“He was just the best ballad singer I’d ever heard in my life,” said Bob Dylan, who early in his Greenwich Village career told Liam that he wanted “to be as big as the Clancy Brothers.”
Born on September 2, 1935, in Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary, and in recent years residing in Ring, Co. Waterford, where he built a highly respected recording studio, Liam Clancy was the youngest of Robert and Johanna (nee McGrath) Clancy’s 11 children. Older brothers Tom and Paddy preceded Liam to America in 1951, and he followed in 1956, the same year Keady, Armagh’s Tommy Makem immigrated. All actors, the three brothers and Liam’s friend Tommy eventually linked up in New York City, where they initially performed music as a diversion rather than as a vocation.
But their rousing unison singing of authentic Irish ballads, rooted in Ireland itself but shaped by the American folksong movement of the time, began to captivate audiences outside such favorite late-night Manhattan haunts as the White Horse Tavern and Lion’s Head. Fund-raising events at the Cherry Lane Theater and other venues, where the quartet sang to enthusiastic crowds, only strengthened their profile as musicians.
In the late 1950s the three Clancys and Makem recorded for Tradition, an independent label founded by Paddy Clancy. Among the LP’s they made for Tradition were “The Rising of the Moon,” comprising songs of Irish rebellion, and “Come Fill Your Glass With Us,” self-descriptively subtitled “Irish Songs of Drinking and Blackguarding.”
In 1961, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, after being spotted at the Blue Angel nightclub by a talent scout, appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” a Sunday evening TV variety program watched by 80 million people. Slotted for three minutes, they wound up singing for 16 minutes after one of the headliners suddenly got sick and canceled. Wearing what would become their trademark Aran sweaters, sent by the Clancys’ mother for the cold winters in New York, they sang with power and passion, bowling over the studio and massive TV audience together. Overnight, they were stars, and legendary album producer John Hammond, who had watched the show, signed them to a Columbia Records contract for a $100,000 advance, a staggering sum then.
The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were in the right place (New York City) at the right time (the flourishing of the American folk revival), but it was their striking vocal talent and irresistible stage charisma that transformed them into the most popular Irish singers in the world. Blending songs, stories, wit, poetry, and Irish history on stage and selling millions of records globally, they became the sound and look of Ireland for countless fans. Their thoroughly entertaining concerts, boosted by a literary and theatrical touch, set a standard that very few other Irish acts could match. Now considered staples, the songs they sang conveyed the political and cultural legacy of Ireland along with its gusto and grit: “Patriot Game,” “The Bold Fenian Men,” and “A Nation Once Again” as well as “The Jug of Punch,” “Whiskey, You’re the Devil,” and “The Irish Rover.”
In 1973 Liam Clancy left the group to pursue a solo career. In Calgary, he had his own TV series, winning a Canadian Emmy Award. One of Liam’s guests on the show was Tommy Makem, who had left the group in 1969 and was replaced by Bobby Clancy. In 1975 Liam and Tommy performed an impromptu set together at an Irish festival in Ohio, rekindling their musical bond and persuading them to become a duo. Their debut album in 1976, simply entitled “Tommy Makem & Liam Clancy,” included a nearly seven-minute song that became a surprise No. 1 hit in Ireland, Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” showcasing Liam’s magnetic baritone voice. On the heels of that album’s success, “Tommy and I started a new career that lasted for 13 years,” he noted.
Another song strongly identified with Liam Clancy was “The Dutchman,” which was also the title of a solo album by him, and his distinctive renditions of “Red Is the Rose,” “The Cocky Farmer,” “Ar Eireann Ni Neosainm Ce Hi,” and another Eric Bogle song, “Willie McBride” (its actual title is “No Man’s Land”), remain fan favorites. Following his partnership with Tommy Makem, Liam performed (after his brother Tom died in 1990) with brothers Paddy and Bobby and nephew Robbie O’Connell; with his son Donal (of the bands Solas and currently Danu) and Robbie O’Connell; and, toward the end of his life, as a re-energized soloist.
In a career full of highlights and accolades, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Limerick in 2001 (with Tommy Makem); published a well-received autobiography in 2002, “The Mountain of the Women: Memoirs of an Irish Troubadour”; appeared in Martin Scorcese’s 2004 documentary about Bob Dylan, “No Direction Home”; and, in 2009, was the subject of a documentary about his life, “The Yellow Bittern,” and issued a widely praised solo album, “The Wheels of Life,” featuring guests Tom Paxton, Donovan, and Mary Black.
The 1984 reunion concerts (including a memorable one at sold-out Avery Fisher Hall on May 20) and recording of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem; Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration on Oct. 16, 1992, at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, where Liam, Paddy, and Bobby Clancy sang with Tommy Makem and Robbie O’Connell; and the two-CD, full-concert release in 2009 of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem’s “In Person at Carnegie Hall,” recorded on St. Patrick’s Day 1963, are other vital documents of Liam Clancy’s music.
“I guess I’m the last man standing from the original quartet, and it’s a lonely place to be,” Liam Clancy said to me after Tommy Makem’s death in 2007.
With Liam Clancy’s passing, Irish music has become a lonelier place to be. We will not see or hear his like again, though his memory and music will certainly endure.
Following a requiem Mass at 12:30 p.m. on Dec. 7 at St. Mary’s Parish Church in Dungarvan, Liam Clancy was buried in the New Cemetery in Ring. He is survived by his wife Kim, children Eben, Siobhan, Donal, and Fiona, eight grandchildren, and sisters Joan and Peg.