Eugene Dunphy tells the story of two gallant Irish troubadours.


In January 1956 a twenty-one-year-old Tipperary man left Ireland to join his older brothers, Paddy and Tom, in New York. This innocent abroad, Liam Clancy, who longed to become an actor, soon discovered that life in the Big Apple, with its towering skyscrapers and incessant traffic, was far removed from what he was used to in his home town of Carrick-on-Suir. His brothers, both actors, told him they did the odd bit of singing in the city, mostly Irish folk songs.

In February of that year, another young aspiring actor, twenty-four-year-old Tommy Makem, from Keady in County Armagh, also arrived in New York, where he renewed acquaintance with Liam Clancy; Tommy had met Liam met a year before in Ireland, courtesy of American folk song collector, Diane Hamilton.

After some deliberation, a decision was made: Paddy, Tom, Liam and Tommy Makem were going to form a singing group, and putting their heads together, they drew up a list of Irish songs that might suit their repertoire. The list, it so happened, was extensive, hardly surprising since all four had been immersed in music since they were small boys. But there was a problem – what would they call themselves? ‘The Bards’? … maybe ‘The Druids’?

Their name still undecided, they played a few gigs in New York before being asked to play in Chicago, and lo and behold, on arrival in the Windy City, they saw emblazoned on a poster outside the venue ‘The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem’. The name stuck.

They recorded their first album in New York for the Tradition label, calling it The Rising of the Moon. That was also in 1956. By 1969, however, having spent years staging concerts throughout the world and recording numerous albums and television shows, the Aran-sweatered foursome decided to split.

“I wanted to do something new”, said Tommy Makem. “We just ran out of steam”, said Liam.

After the break-up, Liam found himself in a dark place, living in financially challenging circumstances in Cape Cod with his wife Kim and their two daughters, all the while thinking about his next career move. Tommy, meanwhile, on a return visit to Ireland in 1969, wrote the anthemic Four Green Fields, the inspiration for which came to him while driving from Dundalk to Newry.

In an effort to try and alleviate their bleak situation, Liam’s wife Kim made a phonecall to her brother-in-law, Leo Cote, who lived in Calgary, Alberta.
“Come to Canada,” urged Leo, “you, Liam and the kids can stay here with us”.
Accepting the offer, they moved to Calgary where soon after, Leo began organising venues in which Liam could stage concerts, each proving a roaring success.

In 1976, a Canadian television producer asked Liam if he would be willing to present his own thirteen-week television series, to which he agreed. The Liam Clancy Show became a huge hit, and another thirteen episodes would follow.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own