Born the youngest of 11 children in Co. Tipperary, Clancy immigrated to America in 1956 with plans for a career on the stage. He joined his older brothers Tom and Paddy in New York, and they began performing Irish folk songs along with friend and fellow immigrant Tommy Makem at local clubs. In the early 1960’s, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, as they were billed, starred on The Ed Sullivan Show, and their career took off in the folk music center of Greenwich Village, where Clancy became friends with fellow musician Bob Dylan. In 1984, Dylan said, “I never heard a singer as good as Liam ever. He was just the best ballad singer I’d ever heard in my life. Still is, probably.”
In 1973, Clancy began a solo career and starred in his own television show in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. In the 1980s, he again teamed up with Tommy Makem and the pair recorded such classics as “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and “The Dutchman.” Clancy published his memoir, The Mountain of the Women, in 2002, and a documentary about his life, The Yellow Bittern, came out in 2009.
Tom Deignan’s poignant last interview with Liam Clancy in the April/May 2009 issue of Irish America covered the quartet’s historic rise to fame. “With their Aran sweaters, tin whistles and banjos, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem might seem to be the quintessential Irish trad artists. But they were, in many ways, a radical departure who then went on to change Irish-American culture,” wrote Deignan. Liam Clancy told Irish America: “Irish people in Ireland were surprised. They’d never heard these songs this way.” Recalling the popularity that ensued after their breakthrough performance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1961, Clancy recalled, “We just did not understand the significance…It was like getting a blessing from the Pope!”
Tom Clancy died in 1990, Paddy Clancy in 1998, and Tommy Makem in 2007. Liam Clancy is survived by his wife Kim, sisters Joan and Peg, children Eban, Siobhan, Donal and Fiona, and eight grandchildren.
Noted labor advocate and author Tim Costello died December 4 at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts of pancreatic cancer. He was 64. A Boston native, Costello spent two decades as a truck driver and was a vital voice for workers’ rights. Born in 1945 with a father who was a union president, he joined Students for a Democratic Society at the New School in New York, around the same time that he began driving oil trucks. In 1971, he moved back to Boston and became an outspoken voice and writer against corruption in the Teamsters union.
In 1999, Costello founded the Campaign on Contingent Work, which evolved into the North American Alliance for Fair Employment, and in 2005, he helped to found Global Labor Strategies, which encouraged cross-border alliances to improve wages and working conditions in the context of a new climate of outsourcing and globalization. He was the co-author of four books: Common Sense for Hard Times in the 1970s, Building Bridges: The Emerging Grassroots Coalition of Labor and Community in 1990, and Global Village or Global Pillage: Economic Reconstruction From the Bottom Up in 1994, all with co-author Jeremy Brecher. Brecher and Costello teamed up with Brendan Smith in 2000 to publish Globalization From Below: The Power of Solidarity.
Costello is survived by his brother Sean, his wife Susanne Rasmussen, his daughters Pia and Gillian, and two grandchildren.
Sir John Crofton, a medical pioneer, researcher and clinician who demonstrated the effectiveness of combinations of antibiotics in curing tuberculosis, died November 3 at age 97 in his home in Edinburgh. He began his work in the late 1940s, when antibiotics were first being used in clinical practice, but tuberculosis was resistant to each drug that doctors attempted to treat it with. Crofton used a three-antibiotic combination on tuberculosis patients in Edinburgh and announced his findings at the 1958 meeting of the British Medical Association. His treatment had cured tuberculosis in 63 patients over 18 months.
Born the son of a physician in Dublin, Ireland, Crofton received bachelor and doctor of medicine degrees from Cambridge University. During WWII, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and served in France, Germany and the Middle East, including Egypt, where he met Dr. John Guyett Scadding, a British expert who invited Crofton to work with him after the war and steered him towards the research that would form the basis of his career.
Crofton is survived by his wife Eileen, three daughters, two sons, 11 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
Robert Degen, a former club musician who held a claim to authorship of the popular song and dance “The Hokey Pokey,” died on November 23, his 104th birthday, in Lexington, Kentucky. The song’s origins are long disputed, with credit usually given to Larry LaPrise, who recorded “The Hokey Pokey” with the Ram Trio in the late 1940s. Robert Degen’s version, “The Hokey Pokey Dance,” was copyrighted in 1944, years before the LaPrise recording. A similar song called “Hokey Cokey” or “Cokey Cokey” was popular among English and American soldiers in England during World War II and attributed either to Northern Irish songwriter Jimmy Kennedy or London bandleader Al Tabor. Some Roman Catholics claim that the song derives from the words “hocus pocus” and was created by 18th-century Puritans to make fun of the Latin Mass.
Robert Degen was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1905. He performed as a full-time musician prior to World War II and in the 1920s was a member of the Scranton Sirens, a jazz group that once featured Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. His son William told The New York Times that Degen did not copyright any other songs and wrote “The Hokey Pokey Dance” with friend Joe Brier.
