Liam Clancy, |
The Mountain of the Women:
Memoirs of an Irish Troubadour
(Virgin, 2002; Broadway, 2003)
From a small town in the south east of Ireland to the dizzy heights of the folk boom, Liam Clancy tells a story with humour and sadness that enthralls. I have long been a fan of Liam Clancy in his many musical combinations: as a solo artist, with his brothers, with Tommy Makem and in Clancy, O'Connell & Clancy. Now I am a fan of him as a writer and social historian. This book is a revelation.
He fills 290 pages plus pictures, but even at that the book only brings us up to the time that he got seriously into the folk music scene, so hopefully there is a sequel in the works.
That he was born in Carrick on Suir I knew, and that he became part of the folk music revival I was quite aware, but the array of people he met and worked with and the range of experiences recounted here is new, revealing and fascinating.
His tales of childhood are a mixture of joy and sadness, but they are recounted with a wit and charm very much like his on-stage banter. He has all the turns of phrase and the sayings that paint true word pictures. His story of his aunt's devotion to St. Martin de Porres and how she turned against him in true Irish small-town fashion had me laughing aloud. (After putting his statue on a stair landing she prayed fervently for a favour. When it wasn't granted she was heard on passing the statue to call him a "little black bastard.")
His introduction to the insurance business in Dublin is more memorable for the break into acting and appearances with the Abbey Theatre. We find the great Irish actor Cyril Cusack suggesting he use the name Liam instead of Willie as he was known up until then.
His tales of travelling the British Isles recording old folk tunes with two American ladies -- one of whom turned out to be a Guggenheim -- bring us in contact with some of the great Celtic traditional musicians of the day.
The book is punctuated with verses from these and other songs.
His travels to America to learn about film, funded by a lady whom he says had designs on his body, and subsequent expeditions to the Appalachians in search of more music bring us into proximity with great American musicians. His descriptions on the poverty in some mountain areas and relating it to conditions in Ireland can tell us a lot about the bonds in our music.
I was fascinated to read of the people he met and worked with. Not only that but the casual no-nonsense attitude that he had with them reminds us that all our heroes and heroines are ordinary people.
As an actor he worked on stage and in U.S. television. He performed alongside Robert Redford, Walter Matthau and Julie Harris. He played in Shakespeare in small loft theatres and in the open air.
He met Odetta and Ramblin' Jack Elliot. Maya Angelou was an opening act on the bill with him and his brothers. He swapped songs with Bob Dylan. A girl called Barbra Streisand got a slot in one of their shows to break into the music business.
Having read this book I can better understand his stage persona. His first great love was acting and we now find him giving full rein to that skill in his banter between songs. We find in these pages the consummate performer who grew out of a shy boy and teenager. We get a real feel for life in small-town Ireland in the 1940s and '50s. We experience the reality of a hard life that was made good by a family and we live through the sadness of the loss of a sister and later his father. His honesty in telling of his loss of religion, his sexual awakening, health problems and attitude to monogamy is revealing.
This is storytelling at its best. It grabs our attention, it makes us laugh, it makes us think and it makes us glad to have had a chance to read it.