THE YELLOW BITTERN
The Life and Times of Liam Clancy
THE YELLOW BITTERN, a new feature documentary from Alan Gilsenan, is a revealing and surprising portrait of the longest surviving member of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, and the man that Bob Dylan called “just the best ballad singer I’d ever heard in my whole life”.
This intimate, confessional and highly cinematic film charts the remarkable rise to fame of these devil-may-care Irish singers, from their small-town beginnings in County Tipperary in Ireland to the folk hey-day of Greenwich Village in the Sixties where they absorbed black musical influences, played for JFK and out-sold the Beatles. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem would go on to influence a host of popular artists from Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger to The Pogues, and become a powerful iconic presence on the Irish cultural map.
“I remember being over-whelmed...the songs that the Clancy Brothers sang came out ordinary life. The heartbreak, the fun, the foolishness, the tragedy, all tangled up together.” – Pete Seeger
They have garnered worldwide success and huge popular acclaim, but opinions are still divided about them. To many, they are the true embodiment of the Irish popular folksong tradition, while to others, they represent the worst excesses of stage-Irishness. Yet despite this, their songs remain our songs, the songs of a people, the inner soundtrack of a nation. But for all their fame, their story remains largely untold – or at least misrepresented. Many myths and legends have grown up around The Clancy Brothers, but the legend of Liam Clancy, the youngest, is perhaps the most potent of all.
Drawing on unseen and behind-the-scenes footage of the band at their height as well as on Clancy’s own personal archive, the film is a compelling look at an iconic and influential life lived to the full. But, this darkly revealing portrait also goes behind the mask of the performer and delves deep into the psyche of Liam Clancy as well as his troubled personal life where the excesses of rock-and-roll found their way in to the world of folk.
“Alan Gilsenan’s first-class The Yellow Bittern: The Life and Times of Liam Clancy made a good case for Liam as a storyteller of genius … a fleshy portrait of such a fascinating figure.” – The Irish Times
The Yellow Bittern premiered in the Jameson Dublin Film Festival on February 18th 2009 and was selected third Best Irish Film by the critics circle.
It is the voice first and foremost. Soft, clear and true, imbued with deep emotional resonance and subtle dramatic timing. The delicate touch. The accent too is soft. With never-to-be-forgotten echoes of Tipperary naturally, and maybe hints of Waterford too, but the unmistakable mark of Irish-America is there as well. John F. Kennedy comes to mind for no reason at all. Sometimes, you hear a rougher edge, somewhere there at the back of that silky throat. It holds the promise of a good nights drinking and a song or three after hours. Sea shanties. Rebel songs. Songs that make us feel good about ourselves again. Songs that make us cry like babies. The promise that we will be transported again, that we could be heroes once more for a couple of lost hours. Or perhaps that promise is not promise at all, but just a fading memory, a memory of the happier and wilder times that we never had. Those were the days, indeed.
There’s a sense that you might have heard this voice long before you came into this world. For this is the voice of our past and our forgotten futures. Was this the voice that you heard in your mother’s womb? No, that’s too fanciful a notion, but it undoubtedly resides somewhere deep in our common folk memory. In our sense of who we were. What we are.
It is the voice of Liam Clancy. Of story and song. Of laughter and lament. Liam Clancy? You might be surprised to hear that he is still alive, but you’d be certainly shocked to hear that he was dead. He seems forever young. That tender voice. Those film-star good looks. The twinkle in the eye. The eternal cap. That stage presence beneath the lights.
But he’s not alone there, of course, the baby brother. For there are ghosts always about him. The bawneen-sweatered and sweating brothers. All dead now, God rest them. Their raw power and towering passion. Their dignity and decency too, amidst it all. The highs and the lows. The long road and the longer night. Bigger than the Beatles, they were, you know? Madison Square Garden. Carnegie Hall. Radio City Music Hall. Petie Lawlor’s. All those glittering prizes. Falling over and falling out. But they were brothers too, above all else, in the end of the day. And Mammy Clancy gave them songs. And she knit those sweaters for them too. And one for Tommy, of course. We couldn’t forget Tommy.
For Tommy Makem has some voice also. A beautiful dark Northern quiver to it. Tougher too, in many ways. Songs under siege. And who could forget those sideburns, those rough tufts of manhood. And Tommy’s Mammie Sarah handed down all those songs that she had cleaved so closely to her heart. For these boys’ story started with their mothers really. No surprise there. Mammies Makem and Clancy. Lost songs. Maybe it was their maternal voices that we heard deep in the collective womb, all those years ago.
They were legends, these lads, and their songs still stir something deep within us. There is a sense that every one of these songs is known to us, even the new ones. They are etched upon our soul in some profound way. This is strange because we younger generations often derided them. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Makem and Clancy. Liam Clancy. All of them. We slagged off their bawneen gansies and their hairstyles and their sentimental shamrockery. Wild rovers and patriot games. We accused them of all sort of things. They were an embarrassment to us for a time, in that way that the young are embarrassed by their parents or their mad uncle. Embarrassed by those drunken songs deep in the night. Later, when you knew them better, knew their struggles and their grace, you were ashamed of this. How you could have turned away and sneered. For they are you in so many ways.
Their story was our story. The story of a nation. How apt those lines of WB Yeats that Liam is so fond of:
Know, that I would accounted be
True brother of a company
That sang, to sweeten Ireland’s wrong,
Ballad and story, rann and song;
Their story was our story. Liam and his siblings grew up, not in some rural idyll of peasant countryside, but in a small and noble town. Carrick-on-Suir, in the shadow Slievenamon, the mountain of the women. There was music in the air in their small but solid house on William Street, not just traditional songs but folk songs and popular songs and light opera too. Next door, behind the oppressive grey stone of the Catholic Church, there was the smell of incense and damp and all those intoxicating rituals, the benedictions and dark pageants, and the choir that young Liam sang with as a boy. Star of the Sea, Queen of the May. The traveling players would visit Carrick too, bearing gifts of theatre, and they too would leave their mark.
But this was a dark time, let’s not forget, those Forties and Fifties. The poverty and the clergy and the squinting windows. The heady excitement of the birth of the nation was now well past, and the brutal reality of making our way in the world dawned. Emigration and exile. America calling to us like some gaudy whore. Like many before and after them, the Clancys answered the call. Young Liam, innocent and shy (hard to believe that now) with his hallmark mixture of lady luck and divine destiny, followed. He fell, as if by chance, not into the ghettoes of Irish-America (still singing “Does Your Mother Come From Ireland?”), but into the Greenwich Village of the Swinging Sixties. Folk revivals and beat poetry. Talk of revolution and liberation. Black power and black music. A long way from Tipperary. Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, Odetta and Josh White, and the young Bob Dylan, just taking it all in. The Clancy lads got gloriously lost in it, absorbing it all too, while carving out decent careers for hemselves as actors. On occasion, with a few taken, they’d sing a couple of the old songs. Just for the crack. Nothing serious, just belt them out for the love of it. Punk Paddies giving it a lash. But it was the real deal, it’s soulful power rang out, and the Village, with it’s hunger for authenticity, responded in kind.
They played the basements, the folk clubs and the black clubs of Chicago and New York. Not the Irish clubs mind, for these Clancys were too down and dirty for them. They turned away also for a time. But the Clancys and Tommy learned their trade. Watched the old Blues guys and learned how to judge a show, how to play an audience. The nuanced to and fro of performance. Destiny was calling loud over the tannoy. The rest, as they say, is history, glorious history, and it was our history, although we were slow to acknowledge it. And they were singing our songs.
But there was darkness also, amidst the starry firmament. The demon drink and the demon lover. Damage done and people hurt. Dark days and dark moods. Ups and down, money made and money lost. The stuff of life itself, only larger.
Later, there was the return to native soil. The journey home. Helvick Head and Muggorts Bay. Drumm Hills and Knockmealdowns. An eco- home of our own. Family, most of all, family, although there must have been some neglect there down the years. Trees planted lovingly. Growing older now. Thoughts of mortality. Posterity. The vastness of it all and the passing of our time.
Time to write too. Brother Paddy always said that he should write more. For Liam is a teller of tales, both in song and in story. He is always magically weaving a narrative. He knows their talismanic power. He crafts the dramatic contours of narrative throughout his shows and records, and he knows well the intimate cartography of performance. If you look closely enough, there is a story too interwoven into the rich fabric of this collection. It is a map of a long journey. His and ours.
He’s a hard man to get to know, this Liam Clancy. Wary, as he is, of the business and the bullshit. Sometimes, it’s hard to penetrate his chilly charm, the protective shell of genial performer and entertaining interviewee. But he’s an entertainer above all, never forget that. People pay their hard-earned cash to see the shows and he won’t let them down. For Liam Clancy is still a worker. He’ll put in the miles and do the gigs. Because Liam Clancy will always turn up. And he’ll tell you straight what he made on a night. Pennies, shillings and pence. But you sense that he wouldn’t leave you stuck either for there is undoubtedly a generosity of spirit in him as well, this man who has known the kindness of strangers.
Some say he threw it all away. All those many as yet unrealized other talents – the actor, the writer, the film-maker… They claim he just sang the songs he knew so well. Took the easy way out, the money and the fame. But that is to miss the point. For Liam Clancy was bestowed a precious gift all those years ago. It is a gift that he has not squandered.
The voice. He is singing now again. Lost amidst the darkness of some stage. There are ghosts about him. Memory and loss. Past and future. Hope and despair. He seems lonely there amidst in the crowd, yet also strangely peaceful too in some way. He is singing still and we are listening closely. He is singing of us and for us, and we are seduced once more.