Since they first appeared together in 1956, the three Clancy Brothers (yes, they really are brothers) and Tommy Makem (no relation) have become the most celebrated of Irish folk singers and the greatest prosely-tizers of Irish culture. The Irish Songbook, a lavishly illustrated collection of their traditional favorites and best-selling hits, is the most complete edition of Clancy/Makem music ever to appear. It contains full piano scores, guitar chords, and lyrics for 75 songs, in addition to drawings, illustrations and more than two dozen photographs of the Clancy/Makem families and their friends.
Most of the Irish favorites the Clancy Brothers have helped to popularize are included in this volume: "Nancy Whisky," "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya," "Lord Nelson," and "The Parting Glass" (which the group sings at the end of every concert) are among the better known. But the greater portion of the book is devoted to the more traditional songs, some of which are in Gaelic and not to be found in print anywhere else. Each song is prefaced by a brief explanatory paragraph.
The Clancy Brothers … there are three of them. Pat, eldest of the family and businessman of the group, is the founder of the very successful Tradition Records. Both Tom and Liam ("The name Liam is the Gaelic for William, I am ashamed to say") are formidable actors as well as singers. Tom, with over 150 acting roles to his credit, has appeared with Orson Welles in King Lear and with Helen Hayes in A Touch of the Poet. Liam is best remembered for his Broadway performance with Julie Harris in Little Moon of Alban.
… And Tommy Makem. Acting is his first love, but singing runs a close second. The New York Times chose him, along with Joan Baez, as the best young singer at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival. And in 1960, Pete Seeger asked Tommy to perform in two of his concerts. But his most avid fan is the late Mrs. Joan Clancy, mother of the brothers, who once said: "You're all great singers, but Tommy Makem is a greater singer than any of you."
Through the years, the Clancy Brothers have become as popular in the United States as in Ireland and England. Their enormous talent, combined with a spirited Irish temperament and Gaelic good looks, has sold-out concert halls in New York, London, and on the college circuits. Their records sell extremely well, and they have made numerous TV appearances on the Johnny Carson Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, and the Today Show. And Carnegie Hall succumbs to a massive invasion twice a year (in November and, of course, on St. Patrick's Day) when the Clancy Brothers regale rebel hordes and folk-lovers alike with lively music at its Irish best.
I do most of my drinking in a small, dark saloon in Greenwich Village, a sweet, safe place most liberally stocked with beer and whiskey, with poets and sea captains, with newspapers and itinerant carpenters, with an occasional prizefighter or a visitor from Israel, bartenders from Boston and young ladies from everywhere else. The bar, which I shall not name, has a single function: to protect its clientele from the sorrows of the night; it takes that function seriously. It was in this saloon that I first met the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.
It was on an evening dark with winter, with a harsh wind blowing through the streets of New York. The newspapers (I worked on one then) were carrying their usual cargo of disaster, violence, war and despair; it was obviously a night for drinking, and around midnight I dropped into my saloon on Sheridan Square. It was like walking into an explosion. I don't know why it happened that way, but all of them were there: Pat, Tom and Liam Clancy, and Tommy Makem, and they had commandeered the big round table in the back room, with about seventy people around them, and the great little waitresses running back and forth to the bar with trayloads of drinks, and the whole place was singing. The song was "The Leaving of Liverpool," which was one of their big hits that year, and they moved on to "Foggy Dew" and "Eileen Aroon" and "Isn't It Grand, Boys?" and "Rocks of Bawn" and a lot of other songs that are in this book. The voices were a shout, a lament, a challenge, a vow, all wrapped into one. Out beyond the confines of the saloon there were people still wrapped in the normal cloak of unhappiness. But inside, in the warmth, around the big table, these four splendid Irishmen and their accomplices banished that normal condition, at least for the duration of the evening. At four in the morning, when the place finally closed, we were all still singing. It was a beautiful evening.
We've seen a lot of each other in the years since, and for me New York is never quite New York anymore when The Boys, as they are called around the saloon, are out of town. On a gray winter's afternoon it is a comfort to know that Tom Clancy will be standing at the bar, drinking an Irish and milk if the previous evening had been bad, or a bloody Mary if it had been a disaster. It is a comfort because saloons and pubs are always family places when they are any good, and an afternoon with Tom is like an afternoon with a beloved brother, made especially pleasurable because this brother cares for the sounds and splendors of the English language.
