Last updated
January 9, 2008

 


Doras

 

 

 

 

'It put the joy back into the songs'
- Shay Healy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

'I plugged into
the Clancy Brothers, got the guitar and it
was a whole different thing'

- Christy Moore


The Clancy Brothers
and Tommy Makem

By Ronan Nolan
THE Clancys hailed from Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary. Their mother loved a singsong - the least excuse would do, according to daughter Peg - and their father was an opera buff. Aunt Mary Jo's in William Street was a popular house for gatherings, songs and set dancing. "I enjoyed it and learned a few folk songs there," said Paddy.
Paddy (1922 - 1998) was the eldest of the 11 children. Next, in ballad terms, came Tom and Liam was the youngest. Sister Peg Clancy-Power sang in both English and Irish and recorded one record on the Folk Legacy label. Both Paddy and Tom served in the RAF and were experienced actors. The two brothers emigrated to Canada in 1947 and after a year there made their way to New York via Cleveland, Ohio, where they did various jobs from house painting to taxi driving while pursuing acting careers.
Back home in Ireland, Liam Clancy accompanied the American folk music collector Diane Hamilton of the Guggenheim family in late 1955 on a trip around Ireland recording songs and tunes in their natural settings - kitchens and parlours. During that trip he heard the singing and music of Seosamh O hEanaigh (Joe Heaney), Willie Clancy, Seamus Ennis and Sarah Makem. He also formed an enduring friendship with Tommy Makem.
The following year Liam and Tommy Makem went to America and joined Paddy and Tom Clancy who were by then running the Cherry Lane theatre in Greenwich Village. As the folk revival was making headway they rented out space for folk concerts, eventually promoting folk concerts there themselves.
"We just could not make a living out of acting and we had to supplement our income," Liam recalled in an interview. "Tommy and I started singing in a place called The Fifth Peg in Greenwich". They soon found themselves getting $125 a week compared to $45 for acting off Broadway. They also listened to American folk revival groups such as The Weavers and The Kingston Trio. Liam developed his guitar technique, Paddy played the harmonica, Tommy Makem the banjo, war pipes and tin whistle. 
Bob Dylan was an early visitor at Clancy performances. "Topical songs weren't protest songs," Dylan wrote in his memoir Chronicles. "What I was hearing pretty regularly, though, were rebellion songs, and those really moved me. The Clancy Brothers -- Tom, Paddy and Liam -- and their buddy Tommy Makem sang them all the time."
Dylan took the melody of Brennan on the Moor for his song Ramblin' Gamblin' Willie. The Clancys returned the compliment, when they sang Dylan's When The Ship Comes In at his 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden in October 1992.
"The only thing for Irish songs at that time was, earlier on, John McCormack and people like Bing Crosby. Here we came, and maybe we had one mike for the four of us to sing on. So you roared as loudly as you could so you could be heard," recalled Tommy Makem.

Beating out the sound
Liam Clancy remembers working on technique: "Brennan on the Moore was a famous old ballad but it was sung mournfully. We were in this apartment in Greenwich Village and I was sitting on this couch that had springs in it. And I said 'Let's try and get the sound of ... if we could belt it out like the highwaymen. Get the sound of galloping horses." He was bouncing up and down on the springs, beating out the sound of a galloping horse and singing to its rhythm."
"We knew we had established something new - a new way of singing old songs."
In 1956 they recorded their first album Irish Songs of Rebellion on Tradition Records, formed by Paddy Clancy and Kenny Goldstein. This was followed up shortly by another LP Fill your Glass with Us. By 1961 they were playing in the Blue Angel, one of New York's largest night clubs.
Paddy Clancy used to tell a story of how they came by their trademark Aran ganseys. "It was a very cold winter in New York and my mother in Ireland read about the snow and the frost in New York. And her three sons were in America. So she knitted three Aran sweaters and she sent them out.
"We had a Jewish manager, Marty Erlichman. He saw them and said 'That's it. I've been looking for some identifiable costume for you. It's perfect!'"
Utilising their instrumental armoury and the store of songs from the Clancy and Makem families, songbooks and Ewan McColl tapes, they added stage banter to manly harmonies and passionate choruses to create a unique repertoire for the American folk audience. Their acting days helped shape their stagecraft and their trademark Aran ganseys made them stand out.
In 1961 they were invited to perform two songs on the Ed Sullivan Show and when another act pulled out at the last minute they were given their time allocation as well. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem capitalised on their 16 minutes of fame and their performance was a huge success. In 1962 they played a set of over two hours in Carnegie Hall.
But it took longer to win over a section of Irish-America which shuddered at reminders of past stage-Irish excesses and anti-Irish prejudice. The ghost of those days when the Irish held the shitty end of the stick was symbolically put to rest a year later when the Clancys performed for Jack Kennedy in the White House. Among their songs, an ironic We Want No Irish Here.

