On 12 March 1961, a little-known quartet of Irish folk musicians based in New York got the biggest break of their lives. They had managed to get invited on to The Ed Sullivan Show, a TV variety programme then reaching an estimated 80 million viewers across the US. Although originally scheduled to perform just two songs, they were asked to fill in for a quarter of an hour after the last-minute cancellation of the headline act. With their trademark Aran sweaters, rousing country ballads and songs of drinking and rebellion sung in lusty brogues, they became stars overnight. "It was better than a blessing from the Pope," they would later famously quip of their show-stealing appearance.
Liam sang bass in their four-part harmonies, and although the youngest member of the group – which included his brothers Paddy and Tom Clancy plus their friend Tommy Makem – he was usually their featured singer and guitarist, often leading the easy-going onstage banter they became known for. Having almost single-handedly popularised Irish traditional music in the United States, they were embraced as conquering heroes on their return to Ireland and inspired scores of imitators, fuelling a short-lived vogue for long-forgotten Irish folk ballads.
At the peak of their popularity in Ireland in the early 1960s, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem outsold The Beatles, recording definitive versions of songs such as "The Irish Rover", "The Jug of Punch" and "The Rising Of The Moon" and inspiring generations of Irish and American musicians, including an impressionable young Bob Dylan.
"I never heard a singer as good as Liam, ever. He was just the best ballad singer I'd ever heard in my life," Dylan once recalled of his early impression of Liam, when they were both musicians on the make in the same bohemian Greenwich Village scene that offered an escape from their repressive, provincial backgrounds.
Clancy was one of 11 children (two of whom died in infancy) and grew up in an environment where singing and amateur dramatics were second nature. While still a teenager, he moved to Dublin to pursue a career in insurance, as his father had done, but soon drifted back towards the arts, founding The Brewery Lane Theatre and Arts Centre, and performing at The Gaiety Theatre.
In 1955, the American song collector Diane Hamilton Guggenheim turned up at the Clancy homestead and recorded several members of the family, including Liam, who then accompanied her to Keady in Co. Armagh, where they encountered the renowned singer Sarah Makem. Within a year, Liam and her son Tommy had become firm friends and emigrated to New York, where Liam's older brothers Paddy and Tom were acting at The Cherry Lane Theatre and doing TV work. To supplement their meagre income, they also began to stage late-night concerts. Using money from Hamilton's wealthy family, Paddy also set up the Tradition Records label in order to release the Hamilton recordings as The Lark In The Morning as well as material by American roots musicians such as Odetta and Josh White. The following year, they also recorded The Rising Of The Moon, an album of Irish rebel songs.
The singing slowly eclipsed their acting careers, and they began to get regular gigs in Manhattan pubs such as The Lion's Head and The White Horse, where Dylan first heard them, and was moved by their "rebellion songs". He soon struck up a friendship with Liam and at one stage they even courted sisters. The group's second album Come Fill Your Glass With Us (1959) led to gigs further afield, and eventually drew them to the attention of Sullivan's talent scouts. After producer John Hammond saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show, he signed them to Colombia for a five-album deal and their career went stellar.
By 1962, they were filling Carnegie Hall, and their hugely popular tour of Ireland in 1962 sparked a revival of interest in traditional Irish ballads, but later drew criticism that they had commercialised the music. Tours of Australia, Canada and the UK followed, and they sold millions of albums during the 1960s. By the end of the decade, Makem left the group and was replaced by Bobby Clancy, but in 1974 they eventually disbanded.
Liam had left the group in 1973 and settled in Alberta, Canada to escape bankruptcy. There, he resurrected his career with his own TV show. He had already released his eponymous solo album in 1965, and now followed it up with Farewell to Tarwaithie (1974), striking out as a solo performer. He reunited with Tommy Makem in 1975, and for the next 13 years, they performed as a duo, recording half a dozen albums together. Liam's rendition of "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda" from this time would become a staple of his repertoire. The Clancy Brothers reformed without Liam in 1977 but he did rejoin in 1984 for a documentary and tour in 1984 and 1991 (after Tom Clancy's death). However, by 1996, he had left again, and formed a group with his nephew Robbie O'Connell and his son Dónal, which resulted in two albums.
In his autobiography The Mountain of the Women: Memoirs of an Irish Troubadour (2002) he talked frankly about his problems with women, the children he fathered anonymously and how the alcohol he had so often sung about had nearly ruined him. The book sparked a revival of interest and a fresh round of media appearances in the US and Ireland. In 2005, he embarked on a triumphant "70 Years On" tour, and the following year, the TV documentary The Legend Of Liam Clancy celebrated his life. His third and final solo album The Wheels of Life (2008) featured guest appearances by Mary Black, Donovan and Tom Paxton.
The last surviving member of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, he spent his final years in Dungarvan, Co. Wexford, living in Ireland's first purpose-built solar-powered house. Last year, a further in-depth documentary, The Yellow Bittern, told his story once again.
William (Liam) Clancy, singer and musician: born Carrick on Suir, Tipperary, Ireland 2 September 1935; married (two daughters, two sons, and one daughter from a previous relationship); died Cork 4 December 2009.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies