On December 4th, 2009, Liam Clancy passed away. It was the end of an era. He was the youngest of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem group and for the past couple of years was, as he said himself, "the last man standing." I knew that he had been seriously ill but his death still came as an awful shock. I still can't believe that someone so much larger than life is no longer with us.
Liam was my uncle, my mother's brother, but he was also a friend, a mentor and an inspiration. No one could inhabit a song like Liam could or enchant a room full of people with such masterful presence. As I worked with him over the years, we had many great times together and a few not so great. But it's the great times that I want to remember now.
Back in 2007 I was co-writer of a book called Clean Cabbage in the Bucket and Other Tales from the Irish Music Trenches. One of the pieces I wrote, The Stampede, was about a very memorable day Liam and I had back in the winter of 1996. I would like to add it here as a tribute to Liam as it recalls, for me, the Liam that I knew.
As Tomas O Criomhthain said of the people of the Great Blasket Island in his book, The Islandman, "Ni bheidh a leitheid ann aris." We will never see his likes again.
In the fall of 1996, I got a call from Liam Clancy asking me if I would come over to Ireland to perform with him at the post premiere party of Neil Jordan's film, "Michael Collins." A grand nephew of the film’s hero, also named Michael Collins, was one of the city councilors in Waterford City, so this was a special premiere. The plan was to have Liam Neeson, the star of the film, make an appearance prior to the screening of the movie and at 10:30pm we would all repair to the Granville hotel where Liam Clancy, Martin Murray and I would perform for an hour.
The concept of time in Ireland does not conform to any known scientific laws. It was midnight before the crowd assembled at the hotel and a little after one a.m. when we finally got started. We found that the audience was more interested in talking about the film than listening to us, so we finished up our set and headed back to the bar. Ironically, some of the same people who talked all through the concert now wanted to hear more music. A classic Irish session was soon underway, and when I left for bed around six in the morning, it was still going strong.
I awoke at two the following afternoon, feeling as fragile as an empty egg. After I figured out that I was still alive, I cautiously made my way to the shower where a half hour under a cascade of steaming water revived me enough to go in search of breakfast. I cautiously made my way to the hotel dining room where Liam joined me, a little later. His condition appeared even worse than mine so we picked at our food and didn’t say much.
There are certain kinds of hangovers that make you philosophical. Your everyday perspective has shifted and everything seems infused with deep meaning. Even the most mundane things appear profound. You suddenly realize how wondrous the mechanics of a flush toilet are, or, you watch mesmerized as a seagull hovers overhead then dives down to snatch a discarded orange peel. Phrases of songs that you never knew start playing in your head; lines of poetry that you have not thought of for years suddenly surface. This alternative perspective on reality is a gift not to be wasted, and we were not the boys to let an opportunity like this pass us by.
It was November, the sky was clear, and the thermometer was hovering around freezing point. We decided that it was a perfect day to take the long way home. In Ireland, that means driving on the back roads and stopping at small country pubs along the way. It’s a rural adventure that is best indulged in on crisp winter days when the sky is blue, the muddy roads are frozen and every country pub has a big fire blazing. These frosty days are also perfect for connecting with the old world; visiting graveyards and ruined castles, or searching for Sheila na Gigs. An hour or two of tramping through frozen fields and climbing over brambly ditches can make a hot whiskey taste like the nectar of the Gods.
I realized that our back-roads itinerary would take us close to the Knockeen dolmen. I persuaded Liam that he had to see this archeological wonder. It’s a three thousand-year-old burial mound comprised of giant standing stones of granite, capped with a monstrous twenty-ton boulder. This may not be the average person’s idea of a good time, but in Waterford, my hometown, we revere our ancestors, particularly when a hot whiskey is involved.
But the Knockeen dolmen is not easy to find. It lies hidden on farmland, surrounded by a maze of narrow winding roads – roads from which careless travelers may never return. We were on the third wrong turn when we noticed several dogs wandering around. That's not an unusual sight in rural Ireland where dogs have their own social network, independent of their masters. You will often pass dogs on the road as they are hurrying to business meetings or staggering home from the pub. But there seemed to be more dogs than the usual wandering around. I knew that Liam was no dog lover and I could sense his anxiety level rising. At last, I spotted a familiar old iron gate and announced triumphantly, "This is it!"
"Okay. Where is this thing?" Liam asked, with all the enthusiasm of a flat pint.
