Liam Clancy, of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, was sensationally popular in the US in the 1960s. Michael McDonagh on a play that relives the era.
Learn time it is easy to forget just how successful, how important and how influential the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were in the history of Irish popular music.
In 1961 they were the first, the pioneers, as they broke in America on national Television playing to 40 Million people on the network Ed Sullivan Show.
They got a major record company deal with a big ad- vance and took Irish folk music to millions of people for the first time, increasing The Clancys and Tommy Makem became known for their Aran jumpers, originally sent to them by their worried mum. to hear a selection of the music of the Clancy Brother’s that I had not really listened to for some time.
I last saw them live on 25 October 1965 at the Royal Albert Hall, although I had seen Liam many times since and knew him personally for many years.
The picture on the hand bill for this play is slightly misleading as it is a classic still of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, so you could be forgiven for ex- pecting a kind of jukebox musical of their songs per- he sales of their signature Aran Sweaters by 700 per cent.
In this remarkable process they got a Grammy nomination in 1962 for their first album on CBS and at that time were out selling the Beatles in Amer- ica. They even played the song No Irish Here for JFK in the White House.
Not bad for a bunch of brothers, the sons of a cobbler from Carrick-on-Suir in Tipperary, who had left home to become actors in America. At the time they were unheard of at home but their fame soon spread and by the mid-60s they were touring the world selling out venues like the Royal Albert Hall.
Their simple trick was to take traditional Irish slow folk ballads, sea- shanties and drinking songs and speed them up so that their concerts were joyous raucous occasions, they invented the ‘Craic’.
They still did emotional slow ballads and told whimsical stories but basically they were full on in-your-face fast Irish folk like nobody had done before. Bob Dylan was much influenced and full of praise as they hung out with him in the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village. As writer Frank McCourt said ‘they were the first’.
Before them there were dance bands and show bands and ceilidh bands but not since Count John McCormack had Irish singers captured international attention like the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. They opened the gates’.
So a trip to Hampstead’s Pentameters Theatre was for me a stroll down memory lane on two counts. I had not been to the this the- atre above a pub since 1969 or 1970 and I was astonished to discover that the original founder Leonie Scott-Matthews was still formed by a ‘cloned’ Clancy Brothers group.
That is not the case. This is a play about the interesting back- story of Liam Clancy, how he left for America to es- cape a small town in Ireland and how the group that became legends came to be formed at a time of cultural change.
Notwithstanding the small space and cast of just three this play by Tom O’Brien nevertheless packs the evening with the classic songs of their repertoire, telling the story of his relationship with his devoted mother, played convincingly by Dympna Messenger.
The scene is set mainly in the kitchen of the family home in Carrick–on–Suir. Visiting the home on a mission to find Irish songs is an eccentric volatile American divorcee, Diane Hamilton, played with spirit by Roisin Monaghan. Diane was a daughter of Harry Frank Guggenheim, one of the richest men in America.
Aged just 20 and twelve years younger than the predatory feisty American woman there is the young Liam Clancy, the baby of the family, born when his mother was 47 as “the shakings of the bag”. Liam is played by Toby Lee, who al- though he is physically different to the Liam Clancy I knew and has a different vocal tone he carries off the demanding role to represent how young, ambitious and naïve the young Liam Clancy was. Through the dialogue with his mother and Diane and by speaking directly to the audience, as well as performing the songs we are engaged with the narrative of these complex relationships.
Firstly here in Ireland then in Connecticut in America, as the turbulent non-sexual relationship the young impresers whom he hardly knew. To supplement their lack of income from being actors they started to sing together to raise some money, wearing the Aran sweaters their mother had sent them to protect them from the cold winter in America, taking the country by storm as the American Folk boom began.
The unique collection of songs is essential to this story and the audience is encouraged to sing along to the familiar favourites, I’ll Tell Me Ma, The Rising Of The Moon, Wild Rover, Whistling Gypsy, The Holy Ground, Hard Times.
Without these songs, learned at the fireside from their mother, songs that are embedded in our souls we would never have had The Dubliners, The Fureys or the Pogues or a thousand other ballad and folk bands since the 1960s.
This cast of three express well the creative claustrophobia of growing up in a small town in Catholic Ireland with a domineering and religious mother causing all her sons to leave her, then finding that it is their family bond as brothers steeped in music that creates the success but ultimately divides them, through rivalry and personal ambition.
This charming, warm amusing little production in this tiny little theatre will bring back so many memories to anybody who loves Irish music and who wants to be reminded of times past at home. This play directed by John Dunne is well worth seeing and en- joying as you will know all the songs. You can stamp your feet and have a good sing along, remembering just how good the Clancys were.
I’ll Tell Me Ma: The Liam Clancy Story at the Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead. Tickets are £13 and it runs until Sun- day 29 November.