Liam Clancy's fortunate life
Legendary Irish singer has book, album out
(CNN) -- Imagine the following: You're a working-class boy in small-town Ireland, with some talent as a singer and actor but most likely the dead-end life of an office worker (or worse) ahead of you.
One day, an American heiress with an interest in folk music comes to town. She becomes infatuated with you. Eventually, after you start an acting career in Ireland, you head to New York, courtesy of her.
Once in Gotham, you meet the heiress' friends, a group of actors, folk singers, artists and wealthy folks living the bohemian life in Greenwich Village. Eventually, you team up with your brothers -- who are already in New York -- and form a singing group while trying to establish yourself as an actor. Although you work with people like Walter Matthau and Hume Cronyn, it's the singing that earns you a following, and you start becoming famous.
The day you're booked on "The Ed Sullivan Show," the headlining act can't make it and you're asked to perform for 16 minutes of the one-hour program. From there -- with a couple dips along the way -- you and your brothers become so popular that you're known as "the Beatles of Irish music."
It's an almost unbelievable story. And it's the story of Liam Clancy's life.
Clancy, part of the famed Irish singing group The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, knows he's a lucky guy. He pauses during a phone interview from his home in County Waterford, Ireland, and quotes his pal Makem's wife.
"Liam Clancy is the luckiest man I know," she said. "If he fell off the Empire State Building, there would be a truckload of mattresses going by."
A name and a life
His luck still holding. A 66, Clancy is undergoing a bit of a resurgence in his later years. He's just written a memoir, "The Mountain of the Women" (Doubleday), and a collection of The Clancy Brothers' recordings was recently released by Sony/Legacy as part of that label's celebration of Irish music. And he still performs occasionally.
"I'm still wondering what to be when I grow up," he says with a laugh.
The memoir was inspired by his 60th birthday, he says. The Irish Times had sent a reporter to interview him, and as Clancy wove his tales, the reporter told him he had a fantastic story. Clancy realized it was time to tell the story, himself.
The work was slow until he and his children went off to explore the ruins of a nearby church. There, within the decaying walls, was a headstone labeled "William Clancy," a man who died 200 years before Liam Clancy -- given name William -- was born.
"I tried to find out something about my namesake, but found nothing," Clancy says. He thought of a line from Nikos Kazantzakis: "When [a man] dies, that aspect of the universe which is his own particular vision and the unique play of his mind also crashes in ruins forever."
Suddenly, he says, he couldn't stop writing. "I was writing in taxicabs, on planes. I was sucked into the screen of my laptop," Clancy says.
"The next thing I knew, I had a manuscript."
'A great ride'
In "The Mountain of the Women" -- a title inspired by the Gaelic name of a peak near his hometown -- Clancy tells his life story up to the "Ed Sullivan" appearance in 1961. It's a winding journey, one that took him from Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary, to Dublin to New York, helped by his passion for acting and performing and the assistance of heiress Diane Guggenheim.
Guggenheim is perhaps the book's most interesting character, other than Clancy himself. She was a wealthy woman who surrounded herself with creative types and struggled terribly with mental illness. In some ways, she was the glue that brought beat poets, artists and folk singers together, helping to start the folk music boom of the late 1950s and early '60s.
The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem rode that boom for years, crossing paths with the Village club scene, the civil rights movement, Vietnam protests -- a startling mix of events. "We traveled the world, had a great ride, and it all started with 'Sullivan,'" says Clancy.
Two characters in Clancy's book are the brothers Frank and Malachy McCourt, who have had success with their own stories of Irish boyhoods and New York days. Clancy remembers their mother Angela -- "She used to baby-sit for my family in Brooklyn Heights" -- and was pleased that Frank gained such fame for "Angela's Ashes." But he left the book on the shelf when it came out, he says.
"I told Frank that I had bought the book but couldn't read it," he says. "I was afraid it would influence me."
Clancy sees "The Mountain of the Women" as the first book of at least two. "There are great stories to be told still," he says. He loves his performing career but writing has opened a new world. "It's a magic carpet that can take you anyplace."
And how far will he go? He's not sure. There were the wild days of touring after "Sullivan," going broke, hosting a talk show in western Canada, restarting his career with a fluke hit song, "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda." A life of somehow being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
"Serendipitous things kept happening," he says. "It will make for a good book."
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