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Reflections on Liam Clancy (1935-2009)

December 15, 2009

By Staff Reporter

We spoke transatlantically for nearly two hours, and Liam’s generosity in granting that time was matched by his humor and insight throughout it. I learned a lot about Tommy from Liam, but I also learned a lot about Liam himself in the way he recalled his departed friend.
“If there was a royalty of 17 cents that he thought he owed me,” Liam said about Tommy, “he’d spend 75 cents in stamps to send it to me.”
“We were in a drama together in the most unlikely casting, playing two priests in ‘Shadow and Substance,’ written by Paul Vincent Carroll,” Liam told me. “Tommy and I got forty bucks a week. Still, it was more than the thirty-dollar lump sum my brother Paddy paid Tommy for his first solo album on Tradition Records. It was always in the back of our minds that singing was just a bit of fun while waiting to get the next acting job.”
That itch to act translated well on the concert stage for Liam, his brothers Paddy and Tom, and friend Tommy Makem. It was Liam who brought up the idea of presenting more than just singing and stories. “Why don’t we incorporate the things that we love most, that we most want to say on stage, like Yeats and O’Casey and even Beckett?” he asked his two brothers and Makem.
They agreed, and this spellbinding weave of some poetry and drama with singing was on display at the quartet’s sold-out concert on March 17, 1963, at Carnegie Hall. Without music accompaniment, Liam recited from memory all 11 stanzas of William Butler Yeats’s “The Host of the Air,” which was followed by Makem’s tin whistle and Liam’s guitar playing on “The King of the Fairies” tune that led into the song “Eileen Aroon” sung by all four members. The track was over six minutes long and encapsulated what the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem did better than any other Irish folk group of that time: they entertained up, not down, to their audience.
“We always had this incredible vibe of good will from the audience toward us,” Liam told me. “They made us feel so comfortable that we almost felt we didn’t need to rehearse, though we did, of course.”
On her 1994 solo album “A Whistle on the Wind,” Cherish the Ladies’ leader Joanie Madden invited Liam Clancy to recite an English translation of the blind poet Raftery’s verse “Mary Hynes,” which he delivered with riveting conviction.
Liam was also a guest singer on two Cherish the Ladies’ recordings, “At Home” in 1999 and “The Girls Won’t Leave the Boys Alone” in 2001, the title of which was a tribute to the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem’s “The Boys Won’t Leave the Girls Alone” album in 1962.
Right after Liam’s death, Joanie Madden told me this: “When Cherish [the Ladies] was starting out, we were fortunate to get the opportunity to do many concerts as the opening act for the Clancys, and they were so kind to us, advising us, helping us, and guiding us. We learned so much from them about stagecraft. They were the best I’ve ever seen at connecting with an audience. Liam could sing a ballad like no other. He literally put his heart and soul into every word of a song with this incredible feeling that was just powerful.”
On learning of his passing, Limerick-born singer and multi-instrumentalist Mick Moloney conveyed to me the impact of Liam Clancy on his own career: “All of us who play Irish music for a living are forever in his debt. He was a fine singer and a great showman and the musical powerhouse behind the success of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Their sense of fun, joy, and energy gave us back our national confidence at a time when we badly needed it. After I heard Liam and the others on Irish radio, my own life would never be the same. There was an elemental excitement about their singing that was captivating. I think I might have been the first person to buy a ticket for their first Limerick City concert at the Savoy Cinema. I sat enraptured in the middle seat of the front row for what at that point was the most unforgettable two hours of my life. I will never forget the moment when they ran out on stage, squared up to the microphones, and launched exuberantly into ‘Brennan on the Moor.’ The cinema rocked as never before. Liam’s legacy is already abundant everywhere in the world that Irish music is played.”
When I last spoke with Liam, he recited from memory Prospero’s lines from “Our revels now are ended” through to “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep” in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”
Then he stunned me by reciting, in its entirety, Alfred Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” The poem’s last six lines now strike me as a fitting coda to Liam’s own life and career: “Though much is taken, much abides; and though / We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are, – / One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Tom Clancy (1923-90), Paddy Clancy (1922-98), Bobby Clancy (1927-2002), Tommy Makem (1932-2007), and Liam Clancy (1935-2009) have left a large, indelible imprint on Irish music. “In retrospect, it’s history, but at the time, it’s just living,” Liam told me. “We had no idea where the road was leading us.”
Even so, to quote from another poet, Robert Frost, the road they took “has made all the difference.” Today, Irish musicians walk it still.

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