An Irish Music Magazine article by Sean Laffey
Published in FolkWorld with friendly permission of the Irish Music editor


Liam Clancy's philosphy

Liam Clancy admits he was in danger of becoming both an icon and an institution. However, neither age or prosperity has prevented him from seeking new artistic challenges. Seán Laffey gets a first hand introduction to the Clancy philosophy.

Liam now lives in an architect designed house on the north coast of Ring (the Waterford Gaeltacht). It's evident ballads have been very good to him; a swimming pool, his own recording studio, a few well tended acres. At sixty two Liam is now of an age to sit back and enjoy the fruits of a lifetime's work, yet this year he has been busier than ever. Over twenty US festivals since March with Clancy, O'Connel and Clancy (son Donald and nephew Robbie O'Connel), slotting in time to record and release a new CD from this band, Clancy, O'Connel and Clancy (Helvic Music HLV2001). "Has a few new twists on old favourites" including a lot of musical polish provided by Dónal (a past pupil of ace mandolinist Martin Murray, the tutelage shows through).

"Three of my children grew up in America, but when I mentioned 1798, they just looked blank."

Liam also appears on a new release , Who Fears to Speak , a lavish orchestral commemoration of the 1798 rising (from the team that brought us last years Irish smash hit , Faith of Our Fathers). To cap all this there's a number of projects to complete; including two CDs for the visit of the Tall Ships to Dublin next July "to give the Irish back their sea songs". Away from making music, he's writing about it, his autobiography, already typed and waiting the final revisions. "There's some interest from Random House publishers in London. We feel it should be a big seller in the States," he adds modestly.

In his spacious conservatory, we talk about the old times; early days, song collecting around Ireland with Diane Hamilton in the fifties. His first meeting with Tommy Makem in Keady Co. Armagh. Emigration to America, with a battered cardboard suitcase and a guitar who's action was so high it cut his fingers when he played. The guitar and Tommy Makem would keep him first in America, later Alberta, for a total of twenty five years. He reads extracts from his autobiography, it's more of a performance than merely a reminiscence. I'm impressed by the range of accents and mannerisms he is able to recall or conjure up.

I began by asking him, why after so many years, has he finally returned to Ireland?
"Well I've always been coming back here. In the early days I was totally intoxicated by the Fleadh Cheoils. I met up with some great characters, Seams Ennis, The Dubliners (when they were called the Heads). I met Luke Kelly after he came back from England and we became great friends. At Miltown Malbay, at one of the first Fleadhs, I teamed up with Willie Clancy and we struck up a great rapport. You see I was always called Willie at home. So when ever I met him, we would great each other with ' Hello Willie Clancy, how are we?' 'We're fine.' ' How are our wives?' 'They're grand.' Then we'd head off to Friel's or Quealys and have a right good all night session."

"There must have been five hundred acts, they were all doing Clancy brothers songs."

"Coming to Dublin in the sixties as the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem , that was something else. We played the old National stadium, we were in the boxing ring, with the ropes and the poles taken away. We'd sing a song to one section of the crowd, then turn around and play to the other side, and so on. It was a pre-runner of the big rock events, it was the primitive PA equipment that held us back."(He laughs). "We'd get mobbed by fans too. I remember being besieged in a hotel in Mullingar. The landlady smuggled us out through the kitchen, then she went out to the crowd and announced, 'they've all gone out the back.' We only just escaped with our lives!"

Were you ever in danger of becoming Folk icons, with so much expected of you, that you were unable to develop?
"I was asked to judge a talent competition for the Kilkenny beer festival. There must have been five hundred acts, they were all doing Clancy brothers songs, Jug of Punch, Fine Girl You Are and I'll Tell me Ma. It was then I realised, we'd exhausted the country, we were becoming an institution. The same thing happened much later in the States. We'd go to a festival and find the band on before us were doing our numbers. They didn't know they were ours, the songs have just become part of the standard ballad repertoire. So I have to keep re-inventing my music, and it's the healthiest way to go."

So that explains all the new projects. The new Clancy O'Connel and Clancy album, is a mixture of fresh takes on old songs and new songs from modern writers ( Bill Staines. Jez Lowe, Bob Dylan, Robbie O'Connel). How do you decide what should go on the recording?
"Firstly I have to like the song, it has to move me in some way or another. Then I always think back to our first days in New York. We were managed by two Jewish guys, Marty Ehrlichman and Manny Rosenfeld. They didn't know where Ireland was, knew nothing about the songs. We sang to them in a rehearsal studio for three days. Marty and Manny would say, 'leave it out, too parochial', or 'Yes , yes that's a good one, it's got universal appeal'; looking for the universal, that's how I still choose songs today."

The 1798 CD, Who Fears to Speak , is both topical and many woulf say a sensitive subject (living as we do in troubled times, with a fragile peace in the North). Did you have to be brave to take on the project?
"Three of my children grew up in America, they heard about the American war of Independence, about the French Revolution, but when I mentioned 1798, they just looked blank. Yet is was very much a rebellion of it's time. Certainly in the beginning it wasn't a sectarian rising, the United Irishman were predominantly Presbyterians from the North after all. Incidentally that's why I suggested Len Graham should d be on the CD, to get that strong northern voice, to add balance to the work."

"Do you have the courage of failure, can you go on do your absolute best, suffer bad reviews and perform again the next night?"

"Many years ago in America , I auditioned for a part in a Shakespearean play. The director asked me 'Do you have the courage of failure, can you go on do your absolute best, suffer bad reviews and perform again the next night?' I told him, I take that risk every time I stand up and sing in public. He gave me the part. You know that phrase as stayed with me for ever, the Courage of Failure. You have to keep trying, take the risks, to do something you believe in."

This self belief, a willingness to take an often rocky road, not to settle for the routine has enabled Liam to live well, he's also made a fundamental diffrence to Irish music, something that is even bigger than his back catalogue. I have a feeling there's still plenty of songs and fire in his breast for the next millennium.

Liam Clancy Discography

Sean Laffey, author of this article, is the editor of the excellent monthly Irish Music Magazine, one of the best and most professional folk magazines around. The article was published in Irish Music's November '97 issue; © Sean Laffey.

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