Early Biography of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem

My most recent episode of the Pub Songs Podcast had a special feature on The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. I had some audio problems with this show. So I thought I’d share the text I read for the episode. It was condensed from their Wikipedia entry, but I thought I’d share it in any case.
Find out more about The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, right here.

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem

The Clancy Brothers were an influential Irish folk music singing group. Most popular in the 1960s, they were famed for their woolly Aran jumpers and are widely credited with popularizing Irish traditional music in the United States. The brothers were “Paddy”, Tom Clancy, Bobby and Liam Clancy. They are best known for their work with Tommy Makem, recording dozens of albums together as The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.

The brothers were born in Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary. That is in the heart of southern Ireland, not too far from Cork, Cashel and Kilkenny and even closer to Waterford, which is most famous for its crystal.

The oldest brothers Paddy and Tom immigrated to Toronto in 1947 before moving to Cincinnati. When their car broke down on the way to Hollywood, they decided to move to New York City instead. They arrived in Greenwich Village in 1951 and established themselves as actors on Broadway and on television.

To help raise money for their production company, Paddy and Tom organized ‘Midnight Special’ concerts every Saturday night at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Here they would sing some of the old Irish songs that they knew from their childhood. Their younger brother Bobby Clancy sang with them. This was the little-known, first ‘unofficial’ lineup of a singing group of Clancy brothers.

Tommy Makem emigrated to the United States from his hometown of Keady, County Armagh in Northern Ireland. That’s the southern-most county in Northern Ireland. Tommy had met Liam Clancy shortly before they both emigrated.

Diane Hamilton was friend of Paddy Clancy in New York. Diane went to Ireland in search of rare Irish songs. Knowing Paddy Clancy, her first stop was at the Clancy household, where she recorded several members of the family, including the Clancys’ mother, sister Peg and Joan, and nineteen-year-old Liam Clancy. Hamilton asked Liam and his brother Bobby Clancy to join her on a trek through Ireland to locate and record source singers.

One of those source singers was Sarah Makem who had been recorded by Jean Ritchie in 1952 on a similar search of Irish songs. Her son was Tommy Makem. He and the young Liam Clancy instantly became friends.

In 1956, Tommy Makem was out of work after a two-ton iron printing press fell on his hand. He came to New York and told Paddy Clancy that he wanted to make a record. So together, with Tom and Liam Clancy, they founded a record company, Tradition Records and recorded an album of Irish rebel songs called The Rising of the Moon. The album was a local hit. They began receiving more and more gig requests superseding their acting gigs until they decided to record a follow up album called Come Fill Your Glass With Us.

This album was a huge success, and the gigs grew along the pub circuit in New York, Chicago and into Boston. They decided to try singing full-time for six months. If singing turned successful, they’d stick with it; if not, then back to acting. The Clancy brothers and Tommy Makem proved huge successful. In 1961, they attracted the attention of scouts from The Ed Sullivan Show.

On 12 March 1961, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem performed for 16 minutes in front of a televised audience of 80 million people on The Ed Sullivan Show. The televised performance attracted the attention of Columbia Records. The group was offered a five-year contract with an advance of $100,000, a huge sum in 1961. For their first album with Columbia, they enlisted Pete Seeger as backup banjo player for the live album A Spontaneous Performance Recording. It included songs that would soon become classics, such as “Brennan on the Moor,” “Jug of Punch,” “Reilly’s Daughter,” “Finnegan’s Wake,” “Haul Away Joe,” “Roddy McCorley,” “Portlairge” and “Moonshiner.” The album was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1961.

By the end of 1961, they had released two more albums and made many more appearances on major radio and television talk-shows in America.

In 1962, Ciarán MacMathuna, a popular radio personality in Ireland, brought their albums back to Ireland. His broadcasts skyrocketed the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem to fame in Ireland, where they were still unknown. Before The Clancys, songs like “Roddy McCorley,” “Kevin Barry” and “Brennan on the Moor” were slow, depressing songs full of melancholy, but the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem had transformed those songs and made them lively.

For generations the songs had been a reminder of the troubles in Ireland and therefore they weren’t anything anybody sang proudly. The Clancy Brothers changed all that, and the transformed songs reinvigorated Ireland’s pride in her music. The group brought over for a sold-out tour of Ireland in late 1962.

The 1960s continued to be a successful decade. They sold millions of albums each year. They even performed for President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

Their success was due in part to the American folk revival that was thriving in the U.S.. However it was the Clancys’ boisterous performances that set them apart, taking calm classics and giving them a boost of energy and spirit.

By the late 60s, their music waned with the introduction of rock music. But it never went away.

In 1969, Tommy Makem left the group. That began years of lineup changes that eventually led to the full breakup of the group in 1976. You can find out more about the group on Wikipedia.



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