Minstrel Boys: Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy

  Musicians Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem, on the roof of the Europa Hotel in Belfast, early 1980s.   Image bh009566, Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

“America had Elvis and Britain had The Beatles. Ireland had Makem and Clancy.” Musicians Tommy Makem (left) and Liam Clancy, on the roof of the Europa Hotel in Belfast, early 1980s. Image bh009566, Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.


July 2015

As a quartet, they went by the rather cumbersome stage name of “The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.” They moved from Ireland to America in their 20s to try and make their living as actors, and found they could make more money singing the traditional ballads and nationalistic rebel songs they had learned from their parents as children. Their big break came when a scheduled two-song appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1961 turned into a 20-minute showstopper after a headliner failed to appear. After that, this quartet of Irish balladeers became as well known around the folksinging world as the Kingston Trio, The Weavers and The Limeliters.

The American folk revival movement sputtered and stopped after Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Traditional music fell from favour and coffeehouse doors slammed shut all over the country. But somehow this Irish quartet managed to survive because, Makem told me, “there were always venues in Ireland and Canada and Australia where we knew we would still find a loyal following.”

Makem had amicably parted company with the Clancys in 1969 to pursue a solo career while the three brothers carried on with a succession of replacement singers. At around the same time, Liam Clancy – the youngest of the brothers – launched his own solo career while continuing to tour occasionally with his brothers. Liam reconnected with Tommy when they found themselves sharing a bill at a 1975 music festival in Cleveland, Ohio. They did a short set together and the enthusiastic reception persuaded them to resume their collaboration. Makem and Clancy performed together as a duo in concerts and on television for the next dozen years.

When I talked to them in 1981, the two troubadours were “still going like the hammers of hell,” touring, recording and taping television specials. They often had to contend with requests for a reunion of the whole group, but this seemed unlikely to happen at that point. “I don’t think it would be very good for either of us,” said Makem. “We’ve been trying for a long time to establish that we’re a separate act, Liam and myself. If the whole group were to get together for a few shows, it would be very difficult to go back to being just the two of us again.”

It was all a matter of branding, Clancy explained. As a quartet, they had performed songs from Ireland’s past. As a duo, they performed material written by contemporary artists such as Tom Paxton, Gordon Bok and Eric Bogle, and also original songs by Makem. Their hits included such songs as “The Dutchman,” “Four Green Fields” and “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.”

Makem, who was 49 when I interviewed him, said he sometimes considered getting off the road because “it’s a grind and it doesn’t get any easier after 25 years. But then I stop and think, what’s the alternative? I certainly wouldn’t want to be stuck running a pub in Ireland. I’d be there seven days a week, married to it, and I don’t think I could put up with that.”

Clancy, who had briefly left the music business to run a pub in Ireland, also had no desire to relive that experience. He knew that he and Makem had something special going for them musically, and was grateful for the fact that supportive audiences made it possible for them to remain true to their artistic vision. American folksingers who stayed in the States after traditional music lost its popularity had been forced to become electrified pop singers to survive. But Makem and Clancy remained “unplugged,” perhaps foreshadowing an acoustic music movement that became popular again in the 1990s.

“We always had a very basic Irish audience,” said Makem “We always had our fans in Ireland itself, the Irish-Canadians and the Irish-Australians, and thank God for them. We think we’re very, very fortunate to be doing something we enjoy doing, and to be able to make a decent living at it.”

I asked the two if they could take me back to that evening, many moons ago when their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show changed their lives forever. Clancy’s abiding memories of the show included the fact that he suffered a nosebleed before going on and that the group decided to wear as costumes the Aran sweaters the Clancy family in Ireland had sent to them after they learned how cold American winters could be. Makem remembered they had rehearsed only two songs for the program. With a couple of minutes to go before show time, a producer came to them in a panic and asked if they could improvise three or four additional songs because the big star of the night (“whoever that was”) had fallen ill. The following day, the Irishmen were being recognized and asked for autographs on the streets of Manhattan. “We were instantly famous,” said Makem. They had graduated from pass-the-hat appearances at Greenwich Village folk cellars to the concert stage at Carnegie Hall.

The most gratifying result of the Sullivan show for Clancy was that not only did it create an important role for Irish songs in the American folk music movement but the ripple effect had a similar impact on the Irish scene. The dated, mostly unaccompanied style of Irish traditional singing that had been dying on its feet was suddenly alive again. The Clancys and Makem had taken the old songs out of the closet, set them to the accompaniment of guitar, banjo and penny whistle, and brought them back home where they became more popular than the songs of the Beatles. “The Irish were really discovering their own heritage,” said Clancy.

Makem and Clancy parted on amicable terms when they went their separate ways in 1988. Their music together had run its course and they didn’t want to outstay their welcome. Both continued to perform as solo artists and – for old times sake – briefly reunited as The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem for Bob Dylan’s 1992 30th anniversary gala concert at Madison Square Garden. Dylan, who had gotten to know the Clancys and Makem during the early 1960s in Greenwich Village, described them in his 2004 biography as “musketeers” and wrote how he had been influenced by their “rebellion songs.”

Makem died in 2007 at age 74. Liam, the last of the singing Clancy brothers to pass away, died in 2009, also at age 74. An Irish broadcaster, Shay Healy, summed up their contribution in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph: “America had Elvis and Britain had The Beatles. Ireland had Makem and Clancy.”

Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015 

Brian Brennan

Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut. 

Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca

Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.


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