Another hurrah for the Tipperary minstrel man

Sally Richardson reviews Memoirs of an Irish Troubadour by Liam Clancy, Virgin Books, £18.99 hbk

MR CLANCY wanted the best for his youngest son -- a good job in insurance, with a pension. Understandably, this prospect made the boy’s heart sink. His head was full of Yeats and Synge and he had caught the acting bug.

Rescue came when an American, Diane Hamilton (nee Guggenheim) arrived at the Clancy home as a folksong collector. They travelled around Ireland together collecting songs, and then she took him -- very much an innocent abroad -- to America.

A whole new galaxy of possibilities opened up for him, but it was a fraught relationship. She was in love with him; at twenty he was hardly ready to get involved with a twice-divorced, much older woman who was a manic depressive into the bargain.

Things came to a crisis when she attempted suicide; fortunately she transferred her affections soon after to another ballad singer (an Italian, this time) and Liam was able to remain friends with her.

Greenwich Village in the fifties and early sixties was exciting. Friends included Pete Seeger, Maya Angelou and a young singer called Bob Dylan, with whom Liam shared a girlfriend for a while (he didn’t know that then; Bob told him a few years ago).

Their local was the White Horse Tavern where a few years before Dylan Thomas had literally drunk himself to death. If not quite sex, drugs and rock’n’roll (sex, whiskey and ballads would be nearer the mark) it certainly beat life in Carrick-on-Suir.

America was not all glamour and good times. He was horrified by the Washington slums, right on the doorstep of American political power, and by the poverty of the Deep South. He found the Irish shared much with the black and Jewish communities -- common experiences of marginalisation, injustice and deprivation -- and also cultural resilience.

Liam Clancy understands well the mixed feelings about Ireland shared by many of his generation. His roots go very deep, emotionally and culturally -- yet he found the parochial small-town mentality that typified Ireland then oppressive and stifling and was desperate to get away.

He remembers his boyhood with both loving affection towards his home community and a clear-eyed recognition of its limitations.

This book makes for a delightful read. Clancy is a natural writer, as well as a natural entertainer, with a lyrical romanticism cut through by a great sense of fun -- I laughed aloud in many places.

There is an extraordinary vividness to his recollections that comes from his never having lost his sense of excitement and wonder at what life has to offer. Great stuff.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-10-02 14:46:41.
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