Remembering last of great Irish singers

Posted Dec. 11, 2009, at 6:55 p.m.

In the old days — 1960 — I couldn’t have hated Irish music any more unless it was sung by a New York Yankee. It was the boozy, maudlin soundtrack to wakes and weddings, house parties, dreary railroad talent shows and, of course, that Sunday afternoon television staple, “Community Auditions.”

It was Bing Crosby, for God’s sake. Or maybe Carmel Quinn. It was “McNamara’s Band,” “Galway Bay” and “An Irish Lullaby.” There was one about not missing your mother until she was buried beneath the clay. That always brought the house down. We were faintly embarrassed by it all.

Then came the freezing cold Boston night around 1962 and a basement joint on Boylston Street. I had no idea what I was doing there to see those chesty Irish boys on the stage in their Aran Island sweaters singing, as they said, “sad love songs and happy war songs.”

They were singing songs of heartbreak, rebellion and mirth, and they were having more fun than their audience.

It was the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Sadly, the last of the lot, fiery Liam Clancy, died last week in Cork at the age of 74.

On my own death bed I will remember Makem alone on the stage doing his a cappella version of “The Cobbler Song”:

My wife she is humpy, she’s lump.

My wife she’s the devil, she’s black.

And no matter what I do with her,

her tongue it goes clickety clack.”

I will remember Liam doing “Jug of Punch” and, of course, that Gordon Bok masterpiece, “Peter Kagan and the Wind.”

Kagan, Kagan, Kagan,

Bring the dory home.

Wind and sea do follow thee,

And all the ledges calling thee.

We bought their music. We sang their music. We adopted their brogues. We even bought their Aran Island sweaters, for heaven’s sake. And we were proud to be Irish.

Ireland’s arts minister, Martin Cullen, led nationwide tributes to Clancy, praising his “superb singing, warm voice and gift for communicating in a unique storytelling style.

“It was always so obvious with Liam Clancy that he loved what he was doing and his very presence made you feel welcome,” Cullen said.

Clancy, the youngest of 11 children in a County Tipperary household filled with folklore and song, emigrated to the U.S. in 1956 to join two elder brothers, Tom and Patrick, in New York City who were singing on the side as they pursued budding careers as Broadway actors.

But music would be the thing, especially when they met a Northern Island immigrant named Tommy Makem. A talent scout caught the boys at the White Horse Tavern in New York City and signed them for that entertainment portal, “The Ed Sullivan Show,” in March 1961. Because another act canceled, the Clancy Brothers filled 16 minutes of the show. They were off and running.

The Irish Times reported that “their up-tempo resurrection of traditionally slow, sad Irish songs made a deeper impression on much of America’s emerging folk artist movement, including Bob Dylan, who paid tribute to Liam Clancy as ‘the best ballad singer I’d ever heard in my life.’”

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem performed at Carnegie Hall, toured Ireland, Britain, Australia and the U.S., and recorded more than a dozen albums before breaking up amid arguments over bills, babes and booze in 1974.

“Of course there was a lot of drink. We’d fuel up with whiskey to get up to speed on our way to the next gig. There were a hell of a lot of parties,” Liam Clancy told the Irish Times in September.

And now it’s done. One by one they have fallen. Tom Clancy died of stomach cancer in 1990, Patrick Clancy of lung cancer in 1998, and Makem of cancer in 2007.

To the end, family and friends noted how Liam Clancy kept his irreverent sense of humor. “For a guy who’s dying, I’m not doing too bad,” he remarked three months ago.

At his last public performance in May, he moved a Dublin audience to tears as he struggled to complete a 40-minute set and turned to reciting poetry.

“He delivered Dylan Thomas’ poem ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion.’ He knew at that time he was in close contact with his impending death, and yet he was able to connect with the audience and express his fear in a way that was both dignified and beautiful,” said his manager, Dave Teevan.

Teevan said Liam would speak affectionately of how he always followed the advice of singer Ewan McColl, who believed every song should be sung as if the singer didn’t know how it would end — all the better to inhabit it utterly.

Filmmaker Alan Gilsenen, who made “The Yellow Bittern” documentary, said Mr. Clancy’s passing was the “end of an era. He and his brothers and Tommy reclaimed an enormous amount of folk songs for Ireland, reinterpreted them in terms of their experience in America, outselling the Beatles at one stage.”

Kagan, Kagan, Kagan,

Lay ye down to sleep.

For I do come to comfort thee

All and thy dear body keep.

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