Liam Clancy: Catching up with a legend

Published Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 6:19 PM

Toward the end of a bleak year for international bankers and Irish balladeers, I'm sitting in the cottage on a November evening listening to RTE playing the late and great Ronnie Drew.

Both the presenter and myself and probably thousands of other listeners are misty-eyed as the gravel voice counterpoints the almost saccharine sweet tones of Eleanor Shanley in a duet version of "I've Got a Couple More Years On You Baby, That's All." Infinitely poignant.

And then an ad break comes, and one of the CD's being advertised is the latest from Liam Clancy called The Broad Majestic Shannon, and one of the sound- snippets is as compulsive to the ear as "Couple of Years" because it is the surviving Clancy singing "Mondocino" with Mary Black.

There was just a few golden seconds of it, but it made my evening. I don't normally go chasing people anymore like I did when I was reporting hard news, but this was different. I traveled down the phone lines via Ring Post Office in Waterford and his neighbor's daughter Siobhan, and before you could say "TheClancybrothersandTommyMakem" I'm talking to the man himself for the first time in maybe 45 years.

The last encounter was when I was volunteer press officer at the big Boyle Fleadh when the Clancys were in their ganzied prime and was dragooned by the others into tracking down young Liam, who had disappeared into the night with a blonde woman according to them.

We found him at last. He was not looking or feeling all that well - it was a good Fleadh - and that night I thought he would not live long past 30 the way he was going. He's 72 now, healthy as a trout, still performing and recording, and I found him in great form entirely. This was no interview to plug a CD. Nothing at all like that. But it was as pleasant a half-hour as I've put down in a long, long time.

Why? I'm not even sure about that. Probably it's because of the profound impact which the Clancys had on this island and across the diaspora when we all wore younger men's clothes, when our special music was scarcely deemed respectable even at home, when national morale was low, when times were tough, the respected Count John McCormack so long dead that his recordings hissed with static, and there was little light at the end of all our tunnels.

And then the brawny Clancys and Tommy Makem exploded on the international scene with their shanties and ranties and devilment, and things were never quite so dark ever again. Looking back now it seems almost as simple as that.

But there's more than that. You have to search a little deeper for it maybe. The Clancys hit the jackpot with a rollicking sing-along program dominated by rousers like "The Holy Ground" and suchlike. And Makem leavened the mix with his musicality and wry edge in songs like "The Cobbler's Song" in the Armagh accent. And indeed the Clancys needed him, and indeed they had the capacity to provide a mighty night's entertainment, so good it always seemed to last just an hour rather than three.

But always, at least in my view, it was the wildish young Liam who added the extra Celtic ingredient that really mattered. Even in the most hard-driven pub sessions in Ireland, with the sets of reels getting faster and faster and louder and louder, fiddles and boxes and flutes and bodhrans going like billy-o, pints going down like water, craic everywhere, there always comes a time when the more reflective and maybe darker and more lonesome side of us needs urgent expression.

And it is then, typically, that some singer, be they good or bad, hushes the whole house with something like "The Shores of Amerikay" or "Noreen Bawn" or "Shanagolden," or any one of the many story songs that remember the sufferings and realities of our bleak enough history. It only takes six or seven minutes but, somehow, they are the most true and precious moments of the night.

And it was there that Liam Clancy always dwelt most powerfully in the group and, later, both with Makem and when he went solo. He could shanty with the best of them, but when it came time to evoke our spirits that was his time. And it is powerful that he is with us still as that kind of Ireland melts away like the North Pole's icecap.

And not alone with us, but trading away as briskly as ever. He told me he sold out the National Concert Hall in Dublin only a couple of months ago on a night when Donovan arrived as a special guest and the rafters rang.

There's more too. If Drew and Luke Kelly had the kind of Dublinized voices which were well suited to wandering down the avenues and alleys of old Dublin, then Clancy has a countryman's voice, a great one, good as ever, somehow with a burr in it like Maytime mist over a meadow. And that does matter. And the lyrics of his favored songs have always been really good.

The man himself emigrated to make his fortune as an actor rather than a singer, and the theatric side is strong as ever. Half of our chat consisted of him saying his favorite lines of songs he loves, not singing them.

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