One extraordinary storyteller with a real passion for life

by John Boland

It was through my colleague and great friend Joe Kennedy that I first met Liam Clancy. That was 23 years ago come New Year’s Eve, although of course I’d known of the man throughout all of my adolescent and adult life.

For an Irish teenager in the early to mid-1960s it was impossible not to be aware of the Clancy Brothers, even if jackeens of my cultural persuasion chose to adopt a distinctly condescending attitude to their music. This was the decade of the Beatles, the Stones and Bob Dylan, who were the epitome of cutting-edge cool, while the Clancy Brothers were as far removed from cool as we Dublin trendies could envisage.

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We were somewhat aghast that the most popular Irish act abroad consisted of four culchies in bawneen sweaters belting out the kind of diddley-aye ballads from which we were vehemently intent on freeing ourselves.

When it came to folk music, The Dubliners were more our thing — dangerous-looking, gruff and somewhat risque, too — a suspicion confirmed when the BBC banned their rendition of ‘Seven Drunken Nights’.

And so, though I saw the Clancy Brothers occasionally on RTE television and unavoidably heard them on the radio, my elitist tastes ensured that I gave them a wide berth. However, even then I was obliged to concede that Liam, easily the finest singer among them, had a beautifully pure and potent voice and a lovely way of shaping and caressing a melody.

I came to know that voice intimately when Joe introduced him to me in Ring, Co Waterford, that New Year’s Eve in 1987. At that time Joe and his wife Margaret stayed frequently in a house almost at the summit of Helvick Head, a house that Liam had acquired decades earlier, before he had his own solar-powered family house built a couple of miles down the road.

I found it impossible not to hear Liam performing, given that he’d burst into song at the merest hint, or even without one — whether in the Helvick house or his Ring abode or in the bar of Mooney’s pub.

Some of the happiest nights I can recall occurred in Mooney’s in the company of Liam, his wife Kim, his brother Tom and sundry others when impromptu sessions of music, storytelling and ribaldry would take us, oblivious of time, into the small hours.

During those years of frequent visits to west Waterford, I also came to value his conversation, into which he put as much passion as into his singing. Like all performers, he loved to occupy centre-stage, but he was an extraordinary storyteller and the delight he took in his anecdotes and observations was as palpable as his love of literature.

He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, either. I was with him in Mooney’s one evening in the early 1990s when a Sinn Fein activist asked him to buy a copy of An Phoblacht.

This was just after a particular IRA atrocity had been perpetrated and Liam looked levelly at the man before announcing “I don’t subscribe to murder,” a remark that silenced the bar.

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He was as passionate about politics and social injustice as he was about music or literature.

They were good years, but they weren’t to last. First Tom Clancy died, then eldest brother Paddy, then Bobby, and finally Joe’s wife Margaret. And so the trips to Ring and Helvick became less frequent, with fewer sessions in Mooney’s, Liam having become more mindful of himself and of the infirmities that ill-health eventually visited upon him.

Indeed, I last met him at Margaret’s funeral, an occasion of distress to all of us. But I heard him recently on Ryan Tubridy’s morning radio show as he railed against political cronyism and financial corruption with a passion as furiously eloquent as his fieriest musical performance. He hasn’t lost it, I thought, though we’ve now lost him.

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