On Sept. 12, 2019, fans of Irish music in the Utica, NY, vicinity will have a chance to connect with history and culture in a personal way. On that evening at 7:00pm, Dónal Clancy and Rory Makem will perform at Five Points Public House on Columbia Street in Utica. They are the sons of the legendary Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem. They sing many of the songs they learned from their dads, but they've developed their inherited talents to a high degree themselves too. Many of us have heard of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, but have you ever looked into the details of their story? It's a quite a tale and it all starts with two Irish brothers deciding to seek their fortunes in New York City.
Paddy and Tom Clancy didn’t mean to start a worldwide movement when they arrived in New York City 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 called Trio Productions and rented a theater to produce Irish plays. But that’s an expensive endeavor and 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 and 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, and 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 did, and there she recorded songs sung by several members of the Clancy family including the youngest brother Liam. Her next stop would be the home of Sarah Makem in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, and she invited Liam to join her on the trip. That’s where Liam met Sarah’s son Tommy, which started a lifelong and very productive friendship.
By 1956, Liam and Tommy were also in New York looking for acting jobs and singing with the older Clancys on the side. Later that year Paddy, Tom, and Liam Clancy, along with Tommy Makem recorded their first album together to help launch Paddy’s newly formed company, Tradition Records. It was a collection of Irish rebel songs called The Rising of the Moon. Still focused on their acting careers, they were surprised when the record found local success and they were invited to more and more singing gigs.
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, but still their group had no real name. They tossed around several ideas but couldn’t agree. Finally a nightclub owner who needed to put something on the marquee decided to just 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 sent the boys cozy Aran sweaters. They gratefully bundled up in them one cold night before going out to a gig in New York. When he saw them, 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 (as well as Aran sweater sales) really 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, complete with Pete Seeger on banjo. This album was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording in 1962. The singing Irishmen could be heard on major radio and television talk-shows and even played an acclaimed concert at Carnegie Hall. In 1962 their touring went international including Ireland, England, Canada and Australia. And they played for President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
Their fame and success endured throughout the 1960s partly because their timing fit in perfectly with the American Folk Music Revival, a trend that had started in the 1930s and ‘40s with artists like Pete Seeger and Woody Gutherie and later went on to include performers like Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan.
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."
And 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 group in 1969 to pursue a solo career and the Clancy brothers went on 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. And now their sons keep the music going into the second generation, with Finbarr Clancy (Bobby’s son) a member of The High Kings, and Dónal Clancy (Liam’s son) a former member of Danú and Solás, and Rory Makem (Tommy Makem’s son) a member of Makem and Spain.
All this history behind Dónal Clancy and Rory Makem makes their upcoming concert at Five Points Public House in Utica a significant opportunity. It takes place September 12th at 7:00pm with doors opening at 6:00pm, and you can get your tickets right here.
Here's a sample of their music: