Many of us know of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, but have you ever heard their story? It’s a quite a tale. And it all starts with two Irish brothers seeking their fortunes in New York City.
Paddy and Tom Clancy didn’t mean to start a worldwide movement when they arrived in New York in 1951. They just wanted to be actors. And so they were, landing some roles on and off Broadway and on television. Creative and ambitious, they even started their own company, Trio Productions, and rented a theater to produce Irish plays. But that’s an expensive endeavor. So they needed to raise some money. What could they do?
How about sing the old songs they learned as kids back in County Tipperary? They gathered some friends and called it the Swapping Song Fair. Soon musicians well-known in the American Folk Revival - Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Jean Ritchie - were joining in.
Sometime in 1955, the Clancys met folk music collector Diane Hamilton in New York. When they heard she planned to travel to Ireland to record rare Irish songs, they recommended she stop by their parents’ house in Carrick-on-Suir. She took them up on it. At the Clancy’s she recorded songs sung by members of the family including the youngest brother Liam. Her next stop would be the home of Sarah Makem in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. She invited Liam to join her on the trip. That’s where Liam met Sarah’s son Tommy, which started a lifelong and productive friendship.
The Band of Brothers Grows
By 1956, Liam and Tommy were also in New York looking for acting jobs and singing on the side with the older Clancys. Later that year Paddy, Tom, and Liam Clancy, along with Tommy Makem recorded a collection of Irish rebel songs called The Rising of the Moon. This first album won local success and helped launch Paddy’s new company, Tradition Records. Still focused on their acting careers, it surprised them when more and more singing gigs rolled in.
In 1959, they recorded their second album, this one drinking songs called Come Fill Your Glass With Us. By this time Liam had honed his guitar skills and Tommy had added his tin whistle and uilleann pipes. This album was a hit and launched them into bigger performances in New York, Boston, and Chicago. Still their group had no actual name. They tossed around several ideas but couldn’t agree. A nightclub owner finally settled that question. He needed something to put on the marquee. So he decided to call them The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.
Meanwhile back home in Tipperary, Mrs. Clancy read an article about the freezing wind, snow, and icy conditions in New York and knitted the boys cozy Aran sweaters. They bundled up in them one frosty night before going out to a gig. When he saw the sweaters, their manager went wild. That was just the look he was looking for! And that is why they wore those same sweaters to their famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on March 12, 1961, before an audience of 40 million viewers.
After that night, the musical career of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem (and Aran sweater sales) took off. Soon they had a five-year contract with Columbia Records, a $100,000 advance, and a new record called A Spontaneous Performance Recording. To top it off, Pete Seeger joined them on banjo. This album earned a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Recording in 1962. The singing Irishmen appeared on major radio and television talk-shows and even played an acclaimed concert at Carnegie Hall. In 1962 they toured around the world including Ireland, England, Canada and Australia. And they played for President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
Their fame and success endured throughout the 1960s because their timing fit in with the American Folk Music Revival. The trend had started in the 1930s and ‘40s with artists like Pete Seeger and Woody Gutherie. It later included performers like Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan.
The Clancy Influence
Dylan, who spent a lot of time with the Clancys in New York in the early ‘60s, said, “Irish music has always been a great part of my life because I used to hang out with the Clancy Brothers. They influenced me tremendously.”
All the great bands we love to hear at Irish festivals today have The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem to thank for the popularity of the genre. Irish author Frank McCourt wrote in 1999, “They were the first. Before them there were dance bands and show bands and céilidhe bands...but not since John McCormack had Irish singers captured international attention like the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. They opened the gates to the likes of the Dubliners and the Wolfe Tones and every Irish group thereafter.”
Tommy Makem left the Clancys in 1969 to pursue a solo career. The Clancy brothers continued to perform and record albums in various combinations of family members and friends. Later in the mid-70s, Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem teamed up and performed together for 13 years. Now their sons keep the music going into the second generation. Finbarr Clancy (Bobby’s son) is a member of The High Kings. Dónal Clancy (Liam’s son) is a former member of Danú and Solás and now performs solo. Rory Makem (Tommy Makem’s son) is a solo performer who often teams up with Dónal Clancy too.
All this history behind Rory Makem makes his upcoming concert at Five Points Public House in Utica a significant opportunity for traditional Irish music fans. It takes place March 19th at 7:00pm with doors opening at 6:00pm, and you can get your tickets right here.
Rory played at Five Points Public House with Dónal Clancy last fall. He’s an amazing performer and storyteller on top of being a brilliant musician. Here’s a sample of his music:
The Craobh Dugan-O'Looney blog is written by Sue Smith Romero. Questions? Corrections? Send them on to her at firstname.lastname@example.org