Degen is survived by his wife of 74 years, Vivian, sons William and Robert, a grandson and two great-grandchildren.
Roy E. Disney
Roy E. Disney, the nephew of company founder Walt Disney who helped to breathe new life into the brand, died at age 79 on December 16th of stomach cancer, in Newport Beach, California. He was the last member of the founding family to work at the entertainment conglomerate formed by his uncle and his father. Growing up as a test audience for films like Pinocchio, Disney began his career as an assistant film editor on the television show Dragnet before he joined the Disney company to work on nature documentaries in 1953.
He became known for his steadfast resolve to maintain the company’s originative principles and direction, leaving the company in 1977 and again in 2003 over disagreements with top executives. In 2005, Disney became director emeritus and a consultant and held both titles for the remainder of his life. He spent nine years on the Fantasia 2000 project, a sequel to the revolutionary 1942 film. Walt Disney had envisioned a sequel but died before he could complete it.
Roy Disney was also an achieved sailor, setting records for offshore yacht racing on the Pacific Ocean. He maintained a vacation home at a castle in Ireland, where his ancestors lived before emigrating to the U.S. He is survived by his wife, Leslie DeMeuse Disney, as well as his former wife of 52 years, Patricia Dailey Disney, and four of their children. Sixteen grandchildren also survive him.
Irish actor Donal Donnelly, renowned for his work in Irish roles on the American stage and in film, died on January 4th in Chicago at age 78. His son Jonathan reported the cause of death as cancer. Donnelly was best known for his roles in plays by Brian Friel and in the John Huston film adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead.
Donnelly was born in Bradford, England, where his father, James, of Northern Ireland, worked as a doctor. They moved to Dublin (his mother, Nora, was Irish) early in Donnelly’s childhood. He attended the Synge Street Christian Brothers School in Dublin, known for producing actors, and worked at the Gate Theater in Dublin in the beginning of his career. In the 1960s, Donnelly came to America and first gained his American audience in the 1965 British comedy The Knack . . . and How to Get It. In 1966, he earned a Tony Award nomination for his work in Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! on Broadway. From there Donnelly continued a string of well-received Broadway roles, and had small parts in high-profile movies and television shows.
He is survived by his wife of 45 years, Patsy Porter, a dancer whom he met during the London run of Finian’s Rainbow decades ago, and sons Jonathan and Damian, both of Chicago.
Actress Brittany Murphy, who starred in numerous hit movies and television shows in the 1990’s and 2000’s, died at age 32 on December 19 after going into cardiac arrest in her home in Los Angeles. She was born in Atlanta, Georgia. Murphy’s father was the Italian-American mobster Angelo Bertolotti and she was raised by her Irish-American mother, Sharon Murphy, in New Jersey and later Los Angeles. Her parents divorced when she was two. “My mother and uncle’s last name is Murphy and it’s the name I’ve always used all my life,” she told Ireland’s Sunday Tribune in an interview to promote her 2005 movie Sin City. “My family is very Irish. They give Murphy sweatshirts out to everyone when we go somewhere. We have the emblem from Murphy’s stout put on the sweatshirts like a family crest.”
Murphy’s movie career took off in 1995 when she starred in the hit Clueless alongside Alicia Silverstone. A string of successful films followed, including 1999’s Girl, Interrupted and Drop Dead Gorgeous, 2001’s Don’t Say A Word, 2002’s 8 Mile, and Uptown Girls and Spun in 2003. She also dabbled in music, singing in a band called Blessed Soul in the late 1990s and as part of her vocal acting in 2006’s Happy Feet. She is survived by her husband, British screenwriter Simon Monjack, whom she married in 2007.
John J. O’Connor
John J. O’Connor, former New York Times television critic, died in Manhattan at age 76 on November 13. His partner of 47 years, Seymour Barofsky, reported the cause as lung cancer, diagnosed a month prior. Born in 1933 in the Bronx, one of four sons of Kerry immigrants James O’Connor and Hannah Foley, O’Connor earned degrees from the City College of New York and Yale University before joining The Wall Street Journal’s staff in 1959 as a copy editor. In 1971, he became a television critic at The New York Times, beginning a career that spanned over 25 years of developments in the drastically changing medium until his retirement in 1997. He wrote also for the paper’s Sunday Arts & Leisure section and as a theater and dance critic.
The Times obituary quoted a 1972 column in which O’Connor said, “A reviewer is not, or at least shouldn’t be, in the game of picking hits and flops.” It is a critic’s job, O’Connor said, to measure quality, not popularity. And between the two, “no correlation has yet been convincingly established.”
O’Connor is survived by his partner, Seymour Barofsky, and two brothers, William and Joseph.