So you can be there with Tom, who might be dressed in cowboy boots he once bought in Juarez, with his rough workingman's face breaking into laughter, or going hard and implacable at the thought of some further evidence of the injustice of the world, and he can break into a speech from Shakespeare to illustrate his point, or call forth an impeccable rendition of something by Dylan Thomas, or remember something said by an old friend like Brendan Behan, or talk with insight and erudition about the work of Eugene O'Neill; and since Tom is one of the least pompous men I know and is not given to holding mere literary seminars, he might go on to describe the perfidy of politicians he knows, the charms — or lack of them — of various women, the problems of drinking in New Zealand, some distant exploit of his or Pat's in the RAF during the Second World War, the personal life and paternity of foremen in Cleveland automobile plants, and the weather in Toronto.
Later in the afternoon, Pat Clancy will usually arrive, thinner, with clean, classic Irish features, wearing a good tweed Cork hat, a quick smile, the soft-voiced quiet man, the perfect Irishman to play Patrick Pearse if they ever made a film about the scholar-poet who helped liberate the GPO in 1916. Pat will order a Guinness, and talk will flow on. There was the time when Pat worked as an insurance man in Cleveland, the slums of Hough, and when the black ghetto of that city went up in flames his first instinct was to think of how desperate the country had become and then how much it would cost the insurance companies.
Some afternoons, especially if they are working that night somewhere, Tommy Makem comes around. Tommy is a member of the Pioneers, a movement of about 500,000 people who abstain from drinking liquor. So he usually arrives for dinner and coffee and an occasional ginger ale. He doesn't seem to need the drink to enjoy himself and often he will stay into the long loud night, singing in his pure clear voice, telling stories, laughing, and sharing the delights and disappointments of his fellow travelers.
It was an odd set of circumstances that brought them together. The Clancys were born in Carrick-on-Suir, a small, neat market town in County Tipperary. There were nine children in the family, which was headed by a father who loved opera and a mother who had spent her childhood in a pub called McGrath's, which her mother ran. Carrick these days is sharing some of Ireland's new prosperity, but it was not always that way, and the Clancys have always worked for a living. Tom Clancy worked as a Shakespearean actor and then was a singer with Sean Healy's dance band in 1941. "My big number was 'Red Moon Over Havana,' and later I did a very good 'White Christmas,' " Tom remembers. "You couldn't exactly say that traditional music was in very good shape." When World War II broke out in 1939, Tom and Pat joined the RAF, like so many of the "wild geese" before them, and were gone for years. By 1950, after various adventures which had included Pat's expedition to Venezuela to search for emeralds, they had emigrated to Canada. They worked for a while in Canada, and then made their way to Cleveland, Ohio, where they had relatives. They spent most of their time working days in an auto body plant, while Tom continued his acting in the evenings with the Cleveland Repertory Theater.
"We might have ended up in California, or stayed in Cleveland forever," Tom remembers, "if it weren't for the bloody car." Somewhere they had picked up a 1939 Plymouth, without fenders, "a car that looked like an alligator," in Tom's words, and at one point decided to seek their fortunes in the West. "We got about to Chicago and the differential fell out," says Tom. "So we decided we would never make it to the West and headed for New York instead."
In New York they found a splendid tavern called the White Horse, filled with old wood and much noise and a variety of painters, writers and poets (it was the favorite saloon of Dylan Thomas), and also found a way to live to the fullest in America. Tom and Pat became actors, taking part in one of the early O'Casey revivals at the Cherry Lane Theater of The Plough and the Stars and acting all over the off-Broadway scene; they also discovered folk-singing.
For a while they lived with three other young men over a bowling alley in Newark, across the Hudson River, and worked five days a week at the Hoffman Soda plant. "We lived for the weekends," Tom remembers. But by the time Liam emigrated in 1955, Tom was acting in television shows. Liam could play the guitar a bit and had done some singing with a group in Carrick. Liam met Tommy Makem through another accident. Jean Ritchie, one of the most industrious collectors of folk music, had been to Ireland and had spent some time with Sarah Makem, Tommy's mother, who knew a lot of old songs. Then a girl named Diane Hamilton, after a collecting expedition to Nova Scotia, decided to make a similar tour of Ireland, England and Wales. She was given the Clancy address by Pat Clancy, and she got Sarah Makem's address from Jean Ritchie. She went to the Clancy's first, met Liam and asked him to travel with her around Ireland. While Miss Hamilton was transcribing Mrs. Makem's songs, Liam and Tommy Makem became friends. In late 1955, they emigrated within weeks of each other.
