‘The best ballad singer I ever heard in my life” was Bob Dylan’s verdict on Liam Clancy, who died at age 74 on this date in 2009. He was the last remaining member of the best-known of all Irish folk groups, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, who made an impression that was strong enough for them to break through into the mainstream. The popularity of the quartet, comprising Liam, his older brothers Tom and Pat and family friend Tommy, was unrivalled in the 1960s, especially in the US, where the four men had settled. With their hard-living, hard-drinking image, singing Irish folk songs in a hearty and rousing style, the Aran sweater-clad Clancys inspired Irish bands of all musical genres. Among those who have claimed an influence are Sinéad O’Connor, the Pogues, Bono and the Dubliners.
Liam was the youngest of the nine children of Bob and Johanna Clancy of Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary. Liam’s two older brothers had already emigrated to the US, and stories of their acting experiences in New York fired the imagination of the younger brother, who was already passionately interested in poetry and the theatre.
Reluctantly, Liam followed his father into the insurance business, but a spell in Dublin in 1953 allowed him to take acting lessons, and he was an extra in the Gaiety theatre’s production of JM Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. He bought a guitar, left the world of insurance and returned home.
A visit from an American folksong collector in 1955 changed Liam’s life forever. Diane Hamilton was the daughter of Harry Guggenheim; she changed her name to disguise her wealthy background, and landed in Ireland with a tape recorder and a seemingly bottomless purse. Having met Tom and Pat Clancy in New York, she turned up on the Clancy family’s doorstep, recorded Mrs Clancy’s songs and then set out, accompanied by Liam, to record folk music from, among others, Sarah Makem, whose son, Tommy, shared Liam’s aspirations to be an actor in New York.
In 1956, Clancy set off for New York with Hamilton, 13 years his senior and twice divorced, and was immediately exposed to bohemian life in Greenwich Village, as well as wealth in the Guggenheim homes. Hamilton became obsessed with Liam, but his strict Catholic upbringing would not allow him to consummate the relationship. The story was told in Clancy’s autobiography The Mountain of the Women: Memoirs of an Irish Troubadour (2002).
With his brothers’ help, Liam got parts in several plays by WB Yeats, and he acted alongside Walter Matthau, Robert Redford and Dirk Bogarde. He also worked for Tradition Records (established with Guggenheim money), which released The Rising of the Moon (1956), a collection of Irish rebel songs sung by the three Clancy brothers and Tommy Makem, who had followed Liam to the US. The singing evolved from the informal evenings at the White Horse Tavern, Greenwich Village, where Dylan Thomas had taken his final drink, but it was not until their second album, a selection of drinking songs, Come Fill Your Glass With Us (1958), that the concert bookings started to come in.
They rejected a formal concert performance style, and simply transferred the raucous informality of the White Horse Tavern to the concert stage, though this was later carefully stage-managed. Soon, they were singing in New York, Boston and San Francisco nightclubs, but it was at the swish Blue Angel in New York that they were spotted by scouts from The Ed Sullivan Show. Their appearance on the television programme, in early 1961, when their two-song slot was extended to 15 minutes after the main act cancelled, made them famous. Columbia Records offered them a five-year contract and a six-figure advance.
Just before that celebrated performance, Mrs Clancy sent them four Aran sweaters to keep out the winter cold. The sweaters became their trademark, although under stage lights they were uncomfortably hot. The group reawakened an awareness of traditional Irish song, and after a period in which the old songs had been associated with the poverty and oppression of the past, they restored pride in Irish cultural traditions. Their upbeat, lively performance style reinvigorated the old songs, such as Brennan On the Moor, Jug of Punch and Fine Girl You Are. Accompaniment came from Liam’s guitar and Makem’s whistle and banjo.
By the end of 1961, they had released two more records, appeared on television and radio across America and performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Radio exposure back in Ireland led to a sellout tour there in 1962, followed by visits to Britain, Australia and Canada. In 1963, they sang for President John F Kennedy. The following year, a third of all albums sold in Ireland were theirs.
Makem left the group in 1969, and was initially replaced by the other Clancy brother, Bobby, before the group disbanded in 1974. Liam was beset by financial problems that led to bankruptcy and emigration to Canada, where he found his feet as a solo performer and had his own television series.
In 1975, Liam teamed up again with Makem, and Eric Bogle’s song The Band Played Waltzing Matilda made their first album together a great success. After 13 years together, Liam returned to his solo career.
In 1977, the Clancy Brothers reunited, but without Liam. In 1984, the original lineup reformed briefly to make a television documentary and perform in the US, Ireland and Britain. Liam rejoined in 1991 following the death of Tom Clancy, only to leave again in 1996. Liam and nephew Robbie O’Connell formed a duo, and were later joined by Liam’s son Donal.
Pat Clancy died in 1998, and Bobby in 2002. Liam continued as a solo performer, singing traditional folksongs and adding modern examples by songwriters such as Tom Paxton, the Pogues’ Shane MacGowan and Ewan MacColl. The publication of his autobiography led to a resurgence of interest, with appearances on American and Irish television.
His 70th birthday year, 2005, was celebrated with a major tour, followed by a TV documentary, The Legend of Liam Clancy, in 2006. Two years later came his final CD, The Wheels of Life, with guest appearances by Irish singer Mary Black, Paxton and Donovan. Last September a film documentary about Liam, The Yellow Bittern, was released in Ireland.
Liam settled in Ring, Co Waterford, with his wife Kim, who survives him, along with their four children, Eben, Fiona, Donal and Siobhan, and a daughter, Anya, from a previous relationship.