchman), and the horrors of war ( And the Band Played ‘Waltzing Matilda’)with pastoral love songs ( Red is the Rose).
As the phenomenon of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem gathered pace in the 1960s, everybody from Pete Seeger to Odetta and Bob Dylan (with whom they shared a stage many times) hailed Liam’s arrival as one of the most charismatic folk singers in the US. Appearances on the Ed Sullivan Showand in New York’s Blue Angel club copperfastened the group’s reputation.
Liam left the group to follow a solo career in 1973, and later renewed his acquaintance with Tommy Makem. Liam was the subject of a documentary film by Alan Gilsenan, The Yellow Bittern, currently showing in cinemas. He featured strongly in Martin Scorsese’s documentary study of Bob Dylan, No Direction Home.
In recent years, Clancy was candid in acknowledging past indiscretions, from heavy drinking to marital infidelities. He never lost his political appetite, forged in a republican household in Carrick-on-Suir, and fostered amid the American Civil Rights movement. He made no secret of his anger at world and domestic events, including both Gulf wars and Ireland’s economic collapse.
Fame was never the spur for Liam Clancy. It was always the singing of the song. In an interview with The Irish Timesin 2007, he spoke wryly of his own mortality. “I don’t think the cosmos would shed a tear over the extinction of this species. The ambivalence that I have about ageing is that while I recognise the transience of things, nonetheless, things matter to me now. When I’m in the middle of a song, life matters!”