As Liam Clancy remembers it, being asked to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show did not seem like a big deal.
“We just did not understand the significance,” he told Irish America in a recent interview, during a publicity tour to promote a brilliant re-release of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem performing live at New York City’s Carnegie Hall in 1963.
Two years before that historic performance, as Clancy recalls, they were a group of slightly shady characters best known in that bohemian redoubt, Greenwich Village.
“Irish-Americans weren’t really interested in us,” said Liam, the youngest of the Clancy brothers. “Pete Seeger played with us. A lot of people said: ‘They’ve got a Communist up there.’ So most of our audience were folkies and liberal Jews.”
That all changed in March of 1961. The Clancys and Makem had already moved uptown to the Blue Angel on East 55th Street, a more respectable establishment frequented by TV talent scouts.
Sure enough, the Irish musicians impressed one of Ed Sullivan’s scouts. The quartet later showed up at the Sullivan show studio for a Sunday rehearsal, only to be told that the evening’s scheduled headliner, Pearl Bailey, had bowed out.
Could the Irish men perhaps substitute?
That night, 80 million Americans from Boston to L.A. heard the revolutionary sounds of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem – the performance lasted a record-breaking 16 minutes.
“It was like getting a blessing from the Pope,” recalled Liam with a laugh.
Two years later came the historic concert at Carnegie Hall, where they cracked jokes about the new Irish Catholic president and earned loud applause simply by mentioning the IRA.
Clearly, something momentous had changed in Irish America.
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. How did they arrive at their unique musical sound? Why did some Irish-Americans consider them threatening? And how did they fit into an extraordinary moment in musical history, crossing paths with the likes of Bob Dylan?
The Clancy brothers – Paddy, Tom, Bobby and Liam – were born into a musical family of nine children in Carrick-on-Suir, Tipperary. Paddy and Tom served in Britain’s Royal Air Force during World War II before emigrating to Toronto, Canada.
After crossing the border and living in Cleveland, Ohio for a spell, the duo moved to New York City, where they planned to work as actors. They had some success on the stage and screen, but also felt the need to raise a little money. So they turned to an art form that came so naturally to them: music.
Particularly memorable were some of their “midnight special” performances in the early 1950s at the Cherry Lane Theatre, where they were joined by their brother Bobby, who had also served in the RAF and traveled widely in Europe before ending up in New York.
As luck (or fate) would have it, New York in the mid-1950s was turning into a breeding ground for a new kind of folk movement.
It was in the mid-1950s that Liam, the youngest brother, joined Tom and Paddy in New York when Bobby returned home to Ireland to take over his father’s insurance business. Liam too wanted to act, but he had also spent time performing, as well as studying and collecting the traditional music of Ireland. During his travels, Liam had become familiar with a particularly talented musician from Armagh — Tommy Makem.