A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day
By Stephen O’Connor
“I never heard a singer as good as Liam, ever. He was the best ballad singer I ever heard in my life, and still is.”
—Bob Dylan, 1986
Somewhere around 1982, not long after the noon hour on a Saturday, I stopped into a nearly empty Irish pub in Boston called The Black Rose. You may know it. I took a seat at the bar and ordered a Guinness. The bartender brought it, and as I began to drink, a man sauntered in wearing a corduroy cap and carrying a guitar case. I recognized him immediately. Liam Clancy took a stool a few feet away from mine. I could not have been more awed if Paul McCartney had come in and taken that barstool. Let me explain.
In 1966, I was eleven years old. My father, the son of Irish immigrants, came home with a three-record box set entitled The Irish Uprising 1916-1922, narrated by Charles Kurault. Perhaps more than anything else in my life, I look back to that simple event as the impetus for a lifelong interest in Irish history, music and literature, and by extension an interest in music, history and literature in general. Once you realize the power of poetry, you are interested in all kinds of poetry.
Obsession has a negative connotation, so I’ll say that I became intensely intrigued with those recordings, which I played over and over on my parents’ stereo in the living room. There were songs performed by Liam Clancy, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Brendan O’Duill, Anne Byrne and others. There were interviews with participants in the uprising such as Rory Brugha, Sean Harling, Joseph Clarke and Sean T. O’Kelly and a heartbreaking interview with Mrs. Eileen O’Hanrahan Reilly, whose husband, Michael O’Hanrahan had been second in command of a Dublin battalion under Thomas McDonough.. She spoke of visiting him in Kilmainham Jail after the failed insurrection. I can still her the old woman’s voice: “‘Surley,’ Mícheál said, ‘you don’t think you’ll not see me again.’ Well, I did see him again, but if I did ‘twas for his execution.”
There were recitations of the poetry of Yeats, the words of O’Casey, and Pearse’s famous oration at the grave of O’Donovan Rossa: “They think that they’ve purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. But the fools, the fools, the fools! They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland, unfree, shall never be at peace.” The events of 1916, the poets and martyrs, and many of the participants were both, filled my imagination. When my fifth-grade teacher asked us to name a president, I wrote Eamon DeValera. It was marked wrong.
The records in that box awakened me to my heritage in a profound way. I began to see my grandparents on the O’Connor and Leahy sides as expatriates from a land where, in the words of Patrick Pearse, recited by Tommy Makem, they’d had, “no treasure but hope/ No riches laid up but the memory of an ancient glory.”
“Papa,” John O’Connor, noticing my sudden interest in Ireland, gave me a weighty tome entitled, The Poetry and Song of Ireland, with special instructions to read the poems of Thomas Moore and Thomas Davis. “Do you want to know about the history of Ireland?” he asked me. “It was all John Bull!” Later, in my sophomore year, my English teacher, Brother Sean, instructed us to recite any poem we liked to background music of our own choosing. I stole a page from my precious record, reciting Pearse’s “The Rebel,” to the background music of the Clancy Brothers singing “A Nation Once Again.”
Finally, in 1972, when I was 17, my father asked if I’d join him on a trip to Ireland to visit relatives and see “the old country.” Looking out the window of that Aer Lingus jet at the green fields of Ireland, I felt the stirring of some strong emotion—not a homecoming, exactly, because it was not my home; still, the realization that my ancestors had inhabited this island for who knows how many centuries or millennia was, for someone from a relatively new country, a powerful one.
Irish people often have a laugh or roll their eyes at the ‘returned Yank’ or the loud Americans one might hear (I have heard) on a bus or in the National Library shouting, (by Irish standards), at the librarian, “My grandfather was from County Kerry, and . . .” I understand that annoyance; all I can say is please forgive us; it really is a thrill to return to your grandparents’ home, especially when you have heard the stories and songs of the country since you were a child, or in my case, you are steeped in the history and literature of the place.
That visit with my father was a memorable one. I wanted, of course, to take in the famous pubs. The drinking age here in Massachusetts at the time was 21, and as I said, I was 17. I stopped two young women on the street and asked, “What is the drinking age here in Limerick?”
They looked me up and down and said, “Sure, you’re old enough.”
What a great country! I got separated from my father for a few days while I met Dublin relatives, three of the four O’Connor brothers, my age and slightly older, with whom I made the rounds of more pubs, including the campus pub at UCD, where years later I would go to school. I wanted to see some of the sites referenced on ‘my record.’ I walked about the General Post Office, which as HQ during the uprising, had been gutted by fire in 1916, with all the reverence I thought due to what was a symbol of the indomitable desire of ‘Irishmen and Irishwomen’ for freedom. I took pride, even if it was a vicarious Irish American pride, in seeing the tricolor flying where in 1916, the rebels had drawn the fire of “long-range guns” when they “hung out a flag of war,” that same tricolor. We visited the farms of old relatives in Sligo and Limerick, in what I now realize was perhaps the last days of the Ireland that my grandparents would have recognized as their Ireland.
I had played violin as a child, and I began to learn Irish tunes. Soon the explosion of Irish traditional music led me to seek out Irish musicians and Irish music sessions. On Sundays, I would go to the Village Coach House in Brookline Village, where I played with, among others, Seamus Connolly, a former All Ireland Fiddle champion and a master of the instrument. I never was and never will be in Seamus’ league, but he was such a kind and humble man that he gave me and all the other amateur musicians nothing but encouragement. He asked me to play with him once in Lowell, my hometown. I said, “Seamus, people don’t want to hear me. They want to hear the great Seamus Connolly!” He waved this objection aside, and said, “Stephen, they don’t know the f——g difference.” I played with him, but the difference was clear enough.
I took the opportunity to study the Irish language with a native speaker from Spiddal at the International Institute in nearby Lawrence. At UMASS, I took all the classes I could find in Irish history, literature and folklore. For several semesters, I studied Old Irish with Dr. Maria Tymoczko, who had herself studied under John V. Kelleher. He taught Old Irish at Harvard after helping to crack the Axis code in WWII. Dr. Tymoczco had us translating pages from Scéla Muicce Meicc Da Thó and Táin Bó Cúailnge. She succeeded in getting Thomas Kinsella, who had published a renowned translation of The Tain, to come and talk to us and read his poetry. In those heady days, we also had visits from Seamus Heaney and John Montague.
Later, when I enrolled in the Master’s Program in Anglo-Irish Lit. at University College Dublin, Kinsella and Heaney were again guest lecturers. Other professors included Roger McHugh, Maurice Harmon, Denis Donoghue, Gus Martin, and the recently departed Seamus Deane and Terence Dolan. The professors were as rigorous as the black robes that some of them wore suggested. I remember asking Professor Dolan if, on an exam, we had to simply identify examples of “Hiberno-English dialect,” or explain why certain phrases were examples of that dialect. His response: “If you simply identified them without explaining their linguistic provenance, I would consider that flabbiness of intellectual fiber.” Nearly all of them are gone now, joining the ever-growing crowd that gathers around us as we age, all the “dear shadows,” to use Yeats’s phrase.
So, you may understand now what it meant to me to sit two barstools away from Liam Clancy on that Saturday afternoon. He ordered a Guinness, and I began to consider what I might say to him. That I could recite word for word his reading of O’Casey’s “Drums Under the Window”? How as a boy I had listened breathlessly as he sang the tragic lines,
The banshee cried when young Dalton died
In the valley of Knockanure.
It was more than that. He and the other artists on that record had shown me the power of words, and I believe it was then that I began to love words, to want to read, and later, to write. I even heard power in words I could not understand. I had not fully realized that there was an Irish language until I heard Liam Clancy sing An Durd Fainne. The history and culture of the countless generations that preceded me opened before me for the first time. Here was one of the principal voices that had set me on the course of a life that had led to all the fascinating and brilliant people I had met. How do you thank someone for having made you who you are?
I sat there, silent, beside this icon. I didn’t know how to say any of it, where to begin. I thought I’d never be able to explain it to him; I’d sound like some shmaltzy fan, bothering him while he was trying to relax and enjoy a pint. And of course, I wanted to show him nothing but respect. Finally, I thought I’d just say, “Liam, I don’t want to bother you. I just want to say thank you.” I was preparing to do this when the bartender came over, rested his elbows on the bar and began to converse with him. Now, I would have to interrupt their conversation. In the end, my fear of being obnoxious overcame my desire to communicate. I finished my Guinness, and as I rose to leave, Liam Clancy caught my eye and gave me a smile and a nod. I nodded back, and that was it.
Over the decades that have passed, I’ve thought of this incident many times; I don’t know why it seems to hold such significance for me—maybe it’s a metaphor for all of the doubts that hold us back, all of the opportunities we miss.
I once related the encounter, or lack of encounter, to a friend, Tom O’Carroll, an accomplished balladeer from Dublin who now lives in Newburyport. He knew Liam Clancy. He said, “Stephen, you should have spoken to him. He would have loved to talk to you.” Well, that did nothing to relieve my regret. Sometimes in life, you get one shot. Liam Clancy is gone. I can only imagine the conversation we might have had. We could have talked about the weather, and it would have been unforgettable for me.
Recently, I heard that Anne Byrne had passed away. She too had sung on that three-record set, a voice as clear as a bell and as rich as summer interpreting songs that stirred my young soul: “A Tri-Colored Ribbon,” “Shall My Soul Pass Through Old Ireland,” and “The West’s Asleep.” I did not make the mistake of hesitating again. I was able to find the email address of her widower, Patrick Roche, and wrote to him to tell him how much her voice had meant to me. I won’t quote his response here because I don’t have his permission. Suffice it to say that I felt that I had paid some small interest on a very old debt and was glad that I had.
I’ve developed interests in many things in my life. The American Transcendentalists. Sherlock Holmes. I became a mad Francophile for years and learned French and went to work in France, (bringing the fiddle to busk on street corners with Irish and American tunes). Three decades ago, I married Olga Ortiz, a Colombian immigrant here in Lowell, and learned Spanish and a lot about the music and culture of South America. I hope I will continue to find new interests and new obsessions. But somewhere in the cellar there’s a box of old records that contains, The Irish Uprising, 1916-1922. And in the bookcase is John O’Connor’s gift, which my father had rebound for me one Christmas, The Poetry and Song of Ireland.
These were the catalysts for a lifelong love of language and literature, of words. In his last interview, in 2009, Liam Clancy was asked what was ‘the secret’ to being a great ballad singer. He said that great songs had a depth that he always tried to find, and that he was often frustrated in trying to express in sound what was going on in his head. “My involvement,” he said, “was always with words. I was totally in love with words, and my head was away with the fairies.” I need no record nor book to hear the words that Liam Clancy spoke and sang. And I write this now to say the words I should have said that afternoon long ago, Thank you, Liam.