Reflections on Liam Clancy and the Makem-Clancy Legend

Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy

By Peter Makem

Sometime in the month of March of 1955 early in the evening, a knock came to my grandparent’s door at 44 Victoria Street, Keady, Co. Armagh. My grandmother Sarah, finding it strange that somebody should knock because the neighbors normally just walked in, went slowly to the door, opened it and standing there was a young woman and a young man. They introduced themselves.

She was Diane Hamilton, in her early thirties, a song collector, (whose real name was Guggenheim, of the New York millionaire family). The other was 20-year-old Liam Clancy from Carrick on Suir, Co. Tipperary. Diane explained in her American accent that she was collecting Irish traditional songs and recording Irish traditional singers and wanted to record Sarah. She had heard of her through some other collectors, Sean O’Boyle and Peter Kennedy who had been at similar work from the early fifties.

A few hours later, another young man entered the house at the end of his days work as a clerk at a nearby garage. It was 22-year-old Tommy Makem, and he was introduced to the two visitors. That was the first time that Liam (Willie as he was then known) and Tommy had ever met. In the next few hours they discovered they had many things in common. Both were very much into acting. Both fancied themselves as singers and were totally into ballads, both were very self confident and full of youthful exuberance, and both intended to go to America as soon as they could get it organized to try their hand at acting in New York.

Liam’s two brothers Paddy and Tom were already in America and working at a variety of things to make a living. Both had fought in the RAF in the Second World War and by the mid-1950’s they became involved in a recording company in New York.

After the meeting in Keady, Tommy and Liam kept in touch by post and two years later they met in New York and were involved in some Off-Broadway productions. All four of them began to get involved more and more in song and eventually discovered there was a better chance of a living in the singing than the acting, leading eventually to the appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1961 and international fame.

From the very beginning Liam Clancy took his singing absolutely seriously and approached every song as a drama to be presented. He was only truly at home on the stage where singer and actor were fused. Like Tommy, he knew the art of performance to perfection where a concert was not a mere series of songs but a complete drama where the raucous and uplifting would merge into something slow and sad and lift again with the audience going through an extensive tour of emotional intensity.

After Tommy left the Clancy Brothers in 1969, Liam stayed with the group but eventually embarked on a solo career. In 1976 both found themselves performing at a festival in Winnipeg, and were persuaded to do a few songs together. The chemistry was reignited there and then and for the next 13 years they became Makem and Clancy, which in the opinion of most people in the know was the apex of both their careers.

I will always remember Liam for his singing of “The Shoals of Herring,” “The Traveling People” as well as “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and “The Dutchman.” I recall his bare vocal tone, full of emotion as a chanter of the pipes, the closed eyes utterly inhabiting the song as if he never knew how it would end, eventually emerging from the trance to great applause.

In his latter years he seemed to live out his performing persona in real life. He seemed to bring the stage with him wherever he went, that he was always performing in his mind, always before an audience. I think he relived his life a lot, not merely a nostalgic trip into the glory days, or for his eventual status, but to see what new insights he might access of the mystery of life itself.

I spoke to him on the phone last August, at his home at Ring, Co. Waterford, asking him to come up to Armagh for the Tommy Festival to give a talk about their times together. He let me ramble on for a while and then said suddenly, “It’s not possible. I’m not well.”

He then told me of his illness, fibrosis of the lung, of which his brother Bobby had died some years ago. The last I had seen of him was when we sat together at Tommy Makem’s funeral exactly two years ago previous and when he sang “The Bard of Armagh” at the end of the requiem with an intensity as if it were the last song he would ever sing.

As I spoke to him on the phone, he let me know that he was accepting his fate, that his family was reared and he had his grandchildren around him and so on. I worked hard to articulate off the top of my head what I felt about his immense contribution to Irish life, to the self confidence of the people, that the song was an inherently spiritual entity and quoted the parable of the talents which he and Tommy and his brothers had fulfilled, that they had infused something very deep into the spirit of their people.This seemed to warm him up considerably and although his voice was weak, he went on at considerable length, in a sort of testament of his life, remembering the meeting in Keady over half a century before and working hard to put it all into context. But there would be no final trip North.My wife Catherine and son Colm went down with me to the funeral last weekend in Dungarvan. Shay Healey gave a superb speech at the end of the Requiem Mass which earned the greatest round of applause I have ever heard in a church. We followed the cortege out to the small cemetery at Helvic Head not for from his home, and there, 10 yards from the grave of his brother Tom, he was laid to rest. As the priest was saying the final prayers a brilliant rainbow appeared overhead, stretching out to the sea, so dramatic that everybody looked up to a rising murmur as if they were making a connection that this was no mere coincidence of nature. Finally, “The Parting Glass” was sung at the grave side as his wife Kim and family made a circle, and the TV cameras of Ireland focused, and then all began to move away, as the rainbow faded and vanished. But, as the priest said, Liam had outlived his body. That was the reality, he said. He was on stage again.

Somehow, I found that helpful.