Liam — we still hardly know you

by John Boland

Edited down from a film shown in cinemas earlier this year, Alan Gilsenan’s The Yellow Bittern: Liam Clancy’s Life and Times (RTE1) was an oddity, not least because in March 2006 RTE had already screened the same director’s two-part documentary The Legend of Liam Clancy.

In the words of its own press release, that two-hour profile had set out to reveal “the dark side of the man” as manifested in “the four children he fathered outside marriage and left, his nervous breakdown and the deep, bitter tensions that bedevilled the Clancy Brothers”.

And certainly there was much that was startlingly candid about his reminiscences, though I wrote at the time that the documentary fell badly between two stools — never really explaining why the singer felt obliged to tell us these deeply personal things or what insights we were meant to glean from them, while also failing to evoke what it must have been like to belong to a famous ballad group in an era of such great social and cultural ferment. A missed opportunity, was how I described the documentary on its screening.

So what did this new profile offer that the earlier film didn’t? Nothing much, alas. As in the 2006 film, we listened again as Bob Dylan told us that he had “never heard a singer as good as Liam — he was just the best ballad singer I’d ever heard in my life, and still is, probably”. And there was much the same archive footage from the Clancy Brothers’ 1960s American heyday as was seen in the earlier film.

There was some new material, most interestingly about his sometimes troubled relationship with older brother Tom and about the hostile attitude of Irish-Americans when the group espoused the civil rights movement: “Irish-Americans wouldn’t come out to see these ‘nigger lovers’, especially singing Irish songs,” he recalled.

But curiously there was none of the soul-searching that dominated the earlier film — there was merely a passing reference to how, in later years, “the drinking thing caught up with me”, but there was nothing said about sexual relationships, illegitimate children or other instances of “the dark side of the man”. Perhaps in the interim he had thought twice about the relevance and hurtful possibilities of such disclosures.

More damagingly, there were other lacunae. Watching this film, you’d think that his career — indeed, his life — ended in 1984 when the group gave a reunion concert in the Lincoln Centre. The fact that he’s been living in Ring for the last three decades wasn’t mentioned, nor was his long post-Clancys career as a double act with Tommy Makem.

The singer has recently been ill and there was a valedictory tone to the film’s closing moments, especially in his observation that, when on stage through the years, he’d often felt that “nothing lasts, this will be gone”.

At the very end he alluded to the bird of the documentary’s title, speaking of “a secret self, like the yellow bittern, that is shy and apart” — but the film didn’t ask what this seemingly extrovert, indeed exuberant, man meant by that, and it also left hanging his final remark: “It’s always a mask you’re showing.” And that finally was the film’s real failing — it never quite discovered the man behind the mask.

By contrast, the Cogar half-hour film about Molly Keane (TG4) conveyed a real sense of the Anglo-Irish writer’s personality and of the country-house milieu in which she grew up. Fronted by Catherine Foley and directed by her sister Roseann, this unassuming film vividly evoked both time and place and told its story without any fuss or grandstanding.

Like many people, I first encountered Keane through her wittily irreverent yet poignant novel Good Behaviour, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981, when its author was 77. A half-century earlier, though, she’d been a successful novelist and dramatist under the name MJ Farrell — a deliberately male pseudonym chosen, according to her daughter, because “if the boys thought you were an egghead they wouldn’t go near you”.

When Good Behaviour was published, Keane was considered a sensation, though now she seems entirely neglected once more. “It’s a pity we’ve forgotten her books,” Catherine Foley said at the end of this charming and engrossing profile. Indeed it is.

Equally charming is the TG4 series Thar Saile, in which the personable and refreshingly intelligent Ann Marie Ni Dhubhcoin meets Irish emigrants, most of them Irish-speaking, in various European cities. Unlike most travel shows, her programmes about Vienna and Edinburgh, rather than offering cliched tourist snapshots, conveyed a real sense of both capitals, and this week’s visit to Nice was just as evocative and informative. Among the people she met there was former Tour de France winner Stephen Roche, who owns a hotel in nearby Villeneuve and whose fluency in French seemed just as idiomatic as any of the locals.

Why can’t RTE make series that are as unpretentiously and unflashily absorbing as Cogar and Thar Saile?

In the first edition of Ireland’s Crime Capitals (TV3) there were too many close-ups of reporter Donal MacIntyre looking brooding and macho, though he largely assumed a quieter role, letting the story of Limerick’s gangland atrocities speak for itself.

There was nothing new here and nothing remotely edifying either, but if you needed to be reminded for the umpteenth time of the murderous feuds that have made Moyross and Southill no-go areas, then the film fulfiled its depressing brief.

Comedian Neil Delamare began the first installment of Republic of Telly (RTE2) by announcing it as “the show where we watch everything so you don’t have to”. Yes, but what show will save us from the pain of watching Republic of Telly, which is a poor man’s version of Colin Murphy’s The Blizzard of Odd? At least Murphy used to come up with some bracingly rude comments about the inanities of TV shows and the vanities of their presenters.

Delamere, by contrast, makes do with dud jokes and lots of sniggering, though I have to admit I did laugh when he envisaged RTE’s recent and quite daft If Lynch Had Invaded as the first instalment of an RTE ‘Hypothetical History’ series — the follow-up exploring the scenario If Collins Had Been a Midget.

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