They fought, made up, sang, acted, broke up, formed again and died
These guys never set out to be singers at all they wanted to be actors. Paddy, Tom, Bobby, Liam and Tommy. And to add to the irony, although they came to
characterise Irish music for many people throughout the world, they first found success in the United States and only became well known in Ireland once they had made it on American television.
They are The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.
They came from Carrick-on-Suir, where their father, Robert, had an insurance business, and one by one they emigrated. Paddy (7th March 1922 – 1998) was the eldest of the 11 children. Next, in singing terms, came Tom (29th October 1924) and Liam (2nd September 1935) was the youngest. Sister Peg Clancy-Power sang in both English and Irish and recorded one record on the Folk Legacy label.
Paddy and Tom were actors and they emigrated to Canada in 1947 on the SS Marine Flasher. In 1948, they went to America to pursue their acting careers, initially to Cleveland, Ohio. In 1951, Hollywood beckoned, and they started to drive to California. But their car broke down and they went to Greenwich Village in New York instead, where they launched their acting careers and setup their own production company, Trio Productions. Bobby, then emigrated to New York to join Paddy and Tom.
They began singing midnight concerts to fund their acting careers and Bobby returned home to Carrick-on-Suir in 1955. In 1956, Liam left Carrick and went to New York. Separately, Tommy Makem (born 4th November 1932), left Keady in County Armagh, to join the lads. In his first year in America, Tommy crushed his hand when a two ton press fell on it. Paddy formed a new Production Company called Tradition records and Tommy joined them in their recordings.
They couldn’t make a living on acting alone because they only earned $45 a week, so they started singing in The Fifth Peg in Greenwich earning $125 a week. They developed their techniques and instrumental styles and Bob Dylan came to their performances. As Bob said “What I was hearing pretty regularly were rebellion songs, and those really moved me. The Clancy Brothers — Tom, Paddy and Liam — and their buddy Tommy Makem sang them all the time.” On Liam, Bob said “I have never heard a singer as good as Liam, ever. He was the best ballad singer I’d ever heard in my life. Still is probably”
In 1956 they recorded their first album Irish Songs of Rebellion on Paddy’s Label, Tradition Records. This was followed up shortly afterwards by another LP Fill your Glass with Us. By 1961 they got gigs in the Blue Angel, one of New York’s largest night clubs.
Their trademark uniforms were the Aran sweaters. As Paddy explained “It was a very cold winter in New York and my mother in Ireland read about the snow and the frost in New York. And her three sons were in America. So she knitted three Aran sweaters and she sent them out. We had a Jewish manager, Marty Erlichman. He saw them and said ‘That’s it. I’ve been looking for some identifiable costume for you. It’s perfect!’”
As they developed their act they used their acting skills to add stories and banter to their songs on stage. This went down very well with American audiences. Now they had a uniqueness, not only in their shows but also with their sweaters.
They appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show four times between 1961 and 1966 and before their first appearance their mother sent new sweaters that she bought from Babinton’s in Carrick. The first performance was for 16 minutes to an audience of over 80 million. This got them a five year contract with Columbia records, who gave them an advance of €100k, which was huge money back then. Compare that to the $100 million advance that Whitney Houston got in 2001. During this time they recorded two albums a year. In 1963, they performed for President John J Kennedy which catapulted their career on again. As Liam said “it was like suddenly finding myself in the middle of a really great party, that just went on and on and on”.
Their music began to extend to Ireland after the Ed Sullivan shows and in 1964 one third of all the albums sold in Ireland are by Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.
Liam Clancy forged a deep friendship with Luke Kelly of The Dubliners swapping songs. It was from Liam that Luke learned both English and Irish versions of the song The Jail of Clonmel or Priosún Chluain Meala. The Clancys also presented Luke with a Merlin banjo.
In 1968 Tommy Makem gave a years notice that he wanted to leave the group & left in 1969.
From here it gets quite complicated. You’ve been warned.
