Certain Irish people I know used to have little time for the Clancy brothers and Tommy Makem. Perhaps in the same way that some Scousers got pissed off with stereotypes of rum-voiced mop-top Beatles (and those Disney vultures in The Jungle Book), a few cool Celts grew tired of the Aran-jumpered postcardy image of Ireland projected to millions by Liam Clancy and co on The Ed Sullivan Show back in March 1961. Maybe you can get too much of a good thing? With their drinking songs, their rebel ballads and wild tales perpetuating the earthy romance of the Emerald Isle – long-lost homeland of the Irish diaspora – the brothers from County Tipperary were adopted and embraced by America, and played a key part in inspiring the Sixties folk revival.
2009 was a moving year for Clancy fans. Back in February the complete recording of arguably their finest concert was finally released in all its raw glory – ‘The Clancy Brothers And Tommy Makem In Person At Carnegie Hall 1963’ (Sony Legacy) – forty-seven live tracks of pre-Pogues fury and revelry capturing an important moment in music history. Then in September, came the cinematic release of Alan Gilsenan’s haunting bio-documentary of the youngest, sweetest-voiced and last-surviving brother Liam Clancy; the man Bob Dylan proclaimed “the best ballad singer I’d ever heard in my life”. Finally, on December 7, having read Dylan Thomas’ And Death Shall Have No Dominion onstage at his final concert performance, Liam lost his long battle against the lung disease pulmonary fibrosis. He was 74.
It’s hard to overstate the Clancy brothers’ impact on folk music. Almost every Celt who’s picked up a guitar, or sung a traditional song with real emotion, owes something to Liam Clancy. Apart from Bob Dylan, and Liam’s diverse friends and musical collaborators (from the-gone-before Odetta and Josh White through to Shane MacGowan and Mary Black), a generation of artists would pay heartfelt tribute to his influence. Christy Moore recalled, “I got to hear of the Clancy brothers on the radio and, when I was 16, came to Dublin to hear them in a concert in 1962. It was the most exciting concert I had ever attended. It was Irish, it was rock ‘n’ roll, it was funky and it was even sexy”. You get a real nostalgic sense of all this from the Carnegie Hall recordings; the boisterous audience, the spirit-fuelled performers, the euphoric feeling that while performing songs of hard-living and hard-drinking against the backdrop of political troubles in Ireland, these exiles found themselves on top of the world, riding the success wave alongside a young vibrant Irish-American president John F. Kennedy. It couldn’t last; the times and tides were a-changing.
Alan Gilsenan’s film, The Yellow Bittern, is a thing of beauty; poetic and moving, with his trademark blend of story-telling, brilliantly-shot interviews, music that’s allowed to breathe and linger, and great unseen archive (even Liam hadn’t seen the footage of his own wedding). Gilsenan’s documentary sculpts in time Liam’s journey from Tipperary boy “with one foot in the middle ages”, his relationship with the moneyed folk-archivist Diane Hamilton, his passage to New York, acting onstage with the likes of Dirk Bogarde and Robert Redford, then finding folksinger fame and acclaim amid the hedonism of Greenwich Village life before crashing back down to reality and drink and ill-health. Yeats once wrote that “the older we get the more we feed on the joys and sorrows of the past”. In close-up, on camera, focusing on Clancy’s face, as his emotional eyes reflect on his life and contemplate his death, we can fully understand the wisdom of these words.
Apart from catching The Yellow Bittern and getting your hands on the unexpurgated Carnegie Hall concert, I’d also invest in his first solo album, ‘Liam Clancy: Irish Troubadour’ (Vanguard, 1965) which showcased the ballad-master at his under-produced best. Alongside Gaelic laments and his own typical compositions (such as ‘All For Me Grog’ and ‘Home Boys Home’), plus traditionals such as ‘Lang A-Growing’ and ‘Downie Dens Of Yarrow’, Clancy’s early versions of Ewan MacColl’s ‘Dirty Old Town’ and particularly ‘I’m A Freeborn Man’ remain powerful, even historic recordings. Above all other tracks, there are his moving takes on two extraordinary songs by the Behan brothers: Dominic’s ‘Patriot Game’ and Brendan’s ‘Royal Canal’.
The man may have gone, but there’s a real sweetness of soul, a lasting love of Ireland and a fierce rage against the dying of the light in Liam Clancy’s best work.