“Liam was for me. I never heard a singer
as good as him, ever. He was just the best ballad singer I
ever heard in my life, still is probably.” –
Liam Clancy met his waiting destiny head on, at his front
door, on an August day in 1955, in Carrick-on-Suir: “I
answered a knock at our door on Williams Street. There stood
two American women: one narrow-waisted, big bosomed, sallow,
and soft-spoken, the other huge, gaudy, and loud. They were
glaringly American against the drab, gray backdrop of an Irish
town of the time. They looked to me like two exotic birds
that had been blown off course in some storm and had come
to earth in the wrong place.
“The slimmer of the two
said in a soft, refined American accent, ‘Hi, my name
is Diane Hamilton and this is my friend Catherine Wright.
We’re in Ireland collecting folk music. This is the
Clancy’s, isn’t it? We were told to come see Mammy
Clancy by her sons Paddy and Tom in New York. They said she
had some wonderful children’s songs.’”1
Diane Hamilton (Guggenheim), an affluent
American song collector who came to Ireland to collect as
many songs, lyrics and music of the Irish song tradition as
she could find, became a flashpoint, mostly good, of many
of the life-changing incidents in Liam Clancy’s life.
She had changed her last name to hide her wealth, being the
daughter of Harry Guggenheim, known as the ‘Father of
American Aviation,’ as well as to give her better access
to the treasure troves of songs and stories that she was seeking
out, especially children’s songs, a special love of
hers. She met Liam Clancy, formed a friendship and they traveled
together all around Ireland, collecting these Irish ballads,
mostly in their natural settings, the kitchens and parlors
of farmers, tradesmen, shop keepers and their families and
friends. Many neighbors would gather for impromptu sessiuns
(sing-alongs), when they heard that collectors were at work
“… Dianne, with
all her problems, had a very important talent: she was a catalyst.
Never mind her singing or playing or collecting. That was
just covered ground that others had traveled before, but she
had an uncanny instinct for bringing people together whose
combined energies and interests made a magical new element.
She saw the potential in a situation, and she had the money
to make it happen,” said Liam.1
Another fateful day soon followed
later that year, when on one such excursion in search of songs,
they went to visit legendary source singer and song collector,
Sarah Makem, and her son, Tommy, in the Makems’ hometown
of Keady, County Armagh.
As Liam tells it, “The
recording sessions at the Makem’s house were memorable.
Peter, the man of the house, with his pipe and fiddle…and
Jack, his son…Tommy, the youngest son, in the corner
nearly as shy as myself…. And they all buzzed around
the queen bee herself, Sarah Makem, as she sat placid in the
eye of the hurricane.
“It was so much like the
Clancy household it was uncanny, in our case Mammy Clancy
being the queen bee. All that was different was the accents.
“Sarah Makem has a vast
store of songs which the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem would
later plunder. Sean O’Boyle, too, the great musical
scholar and folklorist, was a regular at the sessions. From
him I got the beautiful Gaelic song “Buachaill on Eirne.”
It was later ‘Englishized’ by a journalist from
a Glascow newpaper and became quite famous as an Irish ‘folk
song’ renamed ‘Come by the Hills.’
“The young Tommy Makem
and I struck up an instant friendship. Our interests were
so similar: girls, theatre and singing, in that order. He
was heading to America soon, he told me, to try his luck at
acting. We agreed to keep in touch.”1
Liam and Tommy hit it off,
and about a year after they met, each headed for America (separately)
to try their luck at acting – both on stage and on television.
But the legendary Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem seeds
had been planted and would blossom and multiply beyond anyone’s
1 From The Mountain of the Women, Memoirs of an Irish Troubadour,
By Liam Clancy. Doubleday Books, 2002.
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