Then another accident happened, this one with near-disastrous consequences. Tommy Makem had emigrated to Dover, New Hampshire, a town that contained a disproportionate number of people from his home town of Keady, in County Armagh. Dover had a large textile industry but Tommy went to work in a steel plant. One day his left hand was crushed by two tons of steel. While his hand was being treated he came to New York on a visit, ran into Liam again and they formed a duo; they were joined occasionally by Pat and Tom. About this time Pat Clancy was forming Tradition Records, so Pat, Tom, Liam and Tommy recorded their first record, an album of Irish rebellion songs entitled "The Rising of the Moon." They soon made a second album, this time of drinking songs.
"One fine morning three of us were out of work," Liam remembers, "and we decided, what the hell. Several people had been bugging us to form a group and play together. We talked Pat into closing the Tradition Records' office for a while, and we went out to Chicago for a six-week engagement at the Gate of Horn. We wore black suits, white shirts and ties, sitting on four stools. I had about four chords on the guitar then, and Tommy Makem still couldn't play the tin whistle because his hand wasn't fully healed, but Pat could play the harmonica. So we started off that first night with the first song, which was 'O'Donnell Abu.' I had the capo in the wrong position on the guitar, so right off we found ourselves somewhere in the high soprano range. There were about twelve people in the audience, and I realized my mistake and decided to try and bluff it and sing soprano like John Jacob Niles. Tom turned to me and said: 'You can keep goin' if you like, but I'm not singin' in that bloody key'.' Well, this was our first song, and we were nervous as hell as you can imagine, but the audience broke down laughing, and we said, hell, and loosened the ties, and took off the jackets, and had a few drinks sent up to us, and started to recreate the atmosphere of the White Horse. The following night there was a bigger crowd in, and the night after it was bigger, and we were packed out from there on."
"That was the beginning of it," says Tom. "If that car hadn't broke down, if Tommy Makem hadn't had his hand mashed, if we hadn't all ended up out of work at the same time, it wouldn't have happened. And we had one more piece of luck. We were back in New York, playing at the Blue Angel, and one night in walks Jim Downey, who owns the restaurant, and Jack Dempsey, the old heavyweight champion. They had another man with them, and it turned out he was from the Ed Sullivan Show. A few weeks later we played Sullivan for the first time, and that made us, professionally and nationally. So no one can ever tell me there's no such thing as luck!"
The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were something new, both in folk music and in Irish music. They didn't approach their material as if it were liturgical music, to be performed in cathedrals. They attacked it, they assaulted it, they shouted it out loud and strong or filled it with deep emotion, and they shot it through with a lusty ribald humor. But they were not playing stage Irishmen; there was nothing to suggest leprechauns or clay pipes; they did not sing "Danny Boy" or "Galway Bay," and this at first puzzled some of their Irish-American auditors. "I remember one night, real early, one Irish-American lady asking us why we didn't sing some Irish songs," Liam remembers. "They wanted Tom to sing 'Danny Boy,' and he had to explain that Danny Boy had been there and gone."
"There was even a problem in Ireland," Pat remembers. "When we were young, the big song was 'Kevin Barry,' and you would hear it everywhere, day and night, in the street, in the pubs, in front parlors. And I remember one day the old woman across the street saying to my mother, Tell me, Mrs. Clancy, what used they sing before "Kevin Barry"?' "
In one way, the advent of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem was a major cultural event in Ireland. They became part of the vanguard of what became known as the Ballad Revival. That was the full-fledged rediscovery, especially by young Irishmen, of the old songs of Ireland. Or as Liam puts it: "The Ballad Revival means, in its baldest form, that it became respectable again for so-called respectable people to sing working-class songs." "A lot of the old songs had begun to disappear," Pat remembers. "Or, at the very best, to fade away from the consciousness of many Irishmen. The British, of course, hadn't encouraged them ever, but then, after 1921, there wasn't much of an enemy left. And then there was Irish respectability."
