Tipperary folk legend Liam Clancy died at about midday last Friday, aged 74, at the Bons Secours Hospital, in Co Cork, surrounded, as he would have wished, by his beloved wife Kim and daughters Siobhan and Fiona.
He had lost his long battle with pulmonary fibrosis, the same disease which his brother Bobby died of, on September 6th in 2002.
I first met Liam many years ago, when this country was a less greedy and a more saner place, near the harbour in Greystones, Co.Wicklow. If my sliding memory serves me correctly I had listened, spellbound, the previous night, as he recited some poetry, possibly in the Beach House which overlooked the grey harbour wall. As we passed he possibly recognised me from the small crowd the night before and we stopped to chat about poetry for a time, during which period he recited “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” written by Scottish-born singer and songwriter Eric Bogle in 1971.
This ballad is possibly one of the greatest songs ever written demonstrating the total futility of war. Now through this actor’s lips came the passionate, clear and stark retelling of the events of the battle of Suvla Bay, its aftermath and the passionate indictment of all war in general. Liam, in his telling, brought a tear to his own eye and indeed the eyes of those few of us lucky enough on that day to happen on this unscheduled meeting with him.
Liam Clancy, was just 21 when he left his native Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, for New York city. With him went his older brothers Tommy and Paddy and of course later they would be joined by Tommy Makem and Bobby Clancy.
The Clancy Brothers took up singing in local bars and other venues and soon became part of the then emerging Greenwich Village vagabond folk movement, which then existed. Greenwich Village would soon be identified as the bohemian capital and the birthplace of the Beat movement where musicians and artists would enjoy the company of like-minded people.
Responding to an Irish American nostalgia vacuum for native Irish songs, this group soon found huge success as actors, performers and balladeers. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem would go on to perform sellout concerts at such venues as Carnegie Hall, and made television appearances on shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. The group would later perform at The White House for 35th President of the USA John .F. Kennedy, himself of Irish decent.
Suddenly their trademark, the prominent cable patterned Aran jumpers and corduroy flat caps began influencing the changing fashion scene. American visitors now coming to Ireland were demanding the real complex textured stitch patterned Irish Aran Island geansaí which they called ‘sweaters’, to bring home as souvenirs.
The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were now not only recognised as truly gifted artists and musicians, they were Tipperary and Ireland’s first international pop stars, recognisable ambassadors for their county and their country as a whole.
The mark of Liam’s success was undoubtedly his mammoth ability to interpret accurately, the feeling in the lyrics of his chosen songs, his acting and singing style and his ability through his soft confident voice to transport his audiences backwards, to remember the nostalgic days long since past, when the sun always shone and happiness seemed to be in abundance everywhere.
The American theatres, pubs and halls where he entertained, were somehow transformed magically by him for a time in that inward eye of his listener to become, for this short period, the individual Irish kitchens and other gathering places faintly remembered from the old land, left behind all those years ago.
Liam is survived by his wife Kim, two sisters Joan and Peg, his four children, Eban, Siobhan, Donal, Fiona together with eight grandchildren and to them go our sincerest sympathy at this time as we share with them in their great loss.