Bobby returned to replace Tommy in 1969 and left again in 1971. Louis Killen, from Newcastle upon Tyne, joined to replace Bobby. Liam and Louis left in 1974. Around that time, Tom returned to acting, Paddy returned to Ireland and bought a farm with his wife Mary. Liam also returned to Ireland and settled in Ring where he built a recording studio.
In 1975, Liam & Tommy join up to form Makem & Clancy after Tommy appeared on Liam’s Canadian TV series and continued for 13 years.
In 1977, the group reformed with Paddy, Tom, Bobby and nephew Robbie O’Connell and tour for about three months per year until Tom died on 7th November 1990.
In 1984, the group had a reunion for an appearance on 28th April on the Late Late Show. They had sell out concerts in Dublin and Belfast.
In 1985, they resume their separate ways again, Makem & Clancy and Tom, Paddy, Bobby and Robbie as Clancy Brothers.
In 1988, Makem & Clancy split and in 1990, all four Clancy Brothers joined up again and Liam stayed with the group.
In 1996, Bobby’s son Finbar joined the group and Liam and Robbie left. Paddy, Bobby and Finbar continue as Clancy Brothers. Liam, Robbie and Donal Clancy form "Clancy, O'Connell and Clancy"
In 1996 there was an emotional reunion between Paddy and Liam Clancy. “He’d come down to Ring when I think he realised he was very ill”, Liam said in a RTE/TG4 documentary made shortly after Paddy’s death. “Like every family we had our disagreements over the years. But we had a fairly serious falling out over … Oh, we were doing cruises in the Caribbean. Once you got involved in business you don’t understand, very often things get very rocky. And we had our problems and our battles and so on. “But he came down to Ring and we had a get-together down in Mooneys. We had a couple of pints and we hugged each other. ‘What the hell were we fighting about, a few dollars, or some misunderstanding. Let’s have a song’. So we had a great session that night’.”
In 1996 they reformed again: Liam and Paddy and Bobby Clancy and nephew Robbie O’Connell. They released an LP Older but No Wiser and embarked on a farewell tour. In March, 2009, Columbia/Legacy Records released the re-mastered original recording of the memorable Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem concert at Carnegie Hall on March 17, 1963, with political songs and stage talk restored.
Liam said “Home has been a lot of places, work has been a lot of things. But mostly for us work has been the fun of singing."
Paddy died of cancer in November 1998. An RTE news clip showed the moving graveside ceremony as Liam and Bobby Clancy, Ronnie Drew, Finbar Furey and Paddy Reilly, accompanied by John Sheehan, sang The Parting Glass, and the nation marked the passing of an era in Irish traditional music.
Eddie Dillon joined Clancy Brothers in 1997 and Paddy died of brain and lung cancer on 11th November 1998. "The Clancys and Eddie Dillon", Bobby, Finbarr and Eddie, resume touring as trio.
In 1999: Clancy, O'Connell and Clancy amicably split up. Bobby is diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis and died on 6th September 2002.
In 2000, the entire performing Clancy Family sing together on one stage at 20th anniversary of Milwaukee Irish Festival—Liam, Bobby, Finbarr, Dónal and Aoife Clancy, Robbie O'Connell, with Eddie Dillon. This is the last time Bobby and Liam appeared together on stage.
Tommy Makem died on 1st August 2007 from lung cancer. Liam Clancy died on 4th December 2009. Before he died, he filmed Liam Clancy & Friends at The Bitter End club in Greenwich Village, New York. The concert is specially staged and filmed before an invited audience with performances from, Odetta, Tom Paxton, Shane MacGowan and Gemma Hayes. In February 2009, The Yellow Bittern: the Life and Times of Liam Clancy is screened at the Dublin Film Festival.
Earlier in 2009, Liam was performing in the Draoicht Theatre in Blanchardstown and I was scheduled to attend. Between one thing and another, I missed the performance. I was devastated.
Goodnight. God bless. Safe home Paddy, Tom, Bobby, Liam and Tommy. We will ne'er see your like again.
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