When you take the super successful Irish rock and roll band U2 out of the discussion, it is probably fair to say that the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem had the most impact on the Irish music scene over the past half-century. The charismatic musical missionaries from County Tipperary ( Tom, Paddy and Liam Clancy) and Tommy Makem (from Keady, County Armagh) found great success in America as the folk music boom was emerging in New York’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. They rose middling acting careers to hearty and hellish balladeers on with phenomenal success on stage, screen and in record shops. Their careers like many in the music business had their boom and bust cycles but their legacy has remained intact and still of great interest not only to those whose lived through the folk song revival but to those who wish to learn more about the fabled family and their fellow bard from Armagh. There is a great opportunity to do so in New York City this coming Friday when the New York Irish Center screens a very poignant and revealing documentary called “The Yellow Bittern” focusing on the self-proclaimed “last man standing” Liam Clancy who passed away shortly after the film was released in 2009.
The documentary was directed by one of Ireland’s finest filmmakers Alan Gilsenan who took four years to work on the project from 2005 until 2009 when the film made its debut in Dublin at a cinema in Smithfield on Sept. 2 and where I first viewed it a week later. Like many other Irish Americans of my generation, we were swelling with pride when the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem made the big time and major media attention followed and we could watch them on the Ed Sullivan Show or even perform to sold-out venues like Carnegie Hall for those lucky enough to acquire a ticket. Theirs was a meteoric rise to the top not only in America but back in Ireland as well though not surprisingly among the Irish in both countries opinions about them ranged from genuine folk heroes singing the songs of the people to opportunistic actors riding a Stage Irish persona complete with knitted gansies and caps to complete the image.
Gilsenan and his crew unearthed some never before seen footage and the first part of the film take us through the early years of the Clancys and Makem which will stoke many memories and enlighten those too young to have experienced it. The filmmaker though was seized with a need to tell a larger story about Liam Clancy, the youngest of the brothers who survived the others and even Tommy Makem who died as the film was in progress and explore what it is like to be the “last man standing” as he often remarked in his remaining live performances.
In July of 2008, Gilsenan wanted to bring Liam’s story full circle and organized a quick trip to New York and, in particular to Greenwich Village, to revisit some of the landmark venues that the Clancys inhabited in those halcyon days of the Folk scene there in the late 1950s and early 1950s. The Village scene appealed to them artistically for the cultural cross pollination and population at that time rather than the Irish neighborhoods and dancehall scene. A night of filming was set up at Paul Colby’s Bitter End, one of the last of the old brick-walled music haunts with a three hour of concert centered around Liam Clancy with a number of other artists, some of whom harkened back to the early days like Odetta (who also died not that long after) and Tom Paxton.
Family ties were also invoked as Eric Bibb was there, son of Clancy contemporary Leon Bibb, whose powerful Black voices gave a spiritual quality to the affair along with Odetta and Liam Clancy’s own son Donal and his wife Mary Rafferty Clancy. Also on hand was Shane McGowan of Pogues fame who was greatly influenced by the Clancys as he grew up in London. His condition that night mirrored many of the worse of the Clancys reveries in the old days that too often took their cue from all their drinking songs.
By that stage in 2008, Liam Clancy’s own health problems were taking its toll but he was remarkably strong through the three hour concert and filming which was also turned out as a separate live from the Bitter End concert DVD which I wrote about at the time it was released. But it was a common joke between Gilsenan and Clancy about whether Liam had to die to give the film an important promotional push as it was finally finished just months before his passing.
There is a striking irony in the fact that his last live concert performances in New York would be at the Bitter End captured in this film because there is a very dark side to it as well as the final interviews with Liam Clancy reveal a man who faced demons and doubts through much of his life. It is an important work because like many honest autobiographies by successful and famous people, it displays the rough patches and regrets that often haunt people at the final stages of their lives. And it is clear that was as important a message that Gilsenan wanted to convey as he did the rise of the Mighty Clancys before the boom was lowered on them by changing tastes and attitudes about their work.
No matter what your opinion is of the Clancys and Tommy Makem, you should go see the movie “The Yellow Bittern” for the symbolism and history it unfolds in a well-told documentary. Going to see it in the New York Irish Center where the doors open at 7:30 p.m. for a social hour before the screening begins at 8:30 p.m. will help stimulate your mind for some discussions afterwards because of the many questions it will inspire.
The New York Irish Center is located at 10-40 Jackson Avenue in Long Island City and for reservations and more information visit the www.newyorkirishcenter.org.