The decades-old footage of Carrick-on-Suir’s narrow streets, the famed west gate and the sally grass below Ormond Castle returned many an audience member in Dungarvan’s SGC to their childhood last week.
They came to Dungarvan on Tuesday week last for a poignant, emotional and well-humoured occasion, one which sadly lacked its main protagonist, the reason we had all assembled there: Liam Clancy.
Honoured by Dungarvan Town Council through a Civic Reception, the occasion was also marked by a screening of ‘The Yellow Bittern’, Alan Gilsenan’s triumphant film which traces Liam Clancy’s remarkable life.
From his early childhood on Carrick’s William Street right through to a musical career he has happily pursued into his 70s, the film’s subject is bluntly honest when reflecting on the past.
The peaks and the troughs of Liam’s life are all laid bare in two magical hours, recalling Liam’s transatlantic journey aged 21, when following his two older brothers Tommy and Paddy to New York.
And it was there in Greenwich Village that the Clancys and Tommy Makem combined their lyrical forces to produce “the sound of a galloping horse”, reviving a litany of great Irish songs in so doing.
From this multi-media juncture and for a younger generation that may know little about them, it’s difficult to explain just how big The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were. As Irish acts go ‘across the pond’, only U2 have been bigger since.
Their famous performance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1961, pre-dating The Beatles’ bow on the same stage, made the quartet household names in the United States. They were to appear on the show on four further occasions.
Their famous rendition of ‘We Want No Irish Here’ played before President John F Kennedy, complete in their famous báinín jumpers, added to their growing fame and celebrity.
Twice a year for 15 successive years, they performed before sold-out audiences in Carnegie Hall, delighting Irish America with their uplifting brand of folk music.
Not only had the Clancys become Carrick-on-Suir’s greatest export, but they also flew the flag for Ireland in a way that no entertainer had until their ‘explosion’ in America.
Masters of all they surveyed in the mid-60s, Liam Clancy said it was like finding himself “in the middle of a really great party, that just went on and on and on”.
Befriending performers such as Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, who considers Liam Clancy the greatest balladeer he’s ever heard, ‘Willy’, as his brothers called him, was destined for a life on the stage from a young age.
From reciting poetry in school, the sing-songs in William Street and into his late teens when he and Liam Hogan founded the Brewery Lane Theatre Group in 1955, the stage was where Liam Clancy felt most at home.
“We had long discussions in my flat about the feasibility of staging ‘The Playboy of the Western World’,” Liam Hogan recalled when the Brewery celebrated its 50th anniversary.
“I pointed out to (Liam) that that it was a complex, classical play, requiring an experienced cast.
“We had no such pool of players. We had no group structure. None of the local halls had a stage. There was no lighting equipment. There was nowhere to rehearse or build a set. Above all we had no money.
“We didn’t even know if we would have an audience. Liam’s youthful enthusiasm, flair and talent made it all happen and turned us all into actors.”
Liam Clancy’s theatrical power has reduced thousands of audiences to putty, even moving some to offer themselves for child-bearing back in the 60s, as he humourously reflects in ‘The Yellow Bittern’. And what a story-teller he remains, as the film so marvellously demonstrates.
Alan Gilsenan’s wonderful film not only represents a tremendous tribute to Liam, Tommy, Paddy and Tommy Makem but also ensures that the group’s trailblazing legacy will live on for decades to come.
For let there be no doubt: “Those were the days, oh yes, those were the days.”