Last survivor of legendary Clancy Brothers with special voice for a ballad


LIAM CLANCY:LIAM CLANCY, who has died aged 74, was the last surviving member of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, the band which revitalised Irish traditional music by blending showbusiness with the folk tradition. The group, described by Gay Byrne as the “most famous four Irishmen in the world”, recorded 55 albums which sold in their millions around the world.

Liam Clancy later played in other formations before enjoying a successful solo career.

Bob Dylan said: “I never heard a singer as good as him ever. He was just the best ballad singer I ever heard in my life, still is probably.”

Born in Carrick-on-Suir in 1935, he was one of the 11 children of Robert Joseph Clancy and Joanna McGrath. He was educated by the Christian Brothers.

Working in the insurance business in Dublin, he attended night classes at the National College of Art. He also enrolled in Brendan Smith’s acting school, and had a small part in a production of The Playboy of the Western Worldwhich starred Siobhán McKenna and Cyril Cusack.

At home in Carrick-on-Suir he met Diane Hamilton Guggenheim, who visited the town to record his mother’s singing. By now unemployed, he accompanied Hamilton on her travels through Ireland.

It was in 1955, when Hamilton visited Keady, that Clancy first met Tommy Makem son of the renowned singer Sarah Makem.

Clancy decided to try his luck as an actor in New York. His adventure began in Greenwich Village, where he stayed with his brother Paddy and his wife.

A small part in a stage production of The Countess Cathleenwas followed by minor roles in short films and television dramas.

He began to frequent the White Horse Tavern in the Village, where Dylan Thomas famously had his last drink. There he rubbed shoulders with jazz and folk musicians, writers and aspiring actors like himself.

But it was difficult to make a living as an actor, and singing took over. Clancy was reunited with Makem in New York. Along with Makem, and his brothers Pat and Tom, in 1959 he recorded The Rising of the Moon, an album of republican ballads.

Now performing as a group, they built up a following through live performances in Boston, Chicago and New York. A 16-minute appearance on The Ed Sullivan Showon St Patrick’s Day in 1961 brought them to national attention and they were signed to Columbia Records.

Under the shrewd management of Marty Erlichman and Lenny Rosenfeld, the Clancys went from strength to strength. Dressed in Aran sweaters and belting out songs with great gusto, they broke from the standard Irish-American repertoire, and introduced songs like Jug of Punch, Shoals of Herringand Leaving of Liverpoolto young folk audiences.

They brought a new consciousness to Irish music and, in Clancy’s words, made it “respectable again for so-called respectable people to sing working-class songs”.

In 1973 he left the group to pursue a solo career. He moved to Calgary, Alberta, where he became an established television performer.

In 1974 Clancy and Makem were booked to perform separately in Cleveland, Ohio. Persuaded to do one set together, they soon afterwards became Makem and Clancy, recording touring as a duo until 1988. They made Eric Bogle’s song And the Band played Waltzing Matildatheir own. In the mid-1980s they teamed up with the other Clancys for a reunion tour.

It was a mixed blessing for Clancy. “One of the great things I discovered about working solo,” he said in April 2007, “is that all my life I’d worked with other people, and I was looking over my shoulder. There had to be a certain amount of approval. There was always a pecking order, especially when you’re working with family. But they all died off, and I got to the top of the pecking order, with nobody looking over my shoulder. There’s a great sense of freedom about that.”

After his brother Tom’s death in 1990, he teamed up with his brothers Paddy and Bobby and nephew Robbie O’Connell, though he still performed shows with his Fayreweather Band as well as with the Phil Coulter Orchestra.

He almost stole the show in Martin Scorsese’s award-winning documentary on Bob Dylan No Direction Home, made in 2004. He went on to feature in Alan Gilsenans documentary The Legend of Liam Clancywhich won an Ifta award in 2007.

In recent years he ran a recording studio in Ring, Co Waterford, where he lived. His most recent album The Wheels of Life, released this year, features duets with Mary Black and Gemma Hayes along with tracks by Tom Paxton and Donovan.

He is survived by his wife Kim, daughters Fiona and Siobhán and sons Eben and Dónal, as well as his daughter Anya from a previous relationship.

Liam Clancy: born September 2nd, 1935; died December 4th, 2009