Born in Carrick-on-Suir in 1935, Liam Clancy was the youngest of the three brothers who made up the Clancy Brothers folk group. He was one of the 11 children of Robert Joseph Clancy and Joanna McGrath and was educated at the local Christian Brothers.
The Clancy home was a musical one. Their mother loved a singsong – the least excuse would do, according to Liam’s sister Peg – and their father was an opera buff. Aunt Mary Jo’s in William Street was a popular house for gatherings, songs and set dancing. “I enjoyed it and learned a few folk songs there,” said Paddy Clancy.
After leaving school, he worked for a while in the insurance business in Dublin, attending night classes at the National College of Art. He also enrolled in Brendan Smith’s acting school, and had a small part in a production of The Playboy of the Western World which starred Siobhán McKenna and Cyril Cusack.
Liam Clancy accompanied the American folk music collector Diane Hamilton of the Guggenheim family in late 1955 on a trip around Ireland recording songs and tunes in their natural settings – kitchens and parlours. During that trip he heard the singing and music of Seosamh O hEanaigh (Joe Heaney), Willie Clancy, Seamus Ennis and Sarah Makem. He also formed an enduring friendship with Tommy Makem.
The following year Liam and Tommy Makem went to America and joined Paddy and Tom Clancy who were by then running the Cherry Lane theatre in Greenwich Village. As the folk revival was making headway they rented out space for folk concerts, eventually promoting folk concerts there themselves. Among the audience was one Bob Dylan. They recorded The Rising of the Moon, album in 1959.
Now performing as a group, they built up a following through live performances in Boston, Chicago and New York. A 16-minute appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on St Patrick’s Day in 1961 brought them to national attention and they were signed to Columbia Records. They played for President Kennedy in the White House. Dressed in Aran sweaters and belting out songs with great gusto, they broke from the standard Irish-American repertoire, and introduced songs like Jug of Punch, Shoals of Herring and Leaving of Liverpool to young folk audiences.
They also brought a new consciousness to Irish music and, in Liam Clancy’s words, made it “respectable again for so-called respectable people to sing working-class songs”.
In 1973 he left the group after a row with brother Tom to pursue a solo career. He moved to Calgary, Alberta, where he became an established television performer.
In 1974 Clancy and Makem were booked to perform separately in Cleveland, Ohio. Persuaded to do one set together, they soon afterwards became Makem and Clancy, recording and touring as a duo until 1988. They made Eric Bogle’s song And the Band played Waltzing Matilda their own. In the mid-1980s they teamed up with the other Clancys for a reunion tour.
After his brother Tom’s death in 1990, he teamed up again with his brothers Paddy and Bobby and nephew Robbie O’Connell, though he still performed shows with his Fayreweather Band as well as with the Phil Coulter Orchestra.
He featured in Martin Scorsese’s 2004 documentary on Bob Dylan No Direction Home. He was the subject of Alan Gilsenan’s documentary about his life The Legend of Liam Clancy which won an Ifta award in 2007 and which was extended and released as The Yellow Bittern in 2009.
He built a home, which included a recording studio, by the sea in Ring, Co Waterford, where he lived until his death. His last album The Wheels of Life , released in 2009, featured duets with Mary Black and Gemma Hayes along with tracks by Tom Paxton and Donovan.
He was due to perform at the first Clancy Brothers Festival in Carrick-on-Suir in June, 2009, but was taken ill. He later told The Irish Times: “I got this virus in California and it attacked my immune system. It’s called pulmonary fibrosis – scarring of the lungs. That’s what killed my brother. There’s no cure, but it seems to be moving quite slowly in my case.” He could socialise, but with an oxygen mask nearby: he attended the cinema premier of The Yellow Bittern in Dublin in September 2009.
He retained his mischievous sense of humour, though. According to Gilsenan they held a limited number of press interviews in a Dublin hotel. As each journalist arrived, Liam Clancy would offer them some oxygen.
Liam Clancy died in a Cork hospital on December 4, 2009. He was survived by his wife Kim, daughters Fiona and Siobhán and sons Eben and Dónal, as well as his daughter Anya from a previous relationship.