By Matthew Hennessey
The Irish love music. We’re good at it, and it has been good to us. So it will be especially sad to celebrate this St. Patrick’s Day without one of the most important Irish musicians of the last century, Liam Clancy, who died in December at the age of 74.
As a member of the famed singing group The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Liam Clancy did more to popularize Irishness than just about anyone apart from old St. Patrick himself. It’s not a stretch to say that the rowdy drinking songs, tender ballads, and rebel poetry that were the Clancy Brothers’ stock-in-trade changed the image of Ireland, and changed it utterly.
Liam was the youngest, and the gentlest, of the Clancy brothers. But he was also the best singer of the bunch. Bob Dylan once called him “the best ballad singer I’ve ever heard.” His pure, evocative voice carried on it both the aching torment of lost love and the dreamy mysteriousness of the Irish landscape. His voice was, to many, the sound of Ireland itself.
Whether they realize it or not, most who think of the St. Patrick’s Day experience – the music, the camaraderie, the fun – are thinking of The Clancy Brothers; the big Aran sweaters, the acoustic guitars, the banjos, the tin whistles. The Clancys, along with Makem, their brother-from-another-mother, were possessed of an undeniable cool that set them well apart from the image of the Irish as meek, downtrodden, and simple (a view that, in the 1950s and 60s, was unfortunately widely held on both sides of the Atlantic). The Clancy boys would have none of it. With their barrell chests and their clenched fists, they were the very picture of the fighting Irish. They were defiant. Tough. Smart. Singing songs learned from their parents, and their parents’ parents.
Their appearance on “the scene” blew everybody’s minds, from Ed Sullivan to Ed Koch. The Clancys in their prime were the most famous Irishmen in the world.
I met Liam Clancy once. Well, I kind of met him. I was a young acting student, maybe nineteen. On a day in mid-March, just around St. Patrick’s Day, I saw him duck into a liquor store on the corner of 54th Street and Second Avenue. My young eyes couldn’t believe what they were seeing. To others, this would be like stumbling upon Miles Davis in the alley behind Birdland, or Joe DiMaggio on the 4 train to Yankee Stadium.
With so much to say, my nerves got the best of me. I followed him into the store, and called out to him from the doorway.
“Excuse me. Are you Liam Clancy?”
“Love you, man.”
And then I gave him a thumbs-up.
I surely could have done better. I could have paid for his whiskey and then boasted for all time that I bought the great Liam Clancy a drink. If wishes were horses…
As atonement, I offer this fond farewell — a verse from a song often sung by Liam to close a show, The Parting Glass:
Oh, all the comrades e’er I had,
They’re sorry for my going away,
And all the sweethearts e’er I had,
They’d wish me one more day to stay,
But since it falls unto my lot,
That I should go and you should not,
I gently rise and softly call,
Good night and joy be with you all.