"The better families in a town then," said Liam, "say, by the 1940s, would have had a piano, and they'd be learning light opera and things like that. The comeallyes, as we called them, were often associated with things they didn't want to remember. For instance, my mother never wanted to hear about pubs again, after the hardships of running McGrath's, and a lot of these songs were associated with pubs. And being brought up in a pub, she associated these songs with drink and madmen and fighting. And after a night of drinking, the Black and Tans would be there, and after she'd ask them for payment, they'd say: 'Is it true your son Peter is out with the rebels, Mrs. McGrath? Is it true?' It was true all right and they never paid for the drink."
But by the late 1950s a new generation of young Irishmen had arrived, young people who were not directly connected to the struggles of 1916 or the trauma of the bloody civil war which followed independence. Many of them had grown up blaming the economic stagnation of the country on the 1916 Syndrome, and there were bitter complaints that if you were not the son of a man who had been in the GPO, you could not make it in Ireland. The young people attracted by the Left, or convinced that the socialists and poets who had fought the war for independence had been betrayed, saw nationalism and patriotism as the curse of Ireland, and many of them emigrated. But in an odd way, the Clancys and their contemporaries then did something that seldom happens in a country: they turned much of that feeling around by providing an alternative life style, one that spoke with affection of the Irish past but realized the bombast and the bragging that was built into that past, and therefore could never be the past's prisoner. The Boys gave them a style of Irishness that was no longer mock-reverent, that returned to the roots of the Irish character — racy, open, hearty, no longer stifled by Victorian platitudes. Their medium was primarily music, but it was also their rough, masculine approach to their material. All over Ireland today (and even in the Irish-American pubs in New York and Boston) you can see groups singing like the Clancys, using the old songs, and even writing new songs in the old forms.
"They're writing some marvelous songs right now," Liam says. "Some of them are even better than some of the old ones. Every time we go home, we learn new ones.
"You could tell the whole story of Ireland in her songs, but it would be a kind of emotional history of Ireland, a reaction to the things that have happened to us and which we have done. The whole story is there, right there in the songs."
And that, I suppose, is the key to Irish songs and to the songs in this book. Here you can feel that whole bitter tapestry of Irish history, a past suspended in the moment, time frozen for the duration of a song, some final triumph of words or music that has endured longer than the oppressors whose vicious acts inspired so many of the songs themselves. Here in the bravado and the boasting and the sadness and the hard bold swagger is the memory of distant kings, of scholars in bucolic country centers, of stark towers where the monks fled to be safe from the first of Ireland's many invaders; that time of pre-Norman Ireland, almost before history, is here in the songs; and so is what came after: that long and terrible seven hundred years when the Irish were a people to whom things were done.
Those were the centuries when the British Raj in Ireland attempted the systematic destruction of the Irish language, Irish music, Irish songs, Irish poetry and literature. As far back as 1366, the British enacted the Statutes of Kilkenny, which among other things barred Irish poets and musicians from English households. Things were to get worse.
There was, for example, Oliver Cromwell, a seventeenth-century religious maniac who apparently thought that the Almighty had given him the right to murder. At the town of Drogheda, he slaughtered every man, woman and child in the town of three thousand, writing afterward: "It has pleased God to bless our endeavors at Drogheda. … I wish that all honest hearts may give the glory of this to God alone, to who indeed the praise of this mercy belongs."
Under Elizabeth I, 10,000,000 acres of the best Irish land were stolen from the Irish and given to Englishmen, or to Scottish Protestant settlers in the North. In the early eighteenth century, the Penal Laws were passed, and if you think the Irish still too frequently brood over old hurts, consider some of these "laws." Irish Catholics were not allowed to vote in their own country; they could not hold public office, or enter the military, or take jobs in the civil service, or work as lawyers or teachers. The Catholic schools were abolished. No Catholic was allowed to own a horse worth more than five pounds, and if a Protestant coveted his Catholic neighbor's horse, he was allowed under the law simply to take it, paying the five pounds maximum no matter what the value of the horse. But the worst of the Penal Laws was the one forbidding Irishmen from leaving their farms to one son. Under the law, the land had to be divided among all the sons, and the result was the utter destitution of much of the Irish countryside. Farms became smaller and smaller, increasingly devoted to mere subsistence farming of potatoes, while the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy built great mansions on their stolen land and plush Georgian houses in Dublin.
