Saturday, December 05, 2009

So. Farewell Then, Liam Clancy

Liam Clancy. 1935-2009.Liam Clancy was not a traditionalist. He was a revolutionary.

That’s the most important thing to note about the man whose death this weekend draws a line under the Irish folk boom of the 1960s. Luke, Ronnie, Tommy Makem and now all three Clancy brothers have softly risen and gently called goodnight, and God be with you all.

But Liam Clancy was a multi-faceted man, a man gifted and flawed if not in equal, certainly in significant, parts. It is to do him and his legacy an injustice to describe him as just a ballad singer, a singer of come-all-ye’s.

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were revolutionaries in a time of revolution. They were men in the right place at the right time, Greenwich village of the 1960s when there were folk clubs abounding on every corner with middle class kids just out of university pretending to have ridden freight cars, hobo style, to get to New York in the first place. They craved what they themselves could never bluff – authenticity – and the Clancys and Tommy Makem delivered that authenticity in spades.

They originally wanted to be actors, all four of them. Paddy and Tom Clancy had fought in India with the RAF during the war, and then moved to the States, there being nothing at home to go back to. Liam Clancy and his friend Tommy Makem moved out ten years later. They had all grown up listening to the old songs, and old songs were exactly what the US folkies craved.

But the Clancys and Tommy Makem didn’t treat the old songs as old songs. This is the essential thing about them. What the Clancys and Tommy Makem did had never been done in Irish music before.

Firstly, Irish singing was a solo performance. The rousing choruses of the Clancys were anathema to the tradition, and were like a bunch of drunks on St Patrick’s night in comparison to the drawing room tenors of the James Joyce tradition. Which, in some ways, is exactly the point.

Irish songs as existed pre the Clancy brothers were chiefly of the Tom Moore drawing room tenor variety. Even when they were written, some critics saw Moore’s melodies as being a little bloodless. William Hazlitt, a contemporary of Tom Moore’s, once famously remarked that Tom Moore had taken the wild harp of Erin and put it into a snuff box. That Moore had imposed gentility on something that was far from gentle.

One hundred and fifty years later, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem turned all that on its head, leading to Ciarán Mac Mathúna’s famous saw that the Clancys had taken the wild harp of Erin out of a snuff box and put it into a pint glass.

And that’s exactly what they did. They restored the people’s music of Ireland to the Irish people. They rode the tide of the sixties revolution, a time of changing social order, and said that not only was being Irish not a source of shame, it was a source of pride and something to be gloried in.

For this they were not always thanked, of course. For a lot of the country they had a bit too damned much of the Yank about them. The Aran sweaters and the stagecraft stuck in the craw. The Clancys were respected but never loved, the way the Dubliners were loved. In many ways, the country never really knew the Clancys at all.

The USA was as much a part of them as Ireland was, and Liam Clancy’s life will get as much, if not more, obituary space in the US because of his role in that folk revival than he will here. Liam Clancy was a recidivist hippy in many ways, a man who was just the right age in just the right town when the love was free and the living was easy.

When Ronnie Drew died last year it was noted in this space that he was a man who seemed ill at ease with his legacy. Liam Clancy was much more aware of his legacy, and spent time leaving documents for history – a volume of autobiography, and two fine documentaries, the Legend of Liam Clancy and the recent Yellow Bittern.

To An Spailpín’s mind, Liam Clancy’s legacy is this: he was proud to be Irish, and through him people of his generation got the courage to be proud to be Irish too. This is my favourite photograph of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem – in tuxedoes, with the Aran sweaters over their arms. It’s the American dream, in its way. Men who had arrived. The Irish nation is still on that journey to being at peace with itself, but for Liam Clancy, and for all of them, the long voyage is over. I hope they’re all together again in the great hereafter. We owe them.

As a final tribute, here’s Liam singing Ar Éirinn Ní Neosfainn Cé hÍ, and reciting Austin Clarke’s The Planter’s Daughter beforehand. He really had the most beautiful voice, whether speaking or singing. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal.

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