Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem

THE onslaught of Irish music was cleverly, albeit inadvertently, orchestrated from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

If the Dubliners had led the assault from their base in the Irish capital, then they were ably supported in far-off New York City by a group of brothers in exile and their mate. And in even further off East London, on the eastern seaboard of the southern most country in Africa, we came under the influence of both groups around the same time – and that was in my high school years in the early 1970s.

We certainly missed the rise of both groups in the 1960s, but more than made up for it in the Seventies. And, while the Dubliners offered a kind of in your face, take us or leave us attitude, it was the Clancy Brothers who proffered a more artistic face. They, to my mind, aimed deliberately to make beautiful music, which is not to say that the Dubliners were not capable of the sublime in their own right. But there was something about the harmonising of those three brothers – Tom, Paddy and Liam – along with Tommy Makem, which gave the Clancys a slightly different focus. But how did they come to leave old Ireland and head for the new world, where they counted the likes of Bob Dylan as one of their early “fans”. And isn’t the world full of coincidences. While writing this, I had just returned from a dental appointment, and in the waiting room picked up a copy of the August, 2007, edition of Time magazine. And then, while searching for some Clancys lyrics on the Net I stumbled on a blogsite, if that’s the term, where someone was paying tribute to Tommy Makem. I hadn’t even heard that this legend had died. It was sadly confirmed for me in an obituary, complete with colour picture of him with banjo, in that edition of Time magazine. Thus ended an era, but of course their music lives on through their albums. But let’s see what Wikipedia has to say about them.

As usual, Wikipedia starts with a brief overview of the band, whom they say were “an Irish folk music singing group, most popular in the 1960s, who were credited with popularising Irish traditional music in the United States”. Born in Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary, they only started playing together when they emigrated to the US where, in 1955, a year before I was born, they met Tommy Makem in New York City. They became known as The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. A good point made by Wikipedia is that they were “primarily vocalists”, which I touched on earlier, though Makem was “an accomplished banjo and tin whistle player”, and Liam played the guitar well, while Pat, or Paddy, also played the harmonica. They often were accompanied by other musicians, including the legendary Pete Seeger. The difference with the Dubliners is that they built their sound around accomplished musicians playing fiddle, banjo, mandolin, harmonica and acoustic guitars.

And where else would an Irish folk music group in America start out than at small clubs in Greenwich Village. By 1962 they had played to a packed Carnegie Hall, signifying that Irish music, and The Clancys, had arrived, their cream Aran sweaters throughout their careers a symbol of their humble roots in rural Ireland. Reading this introduction, I do find it odd that no reference is made to the Dubliners, who were essentially perfoming the same Irish music revolution simultaneously across the ocean. The insert does note that an American folk revival had begun in the US at the time, and that composers like Ewan MacColl were popularising old traditional songs back in Ireland – thanks to people like the Dubliners. But in the US, it was the Clancys and Makem who tapped into a populace, a large segment of whom were ever keen to identify with an Irish heritage. Indeed, the passage of people between Ireland and the US is the theme for numerous ballads. Wikipeida says it was the Clancy’s “boisterous performances that set them apart, taking placid classics such as Brennan On The Moor and giving them a boost of energy and spirit...” They also played the mournful ballads with “due reverence”. It was a recipe for success. And they were fortunate to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1961, performing a double set after the last-minute cancellation of another act. One of their fans was a man who traced his ancestors back to Ireland, one John F Kennedy, for whom they performed at the White House in 1963.

The Clancys loved rebel songs, probably even more than the Dubliners, and would also often preface them with a bit of poetry from one of Ireland’s many great poets, or with speeches from famous political leaders. Names like Pearce, Connolly, McDermott and McBride were part of our knowledge base, even though we knew very little about their roles. They kept cropping up in songs about the Irish rebellions against the English, so in a sense became our heroes as well.

The Rising of the Moon

What the Clancys did do was predate the Dubliners by six or seven years, bringing out the first of more than 50 albums as early as 1956. Their recorded history, as it were, is the same age as I am. That first album was The Rising of the Moon, also known, says Wikipedia, as Irish Songs of Rebellion. We did not follow the band like out and out groupies. As with so many other bands, we lost contact with them, while always savouring their music. So their history is all new to me, including, sadly, the deaths of key players, like Tommy Makem. It seems they split up in 1975, with Liam and Makem reforming as a duo and releasing several albums. The other brothers were joined by older brother Bobby, and their nephew, accomplished musician Robbie O’Connell. Indeed, I bought a tape by this line-up while in the UK in 1990. Wikipedia says the original line-up did reform for special concerts, notably in 1984. When Tom Clancy died in 1990 – I never even heard about that, despite living in the UK at the time – Bobby replaced him, and the Clancy Brothers and Robbie O’Connell continued to tour the world. They performed their last concert in Clonmel, Tipperary, in 1998. Bobby died in 2002. And as the century ended, a next generation of Clancys started performing with the older guys.

A little snippet of interest is that their mother used to knit those Aran sweaters for her many sons originally. While they feature on many album covers, they were not always worn live on stage.

The Bold Fenian Men

The best guide to their progress is the albums they released. I have been able to find reasonably complete disocographies, but not the track lists for all the albums. One, The Bold Fenian Men, from the early 1960s, has been particularly elusive. I did a quick search and found that a “mint” copy of the album was being offered for $45. But no track listing. However, I did find the title track’s lyrics, which instantly reminded me of what an impact this, for us, remote piece of history had. And it was all down to the beauty of the song, and the powerful way it was presented by the group. “ ‘Twas down by the glenside, I met an old woman / She was picking young nettles and she scarce saw me coming / I listened a while to the song she was humming / Glory O, Glory O, to the bold Fenian men.” And you really do experience the whole emotional thrust of that line, as sung by the group. “ ‘Tis fifty long years since I saw the moon beaming / On strong manly forms and their eyes with hope gleaming / I see them again, sure, in all my daydreaming / Glory O, Glory O, to the bold Fenian men.” I had little idea at the time who the Fenians were, but did know it was about Ireland’s struggle, and that was enough for me. The romanticising of political struggles is particularly easy to do when you are at a remote distance from them. Imagine how hard it was for those living through these crises to still turn the process into poetry. “Some died on the glenside, some died near a stranger / And wise men have told us that their cause was a failure / They fought for old Ireland and they never feared danger / Glory O, Glory O, to the bold Fenian men.” But the conviction of the songwriter in the cause of Ireland’s freedom shines through: “I passed on my way, God be praised that I met her / Be life long or short, sure I’ll never forget her / We may have brave men, but we’ll never have better / Glory O, Glory O, to the bold Fenian men.” In so far as the Dubliners were anti-establishment, to me the Clancys and Tommy Makem were openly political, using the stage as a platform to continue the struggle. In South Africa we had the masses chanting anti-apartheid songs, in African languages and therefore inaccessible to myself, while doing the toyi-toyi, a kind of massed war dance entailing a mobile marking of time. The Clancys took their struggle to the stages of the United States, and no doubt mustered considerable support for the cause of, well of a struggle already won with the independence of the Republic of Ireland from England in 1921, but also for the rights of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland and for the reintegration of those six counties into a united Ireland – in which the Protestants would then be a small minority. Ah, to think that the Christian religion can so have divided a country. But then in South Africa such a thing is almost impossible to conceive. Here, religion is hardly a political issue. It has always been about race, skin colour. But beneath the surface, we are also dealing with cultural differences. As liberated black South Africans become increasingly westernised – and there is no other term for a process of accepting western lifestyles built around modern technology like cars, TVs, cellphones and so on – so race will become less of a factor. Already today, some 15 years after the advent of democracy, our children are mixing freely at school, although the integration of neighbourhoods is a slower process.

In Person at Carnegie Hall

But enough of this political waffle, what of the Clancy Brothers’ music? I remember in probably the early 1970s we had this cassette tape – made from one of those brothers’ albums, no doubt - of a live Clancys concert in which they sing some children’s songs. Bizarrely, near the end, the tape was overtaped, so from these delightful songs from their youth in Tipperary, it would suddenly cut to some heavy lead guitar from Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage. So I never got to hear how that album ended. But somewhere down the line I managed to again tape that album – I can’t remember where, and I now have the last couple of songs. Each time I reach the point where Zappa is “meant” to kick in, I get anxious. Not because I didn’t enjoy the Zappa interlude, but just because the contrast was so stark. The album, I have discovered, was their famous In Person at Carnegie Hall, and was released in 1963 or 1964 (different websites have different dates). From the outset, it seems, Liam Clancy (the youngest of the brothers) and Tommy Makem “led” the band. Liam played acoustic guitar and Makem played banjo and tinwhistle. Tom and Paddy Clancy were there as vocalists alongside the other two. This album, of course, contains several key rebel songs which impacted strongly on us, not least of which was Johnson’s Motor Car, the first song on the album. This was a delightful story about how the IRA commandeered Dr Johnson’s car, after he was summoned to attend an “urgent case”. We call it car-jacking today, but this song gives it the nobility of being carried out for “the cause”. “It was down by Brannigan’s corner one morning I did stray / I met a fellow rebel and to me he did say / We have orders from our Captain to assemble at Dunbar / But how are we to get there without a motor car. / Oh Barney dear be of good cheer I’ll tell you what we’ll do / The Specials they are plentiful but the IRA are few / We’ll send a wire to Johnson to meet us at Stranlar / And we’ll give the boys a jolly good drive in Johnson’s Motor Car. / When Doctor Johnson heard the news he soon put on his shoes / He said this is an urgent case, there is not time to lose / He then put on his castor hat and on his breast a star / You could hear the din going through Glen Fin of Johnson’s Motor Car. / But when he got to the Railway Bridge, the rebels he saw there / Ould Johnson knew the game was up for at him they did stare / He said I have a permit to travel near and far / To hell with your English permit, we want you motor car. / What will my loyal brethren think when they hear the news / My car it has been commandeered by the rebels at Dunluce / We’ll give you a receipt for it, all signed by Captain Barr / And when Ireland gets her freedom, boy, you’ll get your motor car! / Well they put that car in motion and they filled it to the brim / With guns and bayonets shining, which made ould Johnson grim / Then Barney hoisted the Sinn Fein flag and it fluttered like a star / And we gave three cheers for the IRA and Johnson’s motor car.” There was rapturous applause and much laugher for this act of “appropriation” from the Carnegie Hall audience, as the song ends with the guys making beep-beep sounds.

From rebel songs to songs about the drink. “In the sweet county Lim’rick, one cold winter’s night / The turf fires were burning, when I first saw the light /And a drunken old midwife went tipsy with joy / As she danced round the floor with her slip of a boy.” Then the chorus: “Singing ban-ya-na mo if an-ga-na / And the juice of the barley for me.” The Juice Of The Barley was yet another of those songs which encouraged our rather unhealthy interest in alcohol, something that I have only in the past few years, with the advent of light lagers, been able to stem fully. But at the time it was a thing of delight, which I suppose all young people go through. “Well when I was a gossoon of eight years old or so / With me turf and me primer to school I did go. / To a dusty old school house without any door, / Where lay the school master blind drunk on the floor … (and then the chorus). The next verse reads: “At the learning I wasn’t such a genius I'm thinking, (at which Paddy, I think it is, adds, “wasn’t much good at poetry either) / But I soon beat the masters entirely at drinking, / Not a wake nor a wedding for five miles around, / But meself in the corner was sure to be found (chorus). / One Sunday the priest led me out from the altar / Saying you’ll end up your days with your neck in a halter; / And you’ll dance a fine jig between heaven and hell / And his words they did frighten me the truth for to tell (chorus). / So the very next morning as the dawn it did break / I went down to the vestry the pledge for to take, / And there in that room sat the priests in a bunch / Round a big roaring fire drinking tumblers of punch (chorus).” A wistful air is then adopted by the singer. “Well from that day to this I have wandered alone / I’m a jack of all trades and a master of none, / With the sky for me roof and the earth for me floor, / And I’ll dance out my days drinking whiskey galore.” It certainly put a thirst on you!

The older Clancy brothers were theatrically trained, and this shines through in their presentation of poems like the story of O’Driscoll (The Host Of The Air), who has a dream while playing cards. “Then he heard it, high up in the distance, a piper piping away / And never was piping so sad, and never was piping so gay.” My brother Alistair got into 100 Pipers whisky for a time, and one of his favourite lines was to shout out “what was that?”. And when no-one knew what he was talking about, he’d say he thought he had just heard the sound of 100 pipers. And so would commence another drinking session, with the Dubliners, Clancys or maybe some bluegrass from the likes of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band as inspiration. And we could really get into a song like Reilly’s Daughter, the next track, which we were convinced had been altered to make it more acceptable. I mean would a young, virile young man have the following thought: “As I was sitting by the fire / Talking to O’Reilly’s daughter / Suddenly a thought came to my head / I’d like to marry O’Reilly’s daughter.” There was a shorter, four letter word, which would have been more appropriate, we believed. It always fascinates me how they spell the words in these choruses. This one goes: “Giddy-i-ay, giddy-i-ay, giddy-i-ay / For the one eyed Reilly Giddy-i-ay (*clap *clap *clap) / Bang it on yer oul’ bass drum.” Anyone who has dated a girl will know that the worst part is dealing with her father. Dads, it seems, can be very protective of their daughters’ virtue. Let’s see how O’Reilly fared: “Reilly played on the big bass drum / Reilly had a mind for murder and slaughter / Reilly had a bright red glittering eye / And he kept that eye on his lovely daughter (chorus).” But the more beautiful the daughter, the more difficult the task. “Her hair was black and her eyes were blue / The colonel & the major & the captain sought her / The sergeant & the private & the drummer boy too / But they never had a chance with Reilly’s daughter (chorus).” And Reilly’s not taking prisoners. “I got me a ring & parson too / Got me a scratch in a married quarter / Settled me down to a peaceful life / Happy as a king with Reilly’s daughter.” Then: “Suddenly a footstep on the stair / Who could it be but Reilly out for slaughter / With two pistols in his hands / Looking for the man who had married his daughter (chorus).” But a young man is not to be toyed with. “I caught Old Reilly by the hair / Rammed his head in a pail of water / Fired his pistols in the air / A damned sight quicker than I married his daughter (chorus).”

From this mayhem, the album makes a major switch, and one is presented with arguably the finest piece of folk singing ever. Liam Clancy’s voice is beautiful. There is no other word for it. His brothers have strong, gusty, characterful voices, but Liam’s is pure beauty. And his rendition of Dominic Behan’s Patriot Game on this album is sublime. The key, I noticed, is how well he enunciates his words – “cru-el England to blame”. I’m glad to see that he also sings about those traitors who “bargained and sold” and not “bargained with souls” as contained in the lyrics I found and used earlier when discussing the Dubliners.

The concert then moves onto a robust rebel song, Legion Of The Rearguard, in which the strummed banjo plays a key role: “Up the Republic, they raised their battle cry / Pearse and McDermott will pray for you on high, / Eager and ready, for love of you they die / Proud march the soldiers of the Rearguard.” Then that rousing chorus: “Legion of the Rearguard, answering Ireland’s call, / Hark their martial tramp is heard from Cork to Donegal, / Wolfe Love and Emmett guide you, though your task be hard, / De Valera leads you, soldiers of the Legion of the Rearguard.” I have to admit having missed out on most of those words as a child, not knowing all the names of those struggle heroes. But get a hold of these powerful lyrics: “Glorious the morning, through flame and shot and shell, / Now rally Ireland, your sons who love you well / Pledged, they’ll defend you, through death or prison cell / Wait for the soldiers of the Rearguard (chorus).” “Crimson the roadside, the prison wall, the cave, / Proof of their valour, go sleep in peace ye brave, / Comrade tread lightly, you’re near a hero’s grave, / Proud die the soldiers of the Rearguard (chorus).”

The next song reveals why the Irish are so musical. Music is in their very language, Gaelic, as the next song proves. Incredibly, it seems most of the people in Carnegie Hall that night knew the Irish words, as they sung along boisterously to Orso Se Do Bheatha Bhaile. Then, as if the juice of the barley wasn’t enough to get us boozing, the following song, Jug Of Punch, reinforced the message. “Twas very early in the month of June / As I was sitting with my glass and spoon / A small bird sat on an ivy bush /And the song he sang was the jug of punch.” We had friends who’d come around and suddenly be confronted by this strange Irish music. Before long, like us, they’d be into the music as well, and would love the songs as much as we did. The chorus goes: “Too-rah-loo-rah-loo Too-rah-loo-rah-lay Too-rah-loo-rah-loo / Too-rah-loo-rah-lay / A small bird sat on an ivy bush / And the song he sang was the jug of punch.” Small wonder the Irish are considered lovers of the tipple, with lyrics like this: “If I were sick and very bad / And was not able to go or stand / I would not think it at all amiss / To pledge my shoes for a jug of punch”. A verse we loved followed: “What more diversion can a man desire / Than to sit him down by a snug coal fire / Upon his knee a pretty wench / And upon the table a jug of punch.” The song is sung with great whooping and shouting, the male voices harmonising superbly. It ends with a sombre message: “And when I’m dead and in my grave / No costly tomb stone will I have / Just lay me down in my native peat / With a jug of punch at my head and feet.”

The lads could be a little rude too, judging by the song, Galway Bay, which followed. Sung, I think, by Tommy Makem, it is a wonderfully witty tune. “Maybe someday, I’ll go back again to Ireland / If my dear old wife would only pass away / She nearly has my heart broke with all her naggin / she’s got a mouth as big as Galway Bay.” In the next verse, a crisp interjection adds humour: “See her drinkin 16 pints of Pabst Blue Ribbon (commercial! Shouts one of the guys) / And then she can walk home without a sway / If the sea were beer instead of salty water / She would live and die in Galway Bay.” Robyn and I spent a couple of days in Galway on the west coast of Ireland and soaked up the atmosphere in a pub where a typical “session” was under way, with people just pitching and playing. We also went to see the film, The Field, which was filmed nearby, starring Richard Harris. It was quite a moving experience. Anyway, Makem continues: “See her drinkin 16 pints of Padgo Murphy’s / When the barman says ‘I think it’s time to go’ / She doesn’t try to speak to him in Gaelic / But a language that the clergy do not know.” The next verse had us thinking lewd thoughts, I’m afraid: “On her back she has tattooed a map of Ireland / And when she takes her bath on Saturday /She rubs the sunlight soap around by Claddaugh / Just to watch the suds roll down on Galway Bay.”

Small wonder the Irish are such a literarily inventive people when you consider the next medley of children’s tunes. One of the lads tells how they recently returned to their home town and attended a party for their little nephews and nieces, where they fell in love with their childhood songs all over again. But, like the Dubliners had “children’s songs” like Wiela Weila, so those in the rural areas were no less “adult”. The sequence starts with them singing “So early in the morning, so early in the morning, so early in the morning, before the break of day …” “When I was young, I had no sense / I bought a fiddle for eighteen pence / the only thing that I could play / Was over the hills and very far away / So early in the morning etc.” The introduction is made over that, after which each of the performers introduces a little section and then performs it. I was fascinated to see how these were spelt, though I could not find the actual lyrics, so will rely on my transcriptions from the album. “One of the first songs I remember singing,” we are told, was about a snail. They would pick them up and “sing songs to them to try to coax them out of their shells and get them to stick their horns out”. But the snails were called Shellicky Bookeys. So the song went: “Shellicky, Shellicky Bookey / Put out all your horns / all the ladies are coming to see you”, or suchlike. Then, in the next song, the sea becomes the Ilee Alee O. “There’s a big ship sailing on the Ilee Alee O, / the Ilee Alee O, the Ilee Alee O / there’s a big ship sailing on the Ilee Alee O / High-ho, the Ilee Alee O.” Then Tommy Makem, I think it is, since he is the new Bard of Armagh, tells us that in Armagh “where I was bread and buttered”, it was about 20 miles from the sea and a river flowed right through the town. At high tide on a still summer’s evening when sounds carried clearly from bank to bank …” – and so he embellishes, preparing one for some profundity. Then, he says, you would hear the following: “Ahem, Ahem, Me mother has gone to work / She told me not to play with you / Because you’re in the dirt / And it isn’t because you’re dirty / It isn’t because you’re clean / It’s because you have the whooping cough / And eat margarine.” After the audience has got over that, out comes up with the following: “Up-the-long-ladder-and-down-the-short-rope-to-hell-with-King-Billy-and-God-bless-the-Pope-and-if-that-doesn’t-do-we’ll-tear-you-in-two-and-send-you-to-hell-with-the-red-white-and-blue!”

This is a magic medley. In Wallflowers, again, it is the irreverence of youth that flows through. “Wallflower, wallflower, growing up so high / He has the measles, he’ll never, never die.” Then comes a short, quick piece called Mary The Money, followed by Frosty Weather, which starts slowly: “Frosty weather, snow weather / When the wind blows / We all blow together.” Then comes There Was A Man Of Double Deed, “who sowed his garden full of seed”. When the seeds grow, the birds come for the crop. “And when the birds began to fly, / it was like a shipwreck in the sky”. And so it continues, building up momentum, till finally “and when my back began to break, then I was dead and dead indeed”. Next up was the delightful, if ghoulish, story of how as children on the day after Christmas, St Stephen’s Day, they would go into the fields and kills a little bird called the wren and then dress up and go around from door to door collecting money – ostensibly for “the funeral”. The song they sang was The Wren Song. They explained how some kids would sing it at speed, so they could get to the next house as quickly as possible, while others – the folk-singing types – sang it “slow and deliberately”. The end result, as they do all the versions simultaneously, is a cacophony. While the folk-singers didn’t make much money, they did end up … “in Carnegie Hall”. “The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, / St Stephen’s day was caught in the furze, / Although he was little his honour was great / So jump up, me lads, and give him a treat.” This is the first time I am reading the chorus, which we heard so many times: “Up with the kettle and down with the pan / And give us a penny to bury the wren.” Verse 2. “As I was gone to Killenaule / I met a wren upon a wall, / Up with me wattle and knocked him down / And brought him into Carrick town.” 3. “Droolin, droolin, where’s your nest? / ‘Tis in the bush that I love best / In the tree, the holly tree / Where all the boys do follow me.” 3. “We followed the wren three miles or more / Three miles or more, three miles or more, / Followed the wren three miles or more / At six o’clock in the morning.” 4. “I have a little box under me arm, / Under me arm, under me arm, / I have a little box under me arm, / A penny a tuppence will do it no harm.” 5. “Missus Clancy’s a very good woman / A very good woman, a very good woman / Missus Clancy’s a very good woman / She gave us a penny to bury the wren.” It was near the end of this song that Frank Zappa would take over on that tape over 30 years ago. This time, my tape played on and I picked up on the last few songs on the album. I’m not sure if they were still part of the children’s medley, because they become a lot more political. “Some say the devil’s dead / Some say the devil’s dead, Some say the devil’s dead / And buried in Killarney / Some say he rose again / Some say he rose again / Some say he rose again / And joined the British army.” Then there comes the bizarre “are you ready for a war for we are the English”. “Yes, we’re ready for a war,” comes the reply, “because we are the Irish.” Then the one-upmanship begins, a bit like the knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who loses all his limbs. “Now we’ve only got one eye for we are the English / Now we have no eyes at all for we are the Irish.” And so it continues, with the English having only one arm and the Irish no arms at all, one legs and no legs at all. “Now we are all dead and gone for we are the English.” The reply: “No we are alive again for we are the Irish…” On the strength of this “victory”, the legendary “Up-the-long-ladder-and-down-the-short-rope-to-hell-with-King-Billy-and-God-bless-the-Pope-and-if-that-doesn’t-do-we’ll-tear-you-in-two-and-send-you-to-hell-with-the-red-white-and-blue!” is repeated to much laughter and loud applause.

After this boisterous bit of blarney, the time arrives for Liam Clancy to present yet another of the most beautiful pieces of folk singing ever heard, as he sings The Parting Glass, accompanied on acoustic guitar. With the other guys joining in at appropriate times, this is a superb piece of male harmonising. The album ends with the benediction: “God bless …”

Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy

With that album, probably our first experience of the Clancys, out the way, it is perhaps time to look at the lives of Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy.

A Makem website says he was the son of “legendary source singer Sarah Makem”. He was known as “the modern day Bard of Armagh” and regarded as “the Godfather” of Irish music – though I hope not with the violent connotations.

“Armed with his banjo, tinwhistle, poetry, stagecraft and his magnificent baritone voice, Tommy has been mesmerizing audiences for more than four decades. He has expanded and reshaped the boundaries of Irish culture, and infused a pride in that culture in the Irish, and a quest for knowledge of that culture in countless others.”

After his highly successful career with the Clancys, Makem pursued a solo career from 1969. Then in 1975, both he and Liam Clancy were booked for solo acts at a festival in Cleveland, Ohio. They were persuaded to do a set together, and thus began a new partnership which lasted until March, 1988, and which earned them an Emmy nomination and several platinum and gold records. Among numerous awards, in 1999 the World Folk Music Association awarded him its Lifetimes Achievement Award. And this looks like it should be a gem: in 1994, he completed a two-hour television special, Tommy Makem’s Ireland, which has been screened by 320 stations around the US. This was the first of several musical specials he did with WMHT, with guest including Judy Collins and Pete Seeger. But for most of us, he is best known as a singer and a songwriter. Farewell To Carlingford is a song of great beauty, while Four Green Fields is a classic metaphor for the Irish separation. Among his other songs are The Rambles Of Spring, Gentle Annie and The Winds Are Singing Freedom.

Liam Clancy, the youngest of the brothers, started writing and painting as a teenager in Carrick-on-Suir. Like his brothers, he had a theatrical bent, and before he was 20, had founded a dramatic society and produced, directed and starred in The Playboy of the Western World.

A website on Liam notes that in 1955, American song collector Diane Hamilton visited the Clancy home while on a tour of Ireland. Liam accompanied her to Keady, County Armagh, where they met Sarah Makem and her son, Tommy. Liam and Tommy emigrated to America the following year, pursuing careers in acting, both on stage and television. Liam began singing with his elder brothers at fundraising events for the Cherry Lane Theatre and the Guthrie benefits – presumably something to do with Woody. Then the brothers and Tommy Maken began recording on Paddy Clancy’s Tradition label – and the rest is history as, switching to Columbia Records, they capitalised on the great 1960s folk revival that swept the nation.

In 1973, Liam went solo, becoming an established television performer at his base in Calgary, Canada. After his stint with Makem he joined his brothers and Robbie O’Connell, while also playing with his Fairweather Band and with the Phil Coulter Orchestra. In the late 1990s he toured with his son, Donal, and Robbie O’Connell. Clancy, O’Connell and Clancy released two highly praised albums which I’d love to hear. If his son has a voice anything as good as Liam’s it will be superb. In the early 2000s he was still performing at theatres, pubs and festivals, while also running a recording studio from his estate in Ring, County Waterford.

Isn’t It Grand, Boys

So much for the history, it was the music back then that interested us. Freedom’s Sons from 1966 was an album we got into in a big way, with its emphasis on rebel songs. And while The Bold Fenian Men was also appreciated for the same reasons, it too continues to elude me. But one album which I’ve been able to pin down that we had and thoroughly enjoyed was Isn’t It Grand, Boys (also 1966), the title song of which is a typically Irish take on the whole question of mortality. “Always remember the longer you live, the sooner you bloody well die.” We would sing it with gusto, revelling in the use of the word bloody, which was frowned upon as a swear word. “Look at the coffin, / With its golden handles! / Isn’t it grand boys, / To be bloody well dead!” Then the chorus: “Let’s not have a sniffle, / Let’s have a bloody good cry! / And always remember, the longer you live, / The sooner you bloody well die!” 2. “Oh look at the mourners, / Bloody great hypocrites! / Isn’t it grand boys, / To be bloody well dead! (chorus)” 3. “Look at the flowers, / All bloody withered! / Isn’t it grand boys, / To be bloody well dead! (chorus)” 4. “Look at the preacher / Bloody nice fellow / Isn’t it grand boys / To be bloody well dead (chorus).” Then, finally, “Look at the widow, / Bloody great female! / Isn’t it grand boys, / To be bloody well dead! (chorus)”.

Another cracker-jack song from this album is the Galway Races, which the Dubliners also did beautifully. “As I rode down to Galway town to seek for recreation / On the seventeenth of August me mind being elevated / There were multitudes assembled with their tickets at the station / Me eyes began to dazzle and I’m goin’ to see the races.” The chorus reads: “With your whack-fa-the-da-for-the-diddle-ee-iddle-day.” 2. “There were passengers from Limerick and passengers from Nenagh / And passengers from Dublin and sportsmen from Tipperary / There were passengers from Kerry, and all quarters of our nation / And our member, Mr Hearst, for to join the Galway Blazers (chorus). 3. “There were multitudes from Aran, and members from New Quay shore / Boys from Connemara and the Clare unmarried maidens / There were people from Cork city, who were loyal, true and faithful / Who brought home the Fenian prisoners from diverse foreign nations (chorus).” 4. “It’s there you’ll see confectioners with sugarsticks and dainties / The lozenges and oranges, the lemonade and raisins! / The gingerbread and spices to accomodate the ladies / And a big crubeen for thruppence to be pickin’ while you’re able (chorus).” 5. “It’s there you’ll see the gamblers, the thimbles and the garters / And the spotting Wheel of Fortune with the four and twenty quarters / There was others without scruple pelting wattles at poor Maggy / And her father well-contented and he lookin’ at his daughter (chorus).” 6. “It’s there you’ll see the pipers and the fiddlers competing / The nimble footed dancers a-tripping over the daisies / There were others crying cigars and lights and bills for all the races / With the colors of the jockeys and the prize and horses’ ages (chorus).” 7. “It’s there you’ll see the jockeys and they’re mounted out so stately / The pink, the blue, the orange, and green, the emblem of our nation / When the bell was rung for starting, all the horses seemed impatient / I thought they never stood on ground their speed was so amazing (chorus).” I identified with this last verse, which spoke of a tolerant society so different to the one we were growing up in: “There was half a million people there from all denominations / The Catholic, the Protestant, the Jew, and Presbyterian / There was yet no animosity, no matter what persuasion / But ‘failte’ and hospitality inducin’ fresh acquaintance (chorus).” Small wonder I did not know what was being said much of the time. There are a lot of words we were unfamiliar with, like failte and crubeen, which I won’t be looking up for you.

For sheer beauty, Mingulay Boat Song off this album is hard to beat. “Heel yo ho, boys; let her go, boys; / Bring her head round, into the weather, / Hill you ho, boys, let her go, boys / Sailing homeward to Mingulay / What care we though, white the Minch is? / What care we for wind or weather? / Let her go boys; every inch is / Sailing homeward to Mingulay. / Wives are waiting, by the pier head, / Or looking seaward, from the heather; / Pull her round, boys, then you’ll anchor / ’Ere the sun sets on Mingulay. / Ships return now, heavy laden / Mothers holdin’ bairns a-cryin’ / They’ll return, though, when the sun sets / They’ll return to Mingulay.” Wikipedia says Mingulay is from the Scottish Gaelic Miughlaigh. It is the second largest of the Bishop’s Isles in the Outer Hebrides and is located some 16km south of Barra. The album ends on a quick-paced, rollicking note, with O’Donnell Abu. Again, this was a song we loved at the time, but we never really discovered what they were singing about. So let’s take a closer look: “Proudly the note of the trumpet is sounding / Loudly the war cries arise on the gale / Fleetly the steed by Lough Swilly is bounding / To join the thick squadrons on Saimer’s green vale.” You’ll see why the lyrics of these songs are difficult to pick up in the next verse, which is littered with local names unfamiliar to most. But it is the impetus which these lyrics give that The Clancys and Makem were able to exploit to such great effect. Say these words out loud and you’ll see what I mean: “On every mountaineer, strangers to flight or fear / Rush to the standard of dauntless Red Hugh / Bonnaught and Gallowglass, throng from each mountain pass / Onward for Erin O’Donnell Abu.” Even the word, Abu, is something alien to most of us. This is another traditional Irish song, written with great passion about yet another great battle with the Anglo-Saxons. Were these, I wonder, used to inspire the men who, usually against all the odds, fought bloody wars against a far more powerful neighbour, and invader. “Princely O’Neill to our aid is advancing / With many a chieftain and warrior clan / A thousand proud steeds in his vanguard are prancing / ’Neath the borderers brave from the banks of the Bann / Many a heart shall quail under its coat of mail / Deeply the merciless foeman shall rue / When on his ears shall ring bourn on the breeze’s wing / Tir Conwell’s dread war cry, O’Donnell Abu.” I wonder if my former headmaster, Eric Cragg, at the then Clifton Park (now Hudson Park) High in East London, had heard this when he wrote the school song, which starts: “Fearless as the eagle, we’ll be steadfast and bold…” Consider the next verse: “Wildly o’er Desmond the war wolf is howling / Fearless the eagle sweeps over the plain / The fox in the streets of the city is prowling / And all who would scare them are banished or slain / On with O’Donnall then, fight the old fight again / Sons of Tir Conwell are valiant and true / Make the proud Saxon feel Erin’s avenging steel / Strike for your country O’Donnell Abu.” From this I gather O’Donnell Abu was a war cry, which is the sort of emotion the Clancys were able to tap into in these “happy” war songs.

Home Boys Home

Another favourite album of ours from the time was Home Boys Home, which we listened to relentlessly. I remember, a school friend, Wayne Rowland, was one of those who came around to our house and grew to love these songs. He and another mate, Peter Marsden, settled on the Wild Coast in the Transkei in the late 1970s to escape military conscription. The Transkei had nominal independence at the time, so they were “safe” from the clutches of the apartheid machine. Both became “white Xhosas”, surfing and living off the land to a large extent. I lost touch with them, though my brother Donald, another avid surfer, met up with them on occasion during visits to the Transkei. I know that Peter was fairly fluent in Xhosa even before he left for the Transkei, and I’m sure his command of the language would only have increased down the years of his “exile”. Tragically, a few years ago, he was the victim of a random robbery – shot dead for an old car he had parked at his modest home.

Home Boys Home, from 1968, was arguably the group’s most famous album, because it contains one of the finest songs by a modern composer, Tommy Makem’s Four Green Fields. Patrick, or Paddy, Clancy, in his sleeve notes, says the song is “in the true tradition of the patriotic ballad. Although this song was written by Tommy Makem, the idea of using a secret name for Ireland goes back hundreds of years. The song expresses a deep love of country, the old woman being Ireland, and her four green fields the provinces of Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connaught.” As we had come to learn, it was the province of Ulster, or at least most of it, that was still ruled by Britain, a fact that this song laments. I’m sure the late, great Tommy Makem wouldn’t mind me sharing his greatest work with you: “ ‘What did I have’, / said the fine old woman. / ‘What did I have’, / this proud old woman did say. / ‘I had four green fields, / each one was a jewel. / But strangers came / and tried to take them from me. / But my fine strong sons / They fought to save my jewels. / They fought and they died / And that was my grief’, said she.” Remember, this is sung by Makem, in his rich baritone, with all the passion and poignancy of one who feels deeply. 2. “ ‘Long time ago’, / said the fine old woman, / ‘Long time ago’, / this proud old woman did say. / ‘There was war and death, / plundering and pillage. / My children starved / by mountain, valley and stream. / And their wailing cries / They reached the very heavens. / And my four green fields / ran red with their blood’, said she.” Is that not a terribly beautiful metaphor? 3. “ ‘What have I now’, / said the fine old woman. / ‘What have I now’, / this proud old woman did say. / ‘I have four green fields, / one of them’s in bondage. / In strangers’ hands, / that try to take it from me. / But my sons have sons / As brave as were their fathers. / And my four green fields / will bloom once again’, said she. / And my four green fields / will bloom once again’, said she.” Well, I think Tommy Makem lived long enough to see the Reverend Ian Paisley, who we would call a “verkrampte” – narrow-minded bigot – in South Africa, finally reach some sort of power-sharing deal with his Catholic compatriots in Northern Ireland. Whether the four fields will ever be completely united again under the Irish flag remains to be seen.

While that was the highlight of the album, there was much else to stir one’s passions and inspire one. At the time, we almost wished we were Irish, so closely did we relate to these songs. The opening track, Maintain Tay, reveals instantly what it is, apart from the great vocals, that sets the Clancys apart from the Dubliners. It is the use of a double bass, which gives their music a richer, rounder sound than the Dubliners achieved. It is more listenable, unless, like me, you are such a Dubliners devotee that you will broach no criticism of their music. “Gather up the pots and the old tin cans …” is how the song begins. I know if I find the lyrics I’ll want to include them, so let’s leave it at that. Suffice to say that Mountain Tay, or Tea, is another term for hard liquor – like moonshine, poteen, mountain dew, red biddy, holy water, the fire or White Lightning. The next track is also about whiskey, and is sung unaccompanied by, I think, Tom or Paddy, with the others joining in with the chorus: “Whiskey is the life of man / Whiskey from an old tin can / Whiskey oh, Johnny oh / Rising up from down below …” Again, I daren’t go into it. Paddy Clancy says in his sleeve notes that the word whiskey comes from the Gaelic, “Uisge Geatha”, meaning “water of life”. Similarly, since it is also grain-based, beer is known as “liquid bread”. Small wonder that at the time we were rather taken with Irish whiskey, with Jameson’s and Old Bushmills being among our favourites. As usual, the album varies the tempo of the songs, so the next number, sung beautifully by Liam Clancy, is a love song, B For Barney. Then Tommy Makem powers back, accompanied by some great banjo, with Black Cavalry, which is a song, not about war, but, it emerges, about fleas. It is another of those songs we knew so well, but the lyrics were a bit difficult to pick up due to the obscure place names: “In the first of me downfall I put out the door, / And I straight made me way on for Carrick-on-Suir; / Going out by Rathronan ’twas late in the night / Going out the west gate for to view the gaslight” – then slap into the chorus – “Radley fal the diddle I / Radley fal the riddle airo.” It is another amusing story put into verse: “There I met with a youth and unto him I said / ‘Would you kindly direct me to where I’ll get a bed?’ / It was then he directed me down to Cook’s Lane, / To where old Dick Darby kept an old sleeping cage / There I put up and down ’til I found out the door, / And I cried, ‘Must I then spend the night on the floor?’ / And the missus came out and these words to me said, / ‘If you give me three coppers I’ll give you a bed.’ / She took me upstairs and she put out the light, / And in less than five minutes I had to show fight. / In less than five more, sure the story was worse, / For the fleas came about me and brought me a curse. / All round me body they formed an arch, / And all round me body they played the dead march. / The bloody old major gave me such a nip / That he nearly had taken the use of me hip. / Now I’m going to me study, these lines to pen down, / And if any poor traveller should e’er come to town, / If any poor traveler benighted like me, / Oh, beware of Dick Darby and the black cavalry.”

After that came Four Green Fields, written Greenfields on the album, and then the title track, Home Boys Home, with Liam again to the fore. It is a song also done superbly by the Dubliners, and concerns a boarder who courts a sewing maid in the 19th century. “Well who wouldn’t be a sailor lad, sailing on the main, / To gain the good will of his captain’s good name, / He came ashore one evening for to be, / And that was the beginning of me old true love and me.” Then that rousing chorus: “And it’s home boys home, home I’d like to be, / Home for a while in me own country, / Where the Oak and the Ash,and the bonny Rowan tree, / Are all growing greener in the old country.” Omitting the chorus, this is how the story proceeds: “Well I asked her for a candle for to light me way to bed, / And likewise for a handkerchief to tie around me head, / She tended to me needs like a young maid aught to do, / And then I said to her now would you leap in with me too.” 3. “Well she jumped into bed making no alarm, / Thinking a young sailor lad could do to her no harm, / Well I hugged her and I kissed her the whole night long, / Till she wished the short night had been seven years long.” 4. Well early next morning the sailor lad arose, / And into Mary’s apron threw a handful of gold, / Saying take this me dear for the mischief that I’ve done, / For tonight I fear I’ve left you with a daughter or a son.” 5. “Well if it be a girl child send her out to nurse, / With gold in her pocket and silver in her purse, / And if it be a boy child, he’ll ware the jacket blue, / And go climbing up the riggin’ like his daddy used to do.” What appealed so much about these songs was that they were old; echoes of a bygone era.

Side 2 opens with Liam singing a delightful song about a woman whose sister gets married off, but she’s left on the shelf. In Old Maid In A Garrett the woman laments: “Now I’ve often heard it said from me father and me mother / That going tae a wedding is the making of another / Well, if this be true, I will go without a biddin / O kind providence, won’t you send me tae a wedding.” Then the chorus: “And its O dear me, how would it be, / if I die an old maid in a garret.” 2. “Well, there’s my sister Jean, / She’s not handsome or good looking / Scarcely sixteen and a fella she was courting / Now at twenty-four with a son and a daughter / Here am I at forty-five and I’ve never had an offer.” 3. “I can cook and I can sew and I can keep the house right tidy / Rise up in the morning and get the breakfast ready / There’s nothing in this whole world would make me half so cheery / As a wee fat man to call me his own deary.” 4. “So come landsman or come pinsman, come tinker or come tailor / Come fiddler or come dancer, come ploughboy or come sailor / Come rich man, come poor man, come fool or come witty / Come any man at all that will marry me for pity.” 5. “Well now I’m away home for nobody’s heeding / Nobody’s heeding and nobody’s pleading / I’ll go away to my own bitty garret / If I can’t get a man, then I’ll have to get a parrot.”

It was a lovely song, even though at the time, I never knew all the words. The Irish sense of humour shines through in so many of these traditional folk songs, like nowhere else in the world. Tommy Makem uses the full power of his voice, alongside an accordion, on Bard Of Armagh, a story about a blind harper, which we are going to leap past before it grabs us, in order to focus on another classic, D-Day Dodgers, which I think is sung by Liam, with the others singing alternate verses. It was written by Hamish Henderson of the British Eighth Army, which fought in North Africa and Italy during the Second World War. Some old English toff, Lady Astor, said in a speech to encourage the soldiers going into France on D-Day that those in Italy were “D-Day dodgers”. This, dripping with sarcasm, is Henderson’s reply. “We are the D-Day Dodgers, way off in Italy / Always on the vino, always on the spree; / Eighth Army scroungers and their tanks, / We live in Rome, among the Yanks. / We are the D-Day Dodgers, way out in Italy.” 2. “We landed in Salerno, a holiday with pay, / The Jerries brought the bands out to greet us on the way. / Showed us the sights and gave us tea, / We all sang songs, the beer was free / To welcome D-Day Dodgers to sunny Italy.” 3. “Naples and Casino were taken in our stride, / We didn’t go to fight there, we went just for the ride. / Anzio and Sangro were just names, / We only went to look for dames / The artful D-Day Dodgers, way out in Italy.” 4. “Dear Lady Astor, you think you know a lot, / Standing on the platform, talking tommyrot. / You’re England’s sweetheart and her pride / We think your mouth’s too bloody wide. / We are the D-Day Dodgers, in sunny Italy.” The song then takes on a more mellow mood: “Look around the mountains, in the mud and rain, / You’ll find the scattered crosses, some that have no name. / Heartbreak and toil and suffering gone, / The boys beneath them slumber on. / They are the D-Day Dodgers who stay in Italy.” For added poignancy, this last line is repeated.

That full-bodied Clancys sound is again much to the fore on the next track, a love song called I Once Loved A Lass, which again includes incredible images that I have found inspirational. “I once loved a lass and I loved her so well / I hated all others that spoke of her ill / But now, she’s rewarded me well for my love / For she’s gone to be wed to another.” 2. “When I saw my love go through the church doors / With bride and bridesmaiden, they made a fine show / And I followed along with my heart full of woe /

For now she is wed to another.” 3. “When I saw my love a-sit down to dine / I sat down beside her and I poured out the wine / And I drank to the lass that should have been mine / But now she is wed to another.” I loved this next verse, reading it here for the first time: “The men of yon forest, they ask it of me / ‘How many strawberries grow in the salt sea?’ / And I ask of them back with a tear in my eye / ‘How many ships sail in the forest?’ ” His morbidity is complete. “So, dig me a grave and dig it so deep / And cover it over with flowers so sweet / And I’ll turn in for to take a long sleep / And maybe in time I’ll forget her.” Can anything be as powerful as the emotions generated by “love”? “So, they dug him a grave and they dug it so deep / And covered it over with flowers so sweet / And he’s turned in for to take a long sleep / And maybe by now he’s forgotten.”

But the Clancys would’t allow you to remain maudlin for long, and the album ends stylishly with a brilliant bit of song-writing from down under. Played at a cracking pace, with banjo and tin whistle, this song, like the Pub With No Beer, for me illustrates the close affinity between Ireland and Australia, where a similar sense of humour seems to prevail. The song starts with the chorus: “Here we are in New South Wales, shearing sheep as big as whales / With leather necks and daggy tails and hides as tough as rusty nails.” Then the story: “When shearing comes, lay down your drums / Step to the boards you brand new chums / With a rah-dum, rah-dum, rub-a-dub-dub / We’ll send you back in the lime juice tub.” Then that lovely, punny, chorus. There seems to be a strong camaraderie in Oz built around the mates shearing sheep together. 2. “The brand new chums and cocky sons / Fancy they’re the greatest guns / Fancy they can sheer the wool / But the beggars can only tear and pull.” 3. “Although you live beyond your means / Your daughters wear no crinoleens / Nor are they bothered by boots or shoes / But live wild in the bush with the kangaroo.” 4. “Home, it’s home, I’d like to be / Far from the bush and the back country / Sixteen thousand miles I’ve come / To spend my life as a shearing bum.” And then that chorus again.

How long is a piece of string? The problem with a project of this nature is that with some groups, the extent of their contribution to the world’s music pool is almost limitless. The Clancys and Tommy Makem have poured their souls into Irish music for about half a century, either as the original line-up or in various new permutations. My dilemma is summed up by Liam Clancy on the sleeve notes of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem In Concert (1967). He writes: “Songs, like jokes, seem to emerge endlessly from some underground source. For hundreds of years our gang have been pouring out songs about everything under the sun. They still are. And while ever we can sing for our supper or get anyone to join us in ‘the crack’ as they say, we’ll sing them.”

While most of those songs are “traditional” and stem from those “hundreds of years” Liam Clancy refers to, Tommy Makem was one of those who added to the great melting pot of Irish music. On this album, he does Winds Of Morning, which he wrote on the New York subway which, Liam C tells us, “always inspires him to make songs about mountains and sea and sweat, clean air”. As we observed earlier, he wrote the classic Four Green Fields. But he also wrote a song which will ring a bell with many, even those with little knowledge of Irish music. It is a regular rebel song, and also one that is hauntingly beautiful. I am not sure on which album The Foggy Dew first appeared, but is one of those songs which in Tommy Makem’s lifetime had already become an integral part of Irish culture, both at home and abroad – much as the Beatles’ songs became part of a global culture which transcends all international boundaries, fulfilling John Lennon’s Imagine wish of a world where there are no countries.

Freedom's Sons

The Foggy Dew has a timeless quality; it seems to capture in slow-motion the seminal events of Easter, 1916. I suspect it formed part of the famous Medley Commemorating The 50th Anniversary Of The Uprising Of 1916 on the Freedom’s Sons album of 1966. Eureka! A quick Web search reveals that it is indeed so. This was a brilliant album which I’d dearly like to hear again. It includes songs like Outlawed Raparee, Port Lairge, I’m A Free Born Man (“of the traveling people / got not fixed abode with nomads I am numbered”), Hi For The Beggar Man and When We Were Under The King. Side two starts with the title track, Freedom’s Sons (which inspired the title of my autobiography, such as it is, called Apartheid’s Child … Freedom’s Son), after which comes Green In The Green and then that medley, which really showcased the group’s penchant for a bit of acting and drama. It starts with Foggy Dew, followed by Sean O’Casey’s Drums Under The Window and then William Butler Yeats’ Easter 1916. It is followed by another famous Tommy Makem song, Lord Nelson, about the blowing up of his statue on O’Connell Street.

Here, finally, since there is really no end to the piece of string that is Irish music, is Tommy Makem’s evocative The Foggy Dew: “It was down the glen one Easter morn, to a city fair rode I / There Ireland’s lines of marching men, in squadrons passed me by / No pipes did hum nor battle drum did sound its dread tattoo / But, the Angelus bell o’er the Liffey swell, rang out in the Foggy Dew.” I have tried in my amateurish way, to play this tune on the guitar, where I really got to appreciate that last line. The River Liffey is like an intimate, more accessible River Thames. It is a vital and integral part of the character of Dublin. So the song continues: “Right proudly high over Dublin town, they hung out the flag of war / For, ’twas better to die ’neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud El Bar / And from the plains of Royal Meath, strong men came hurrying through / While Brittania’s sons with their long range guns, sailed in by the Foggy Dew.” The stage is set for a major confrontation between those fighting for their country’s liberation, and those bent on keeping the island as a British colony. “ ’Twas England bade our wild geese go that small nations might be free / But, their lonely graves are by Suvla’s waves on the fringe of the grey North Sea / Oh, had they died by Pearse’s side, or fought with Valera true / Their graves we’d keep where the Fenians sleep, ’neath the hills of the Foggy Dew.” Even though I don’t have this album, I can hear Tommy Makem’s deep, baritone voice singing these words, I think without accompaniment. It is slow and and earnest: “The bravest fell and the sullen bell rang mournfully and clear / For those who died that Easter tide in the springing of the year / And the world did gaze in deep amaze at those fearless men and true / Who bore the fight that freedom’s light might shine through the Foggy Dew.”

If that doesn’t warrant recognition alongside the greatest poetry of the 20th century, I don’t know what does. It is a measure of the sort of literary and musical quality which suffuses so much of Irish traditional music. And we were fortunate, as young whippersnappers, to be able to tap into the work of both the Dubliners and the Clancys and Tommy Makem, arguably the greatest exponents of the idiom, who brought Irish traditional music into the global village and kept it there for half a century. Today, on the back of that success, Irish groups like U2 and the Waterboys, the Pogues and Planxty, the Corrs and the Chieftains – the list just grows and grows – have become household names.

We were fortunate to get into this genre when it was at its freshest – in those incredibly rich 1960s and 1970s, the wellspring of a global musical phenomenon.


Heidi said...

Honestly,I don't know them at all but I think my grandma and grandpa knows them..My grandpa has a collection of their songs..

irish pubs calgary

Illegal Bodies said...

I believe they are truly the greatest Irish group ever I was introduced to them through me grandfather and me mother. I have 4 or 5 of their records plus what ever I could find on the internet, I would like to build up their entire catalog. Do you have any rare eps or albums you have in mp3 up or could transfer to mp3 so we could get their music out there for the next generations?

Illegal Bodies said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

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