The result, of course, was the Great Famine of 1846-51. The famine followed a potato blight, which destroyed the entire potato crop three years in a row. More than half the population of 8,000,000 depended entirely on potatoes for food; when the potato died, so did rural Irishmen. The figures are cold enough: 1,500,000 peasants died and another 1,000,000 emigrated. The details were something else. Children walked the roads of Ireland, their bellies bursting with disease, their eyes hollow with starvation. Irish mothers were found with babies at their dry breasts, lying in fields, their mouths stained green from trying to eat enough grass to stay alive. The emigrants piled into filthy transatlantic ships for Boston and New York, were jammed into the holds, where men fought each other for the privilege of eating rats and sawdust. The slave stolen from Africa at least had the small advantage of being property; the Irishman fleeing the great hunger was worth nothing. And through it all, the great landlords of Ireland went about business as usual: exporting the beef, pork, lamb and grain that might have saved the starving Irish. It was a mass atrocity that no Irishman has ever forgiven. (I remember one New Year's Eve in Carrick, sitting with Tom and Pat Clancy and relatives and friends, watching a television show. The British cattle industry was being decimated by an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, and a young Irishman suggested that Irish farmers, in an act of Christian charity, help replace the British herds by sending free cattle to their fellow farmers across the Irish Sea. And someone in the Clancy living room said yes, and we'll hang a medallion around each head saying "1847, with love." There was dark laughter and darker songs.)
But through it all there was a sense of rebellion, a need for heroes, a championing of martyrs. Until the last great struggle, the Irish always lost, but in losing they seemed to add to the growing legend of defiance. Kelly, the boy from Killane, died in the rebellion of 1798. Young Roddy McCorley, who went to die on the bridge of Toome that day, was in the Ulster rebellion the same year. Bold Robert Emmett led a tiny band in a suicidal raid on Dublin Castle in 1803. When Tommy Makem sings so powerfully that "The West's Awake," he is singing of the Irish struggle in
Connaught, where there was for so many years a passive acceptance of British rule ("Alas and well may Erin weep. , that Connaught lies in slumber sleep"), to be followed by a roaring challenge, the gauntlet thrown down: "The West's Awake! The West's Awake! Sing O, Hurrah, let England Quake!" (Is it any accident that this is reported to be the favorite song of Senator Eugene McCarthy?) Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited Ireland in 1835, said, after hearing tales of the times of Cromwell and William of Orange: "Whatever one does, the memory of the great persecutions is not forgotten, and who sows injustice must sooner or later reap the fruits."
In the end, the British finally were to reap the bitter fruits. A brave little band of poets and socialists stormed the General Post Office in Dublin on Easter Monday, 1916, and though they failed, before the year was out the first large hole had been blown through the ramparts of the British Empire. By 1921, after a murderous guerrilla war masterfully commanded by Michael Collins, Ireland found herself largely at peace and almost free at last.
All of that is in these songs, and so is the feeling of reconciliation that came in the years afterward. It is no accident either that The Boys sing songs from other countries, including England. "You know, from a distance of three thousand miles," Liam said one day, "a lot of the old grievances and animosities between the Irish, the English, the Welsh and the Scots which seemed so important and personal at home simply disappear. You can see it here in the bar. Any night you can see the English lads in here, the Welsh lads, the Scots lads, in for a song and a carry-on. And it happens that way wherever we go. It's a kind of international brotherhood. Or maybe an international conspiracy."
So this book is a songbook, but it is something more. It records tides of feeling: small joys, large pains, the love of women and weather and sea, hunger, despairs, defeat, the smell of the Irish countryside, and the great piled banks of cloud, under which all those young men dreamed for seven hundred years, dreamed in the silence that was turned into song. And through all the Irish songs an odd figure still moves, the figure that moves through the secret heart of everyone who has ever passed through the Irish experience. He is the unnamed hero of all the songs the Clancys sing. It is he who sings with compassion at the end of an evening, when the quiet strains of "The Parting Glass" are raised to say good night. He knows what war it was they speak of in "Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye."