‘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. 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 jumper-clad Clancys inspired Irish bands of all musical genres. Among those who have claimed an influence are Sinéad O’Connor, the Pogues, and the Dubliners.
Clancy originally immigrated to the US to become an actor, but instead he began performing in folk clubs with two of his brothers Tom and Paddy, along with Tommy Makem. Under the name The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, the quartet released their first two albums in 1959, The Rising of the Moon: Irish Songs of Rebellion and Come Fill Your Glass with Us, evolved from the informal evenings at the White Horse Tavern, Greenwich Village, before reaching a wider audience with a television appearance in 1961 on The Ed Sullivan Show and concert bookings started to come in.
From 1973 Clancy pursued a solo career, starred in a Canadian TV programme, and reunited (1975–88) as a duo with Makem. Clancy made a comeback in 2005 and released his last album, The Wheels of Life, in 2008. He also wrote a candid autobiography, The Mountain of the Women: Memoirs of an Irish Troubadour (2002), and was the subject of the film documentary The Yellow Bittern (2009).
Mrs Clancy sent over four Aran jumpers to keep out the winter cold. The jumpers 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.
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. A film documentary about Liam, The Yellow Bittern, was released in 2009.
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.