"We just have to climb over this gate, cross the field and hop over the wall, and it's right there," I replied.
"You must be joking," said Liam, looking wide-eyed at me. "Do you expect me to climb over that gate in this condition?"
It took a while, but with the aid of several snide remarks about his manhood, and assurances that there were no dogs in the vicinity, I managed to coax him into the field. We still had to walk about two hundred yards to the far wall where the dolmen awaited. The field was sloped; the higher ground on our right and the lower part rolling down for a quarter of a mile to our left. The grass was tall and spongy under foot, so, with heads down, carefully scanning the terrain for cow pats and soggy spots, we advanced from tuft to tuft.
"This is great," I said, with forced exuberance. "Plenty of fresh air to clear the head."
"Where the hell is it?" Liam asked, impatiently.
"Just inside that ditch," I said, pointing to the wall about fifty yards ahead.
Suddenly, we heard a long note from a horn or bugle, immediately followed by a deep rumbling sound. We looked up the hill. A huge herd of frightened bullocks was stampeding directly towards us. It was exactly like a scene from an old cowboy movie, minus the clouds of dust. We looked wildly around. Not a rock or tree was in sight; nothing but the open field.
"Jesus Christ!" I screamed. "Run!"
We were running like hares when we spotted a telegraph pole, fifty feet ahead. It didn’t look like much protection, but it was all there was and our only hope. We made a dash for it. With hearts pounding, we lined up behind the pole, trying to make ourselves as thin as possible. Terrified cattle thundered by on either side of us. Hundreds of hooves battered the ground, just inches away, like the roar of a massive waterfall. The smell of hot, hairy animals filled our nostrils. Specks of mud dotted our clothes. We stood there, panic stricken, limbs trembling, adrenaline racing through our veins. It was Armageddon for certain; at least for us. Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, it was all over.
The silence that followed seemed unnatural. We were so shaken, we just stood there waiting for the panic to subside. We could not believe we had survived. We stared at the cattle, now milling uneasily at the lower end of the field. If that telephone pole had not been there, we would have been trampled to death for sure.
"Let's get the hell out of here," said Liam. "But we’re almost there," I pleaded. "Just take a quick look over the wall." We had almost paid a dear price in this effort, and I was not about to give up now. Reluctantly, he followed me as far as the wall.
"Is that it?" Liam asked, with little more than a glance at the ivy-covered heap of stones. I nodded. “Right, then,” he said. “Let’s go.” There was no arguing with him. He’d had enough.
Still keeping a wary eye on the cattle now huddled in the lower corner of the field, we crossed back the way we had come. As we were getting into the car, the bugle sounded again and we realized what had had happened. There was a foxhunt in full pursuit somewhere nearby. Though we couldn’t see them, we could hear the muffled shouts of the riders and the faint barking of the hounds. That explained the unusual number of dogs we had seen earlier and the spooked, charging cattle.
"Where are we anyway?" asked Liam. "What's the nearest village?"
"Dunhill is about three miles," I replied.
"Great!" says he, "Harney's is just the place."
The whole surreal episode was still very much with us and we were both in need of a little something to settle the nerves. A short drive brought us to Dunhill and Harney's pub. A fire was blazing in a big stone fireplace, and feeling a bit more relaxed and secure, we sat up at the bar. It was mid afternoon and there were only two other customers. One was reading a paper while the other stared into space. Jim Harney, the proprietor, appeared behind the bar. He was delighted to see Liam.
"I can't believe it," he said. "We were only talking about you last night. Paddy Barron is staying here and he was asking about you." He went on to explain how Paddy, an old friend of Liam’s, was home from the States for a short holiday, but had gone to Dublin that morning and was not expected back for several hours.
"He'll be really disappointed to miss you," Jim said, setting two creamy pints of Guinness on the counter. We both put twenty-pound notes on the bar but Jim insisted that the drinks were on the house. We chatted with the other customers; one of whom we learned was a psychiatric nurse unwinding from a hard week’s work.
I have often noticed that the search for mutual acquaintances seems to be of primary importance among strangers in Irish pubs. Maybe it’s that old suspicion of the outsider that still lingers in the countryside. But after a few minutes, we established that we had some friends in common and we settled into conversation.
Two more pints appeared, and still our twenty-pound notes remained untouched on the counter. We related the story of the stampede, which was already assuming mythic proportions for us, but the locals were unimpressed. It didn’t sound like such a big deal to them. But reliving the ordeal, we realized just how narrow our escape had been and how lucky we were. It gave us that heightened awareness of being alive and seemed like a cause for celebration. Liam spotted a dusty old bottle of Midleton Special Old Malt whiskey on the top shelf. Never having seen that particular brand before we thought a little taste would be appropriate to the occasion. We insisted that Jim take the money this time. He quickly poured out two very generous glasses, but to our embarrassment dismissed our efforts to pay.
“No, no,” he said, shaking his head. “Sure that wouldn't even cover it."
This was getting awkward now. We wanted to stay, but we couldn't just sit there drinking and not paying. Liam had an idea.
"Well," he said, "If you won't take the money, we'll have to sing for our supper."
I went out to the car and brought in Liam’s concertina and my guitar. We relocated to the other end of the room where yellow flames were dancing away in fireplace. The few people who had been sitting at the bar moved with us. Liam picked up his concertina and played a couple of O'Carolan tunes.
Turlough O’Carolan was the last of the great Irish Harper’s who traveled the countryside in the early eighteenth century, visiting the big houses and entertaining the Gaelic aristocracy. These bards were held in high esteem and both revered and feared. If they considered themselves well treated they would write songs of praise for their patrons, but they were equally quick to defame those who did not meet their expectations.
Our miraculous pint glasses never seemed to be empty and we sat there in the firelight singing shut-eye songs and playing sweet old tunes. At one point, someone was moved to quote a couplet from Tennyson's “Ulysses.” Liam instantly sprang into action.
“It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth among these barren crags…”
To the surprise of all, he recited the whole poem, all seventy lines, from start to finish. It was a masterful performance. His voice was full of emotion particularly when he reached the final lines:
“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
I could see huge tears flowing down the cheeks of the psychiatric nurse. She looked stunned. Evidently, she was not accustomed to this kind of fine madness. I sang a song of my own which had been inspired by the nearby village on Dunmore East:
“I was walking the road to Dunmore,
One evening as often I’d done.
And my heart was as heavy as stone,
I was thinking of times that are gone
When we walked arm in arm on the shore
And we watched the waves roll on the sea
Never thinking that there’d come a time
They’d be rolling between you and me”
Although I had often performed that song, it was as if I was truly hearing it for the first time. Every song and tune that afternoon felt timeless and perfect. It was like stepping back in history, I thought. Surely, it must have been just like this for the old bards. We were in the zone now. Not even the arrival of several boisterous customers coming in for an after work drink could break the spell.
A little later, Jim's wife, Mary, appeared. "Come on now," she said, "Your dinner is on the table. Just leave the instruments there, and we'll take care of them."
She marched us upstairs and sat us down before a table laden with steaks, potatoes and vegetables. There was food enough for a dozen hungry men who had worked the fields from dawn to dusk. Bottles of wine were opened, glasses were filled, and with appetites sharpened by pints of Guinness and Special Old Malt whiskey, we attacked the feast manfully.
The dinner was nearly finished when the door opened and Paddy Barron stepped in. Hugs, handshakes and good-natured insults were exchanged. Another bottle of wine was opened, and then the stories began.
"Remember the time we…"
It was fascinating stuff. I heard stories of poets, musicians and “great nights” in Greenwich Village; tales of wild and crazy characters, most no longer living. After an hour or two (I’d lost track of the time by then) we headed back down to the small bar on the other side of the pub for a session. The instruments were waiting for us. Even if we had wanted to leave at that point it would have been rude to do so after all the hospitality we had received. So, we extracted a promise from Jim that he would let us pay for our drinks from here on out. Then we picked up our instruments and settled in beside the fire. Within minutes the room was packed with regulars and it soon turned into a mighty session. Several local singers eagerly joined in and we carried on singing and playing way past the official closing time.
At about two o'clock in the morning, ten hours after we stopped in for one drink, we finally took our leave. After a lengthy string of farewells, we stepped outside. The sky was riddled with stars, and frost was settling on the roadway. The world seemed strange, different, like it does when you leave a dark movie theatre and step out into daylight. It took us a couple of moments to get our bearings and to locate Liam’s car.
Anxious to avoid any police cars on our homeward journey, we discussed the pro and cons of the different routes we could take. Liam handed me his car keys.
"You have an American license,” he said. “You better drive."
If there was logic to this, I failed to see it, but it had been such an extraordinary day that I did not argue. We drove carefully and slowly, kept to the deserted back roads, and eventually we made it home safely.