- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 10, 2002

By Liam Clancy
Doubleday, $24.95, 294 pages, illus.

I was wary when I received my review copy of Liam Clancy's "The Mountain of the Women." Ever since Frank McCourt's astounding success with "Angela's Ashes," Irish memoirs have been in plentiful supply, and there is a certain pattern to many of them. I wondered if I could make it through yet another version of piety, poverty, poteen, and potatoes.
It turns out that Mr. Clancy's book is a highly readable, delightfully different take on the Irish coming-of-age tale. He is internationally famous as one of the Clancy Brothers, among the most crowd pleasing singing groups of the last 40 years, but almost all of his book concerns his early, pre-Clancy Brothers life. His portrait of a young man before he became an artist is interesting on its own terms, and tells us much about him and the times (1950s-1960s) in which he changed from an innocent Irish boy to a ruthlessly ambitious, increasingly self-confident, and at times selfish and unlikable young man.
The title of the book is taken from the name of a mountain near his hometown of Carrick-on-Suir in Tipperary, Ireland. At the heart of the story is the conflict between his desire to escape the shadow of that mountain and all it implied in terms of Irish provincialism and the equally strong desire to retain all of the good things the mountain symbolized: home, Ireland's unique heritage, and a solidity his life increasingly lacked.
He cannot remember a time when he wasn't singing or hearing his family and neighbors sing, but his youth was filled with dreams of becoming not a singer, but an actor. When he was 19, he was hit, and swept away to the United States, by a human tidal wave in the form of Diane Guggenheim. She was in her 30s, wealthy, neurotic, unhappy in that self-obsessed way that only the very rich can be unhappy, and simply fascinated, darling, by regional folk music. His brothers, who by that time lived in United States, had told her of the great songs their mother knew, and there she was at the Clancy's front door, as exotic a creature as the family had ever seen. She saw in Mr. Clancy a kind of purity and unsullied idealism. He saw in her a ticket out of town.
For the next couple of years, he traveled with her, recording folk music and doing odd jobs, from the backwoods of Appalachia to the Hebrides. She transferred her obsessions from folk music to him, but he refused to consummate the relationship sexually. At one point, in fact, he pushed her out of his bed ( which led to a suicide attempt on her part).
I found this part of the book riveting because it is not clear, from the way Mr. Clancy tells the story, whether he was truly unaware of what his part of the bargain was, or if he was a very shrewd young man who used his patroness, benefiting by her companionship, influence and protection, but not about to pay the price. After they separated, he lived with a woman named Tina. When she had a daughter, he found he still "had an insatiable hunger for the fulfillment of all the wild dreams I'd had in the loneliness of the garret back in Carrick." Roughly translated from the Gaelic, this means he did what he pleased, and after four years of such treatment, Tina and the baby left.
Through Diane Guggenheim he had met American artists, actors, and agents, and he began to hang out with his brothers at the legendary White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village. At that time, the brothers saw themselves as actors primarily, appearing in Broadway and off-Broadway productions. They made their first few recordings as a pleasant, but hardly lucrative, sideline. But when the folk-music craze suddenly came along in the 1960s they were perfectly positioned for success and they dropped acting.
Or did they? Anyone who has heard their music and who has not? will recognize the marvelous theatricality of their presentations, the acting-out and "putting-across" of the old ballads, rebel songs, drinking songs and Irish ditties. They have in effect remained actors all these years and, with great skill, have created a collective performance persona of hard-drinking, likable Irish peasants who, in their past, were always just two steps ahead of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It is an amazing piece of stage-craft considering that they come from a peaceful, law-abiding Irish family not known for its over-fondness for the drink or for Irish Republican Army fervor. Even the author's first name is a stage adaptation; he was originally William Clancy.
Mr. Clancy can write well. He offers evocative descriptions of Ireland and its people, and accounts, some hilarious, some sad, of his misadventures in Greenwich Village, at a time when Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, and Bob Dylan were just starting out. At one point he mentions that the Clancy Brothers once appeared on the same bill with Thelonious Monk, but does not tell us any more about the gig. What wouldn't we give to know what the great Monk thought of these brash Irish rovers?

William F. Gavin is a writer living in Mclean, Va.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide