12.09.09

Remembering Liam Clancy

The legendary Irish folk singer, whom Bob Dylan once called the greatest balladeer, died last week at 74. Daniel Menaker has a bloody good cry.

Liam Clancy, the last of the Irish folk-song group the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, died at the age of 74 on Friday at Bon Secours Hospital in Cork. He had a lovely voice that could sing a slow ballad as if he were living in it—Bob Dylan famously called him the best ballad singer he'd ever heard—and also a clarion voice that could sing a fast song with the vitality and impact of good whiskey. (The word comes from the Gaelic for "water of life.") "They turned you into a stamp," he was told on a late-night talk show in Ireland some years ago, and a picture came up on the screen of the group on a 75-cent Irish franking. And that's how famous the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were. A stamp, so small, is a recognition of grandeur.

“You can’t have a life,” he once said of being a celebrity. Oh, but you can give life to others when you have this kind of musical exuberance.

In 1961, the Clancys made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, but the next act had gone missing and so they were asked to perform a second song, and that's how it started. In America, they had everybody wearing "Aran jumpers"—those white, wide-ribbed Irish sweaters—in the '60s, and their songs of rebellion often could be read as glosses on the civil unrest here. Dr. Liam Clancy (his honorary degree was conferred on him by the University of Limerick; how perfect!) was usually the lead singer on one of the act's most acerbic numbers, "Isn't It Grand, Boys [To Be Bloody Well Dead]," sadly appropriate to this moment. "Look at the mourners/Bloody great hypocrites," goes one of the song's verses.

"You can't have a life," he once said of being a celebrity. Oh, but you can give life to others when you have this kind of musical exuberance. I made my daughter, now 23, listen to "Isn't It Grand" on YouTube. She seemed indifferent. Later I saw that she was watching a different Clancy Brothers video on computer.. "Aha—you like them!" I said. "I hate them," she said, with a big embarrassed smile on her face. I recall hearing the group's first album, "The Rising of the Moon," when I was a kid and thinking, "Enh—no harmony." It was pretty strict, but it turned out to be an important part of the modern-day rescue of Irish and Celtic music. It opened a cultural world for me and millions of others. Soon, the harmony and the popularization came in, but since the spirit of centuries of suffering, high mischief and humor, and verbal brilliance remained in their performances, they remained special. "The Rising of the Moon" now sounds like the concentrate from which the group's later music was made.

I like to think that none of the mourners for Liam Clancy are hypocrites—bloody, great, or any other kind. "Let's not have a sniffle," the chorus continues—"Let's have a bloody good cry." Amen, I say. Then: "And always remember the longer you live/The sooner you'll bloody well die."

Daniel Menaker was an editor at The New Yorker for 20 years before joining Random House, where he was editor-in-chief from 2003 to 2007. He has won two O. Henry Awards, is the author of two collections of stories and a novel, The Treatment. His new book about conversation, A Good Talk, will be published in January. He can be reached at danielmenaker.com.