EXCERPTS

CHAPTER 3:
LIAM CLANCY


  “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.” – Bob Dylan



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 nearby.

      “… 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 dreams.



Endnotes:

1 From The Mountain of the Women, Memoirs of an Irish Troubadour, By Liam Clancy. Doubleday Books, 2002.



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