Irish balladeer Liam Clancy, last of the Clancy Brothers troupe whose feisty, boozy songs of old Ireland struck a sentimental chord worldwide, died Friday in a Cork hospital. He was 74.
Clancy died in his hospital bed flanked by his wife Kim and daughters Siobhan and Fiona, his manager and family said. He suffered for years against incurable pulmonary fibrosis, the same lung-destroying disease that claimed one of his older singing brothers, Bobby, in 2002.
Ireland’s arts minister, Martin Cullen, led nationwide tributes to Clancy, praising his “superb singing, warm voice and gift for communicating in a unique storytelling style.”
“It was always so obvious with Liam Clancy that he loved what he was doing and his very presence made you feel welcome,” Cullen said.
Clancy, the youngest of 11 children in a County Tipperary household filled with folklore and song, emigrated to the U.S. in 1956 to join two elder brothers, Tom and Patrick, in New York City who were singing on the side as they pursued budding careers as Broadway actors.
But after recording a 1956 album of Irish rebel songs, they grew a New York following as musicians and formed a partnership with Northern Ireland immigrant Tommy Makem. Soon they were earning more as weekend singers in Manhattan bars and clubs than as full-time stage actors.
Scouts for U.S. television’s flagship Ed Sullivan Show spotted them performing in Greenwich Village’s White Horse Tavern, and their 16-minute appearance in March 1961 on the program — extended because of the last-minute cancellation of another act — turned them into an Irish-American folk phenomenon.
Their agent cultivated a schmaltzy appeal to Irish emigrants worldwide, encouraging the Clancy Brothers and Makem to perform in cream-white Aran wool sweaters hand-knit from home as well as tweed fishermen’s caps.
But their up-tempo resurrection of traditionally slow, sad Irish songs made a deeper impression on much of America’s emerging folk artist movement, including Bob Dylan, who paid tribute to Liam Clancy as “the best ballad singer I’d ever heard in my life.”
The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem performed Carnegie Hall, toured Ireland, Britain, Australia and repeatedly throughout the U.S., and recorded more than a dozen albums before breaking up amid arguments over bills, babes and booze in 1974.
“Of course there was a lot of drink. We’d fuel up with whiskey to get up to speed on our way to the next gig. There were a hell of a lot of parties,” Liam Clancy recalled in September in Dublin during a bout of interviews to promote a new documentary on his life and times, “The Yellow Bittern.”
“We were under contract to Playboy, I remember,” Clancy recalled in between taking breaths of oxygen from a tank. “Hugh Hefner would have these parties and there’d be all this champagne about. We were given these little champagne glasses and he’d say: ‘You don’t give an Irishman a glass that size.’ We ended up with tankards of champagne.”
Liam Clancy, broke amid unpaid tax demands, retreated to his in-laws in Calgary, Canada, before making a comeback on Canadian television and in a new singing partnership with Makem.
In the 1980s and 1990s, he and other Clancy brothers combined with a range of other Irish traditional musicians on tours of North America, Europe and Australia, and also were regularly featured on Caribbean cruises, but brotherly feuds kept shaking up the band’s lineup.
Tom Clancy died of stomach cancer in 1990, Patrick Clancy of lung cancer in 1998, and Makem of cancer in 2007.
To the end, family and friends noted how Liam Clancy kept his irreverent sense of humor.
“For a guy who’s dying, I’m not doing too bad,” he remarked three months ago.
At his last public performance in May, he moved a Dublin audience to tears as he struggled to complete a 40-minute set and turned to reciting poetry.
“He delivered Dylan Thomas’ poem ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion.’ He knew at that time he was in close contact with his impending death, and yet he was able to connect with the audience and express his fear in a way that was both dignified and beautiful,” said his manager, Dave Teevan.
Hours before Clancy’s death Friday, he spoke by telephone with one musician son, Donal, who is on tour in the U.S. state of California. His other son, Eban, was traveling home from England.
Funeral arrangements were not announced.