Back Home

Back in Ireland, television clips from the Sullivan and White Houses performances had a huge effect. TV presenter and author Shay Healy was a folk singer in the Sixties: "There was drama and humour in it. It was a sort of performance that we hadn't seen before. It put the joy back into the songs." Meanwhile Ciaran Mac Mathuna on his influential Job of Journeywork radio programme was playing tracks from Clancy Brothers LPs he had picked up while recording Irish musicians in the States in 1962.
The first ballad session, as we know it today,  had taken place in the Abbey Tavern in Howth on the outskirts of Dublin. By chance Liam Clancy was staying in the Dublin home of Peggy Jordan who was organising musicians for the venue, so he became one of the first performers at those early sessions at the Abbey Tavern which marked the start of the Irish ballad boom.
The Clancy Brothers made a triumphant visit to Ireland in 1963. Shay Healy recalls when they sang to a sold-out Olympia Theatre in Dublin: "They even sang a song from the top window to the hundreds outside who couldn't get tickets."
In his book Luke Kelly, A Memoir, Des Geraghty recalls them turning up a Fleadh in Co Clare:
"They were a new sight for regular Fleadh-goers and had a dramatic impact on all of us - this family from Carrick-on-Suir, in their bainín jumpers, bringing a sense of polished entertainment to some very old worn songs.

"There is no doubt that the unexpected and enormous success of the Clancys fuelled a new professionalism among Irish musicians and gave a great impetus to the movement that was emerging; but of course there was also a lot of uncertainty about this commercial and obviously well-organised and rehearsed group back from America. They didn't fit either the old or the new stereotypes but they were clearly a force to be reckoned with. They had great stage presence and exuberance and were definitely going places."

Liam Clancy forged a deep friendship with Luke Kelly of the Dubliners, often swapping songs. It was from Liam that Luke learned both English and Irish versions of the song The Jail of Clonmel or Priosún Chluain Meala. The Clancys also presented Luke with a Merlin banjo.

Tours and Albums

The group went on to produce 55 albums and made countless tours of Ireland, Britain and America. As a teenager I recall a concert they gave at a dance in the late Sixties in Seapoint Ballroom, Galway. The dancers swung to either the Monarchs or Dixies Showband. Around midnight the Clancy Brothers - fresh from an earlier performance in Claremorris - came on stage to a rousing reception. For a few short years, there was an easy overlap between folk and popular music in Ireland.
In 1969 Tommy Makem left the group. Then in 1975 he linked up with Liam Clancy in a successful partnership that was to last until 1988 and is best remembered for their version of the anti-war ballad  And the Band Played Waltzing Mathilda. Paddy and Tom and brother Bobby and nephew Robbie O'Connell, continued to perform together. But the group had become déclassé.
In the 1970s and 80s Tom returned to acting. He appeared in TV series -- among them The Incredible Hulk, Charlie's Angels and Little House on the Prairie. Back in Carrick-on-Suir, Paddy and his wife Mary bought a farm and raised Charolais and Simental cattle. Liam settled in Ring - once home to the great singers Nioclás Tóibín and Labhrás Dráipéir and now Danú - in the Waterford Gaeltacht where he built a recording studio. They all did get together for a big reunion show in the Lincoln Centre in New York in 1984 and also got together again for concerts in Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Galway. Tom Clancy died in November, 1990.
In 1996 there was an emotional reunion between Paddy and Liam Clancy. "He'd come down to Ring when I think he realised he was very ill", Liam recalled in a RTE/TG4 documentary made shortly after Paddy's death.
"Like every family we had our disagreements over the years. But we had a fairly serious falling out over ... Oh, we were doing cruises in the Caribbean. Once you got involved in business you don't understand, very often things get very rocky. And we had our problems and our battles and so on.
"But he came down to Ring and we had a get-together down in Mooneys. We had a couple of pints and we hugged each other. 'What the hell were we fighting about, a few dollars, or some misunderstanding. Let's have a song'. So we had a great session that night'."
In 1996 they regrouped: Liam and Paddy and Bobby Clancy and nephew Robbie O'Connell. They released an LP Older but No Wiser and embarked on a farewell tour.
Paddy died of cancer in November 1998. An RTE news clip showed the moving graveside ceremony as Liam and Bobby Clancy, Ronnie Drew, Finbar Furey and Paddy Reilly, accompanied by John Sheehan, sang The Parting Glass, and the nation marked the passing of an era in Irish traditional music. Bobby Clancy passed away after a long illness on September 6, 2002. ©Ronan Nolan 2000-08.

See Also:
Liam Clancy Website. Liam doesn't give his email address, but answers questions to his noticeboard, which gives everyone an equal chance.


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