Liam Clancy: Irish Troubadour

Cover of Liam Clancy book The Mountain of the Women the Memoir of an Irish Troubadour
If you don't recognize the name of Liam Clancy, ask your parents, or even your grandparents. When Irish music came into its own in the United States in the 1950s, there were no brighter stars in the Irish sky than the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.

After appearing on "The Ed Sullivan Show," they were soon singing for President Kennedy himself.

They recorded more than 50 best-selling albums. Singing songs of Irish rebellion and songs from Irish pubs, brothers Liam, Paddy, and Tom Clancy, along with their friend Tommy Makem, filled concert halls across the country for decades.

"The crowds got so wild," recalls Liam. "And they would hoist crates of beer up onto the stage and demand that we drink them. It was a wild and wonderful time."

With his brothers Tom and Paddy now dead, and Tommy Makem in retirement, Liam Clancy has just written his story in a memoir called "The Mountain of the Woman."

Buy "The Mountain Of The Women: Memoirs Of An Irish Troubadour"
"The mountain of the women is not to be confused with the mounting of the women. It's the mountain… It overlooked our town that nestled underneath it. And it was called slievenamon."

The town is Carrick-on-Suir in County Tipperary. Eleven children were raised in the music-filled house of Robert Joseph Clancy and Joanna Clancy. Liam's older brother, Bobby, still lives there.

Liam Clancy left Ireland in 1956 for New York's Greenwich Village, where his two older brothers were already living. It's a chapter in his life he remembers well.

He says, "Greenwich Village was an island for people escaped from repressed backgrounds, who had swallowed the directive to be inferior, to know your place, to kowtow to royalty, to hierarchy, and all the other nonsense."

In the back of the White Horse Tavern and other clubs, they sang and drank and sang again. A young musician named Bob Dylan remembered being star-struck by Liam Clancy.

"For me, I never heard a singer as good as Liam," Dylan says. "He was just the best ballad singer I ever heard in my life. Still is, probably. I can't think of anyone who is a better ballad singer than Liam."

Before the Clancys, much of Irish music in America did not come from Ireland at all. It was written in New York.

Explains Liam, "Tin Pan Alley was a factory for turning out music. It was written for a specific purpose: to sell sheet music. And schmaltz was very popular, very salable, but it certainly didn't represent the authentic Irish music, which came out of the history. It came out of the hardships, it came out of the joys and loves of the people themselves."

The group did more than revolutionize Irish music. There were the sweaters, too.

"My mother felt sorry for us," says Liam. "She got three sweaters made to send out to us as Christmas present -- to her sons, so that they wouldn't get cold. And then she thought, 'Poor Tommy Makem is going to be cold as well.' So she got a fourth one made."

Their manager saw something else in the sweaters: a signature look.

"He said, 'That's it.' He said, 'That's it. We got it.' I said, 'Marty, we're going to die in the heat.' He said, 'Die then. It'll keep your weight down. This is perfect.'"

After living in the United States and Canada, Liam Clancy and his wife now live in the town of Ring, along Ireland's Southeast Coast. Gaelic is still spoken there.

"It's like the salmon coming back up the river to the place where it was spawned," he says. "You have to come back to the place you came from."

A few years back, on his birthday, Clancy caught pneumonia. In the hospital, he thought of a line from writer Nico Kazantzakis, who wrote "Zorba the Greek:" "When a man dies, that particular vision of life which is his and his alone dies with him. It behooves every man to tell his story."

So, at 66, he is off on a book tour to tell his story. And Sony Records has just issued a new CD: "The Best of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem."

Liam now sings with his nephew, Robbie O'Connell. The rich voice ends each concert, just as it did in the old days. The song: "The Parting Glass":

All the money that e'er I spent,
I spent it in good company."

Liam Clancy's Web site