Thursday 23 November 2017

THE final WORD : Liam Clancy and the darlin' whiskey which led him (and so many of us) astray

Bob Dylan told Martin Scorsese a drinking story. Before he made his name, while he was learning his trade in cellars and back streets, he met a musician called Liam Clancy who took him to a bar called the White Horse in Greenwich Village.

Thirty pints of Guinness had to be consumed before Liam would give Bob the benefit of his experience. Then Clancy would lean over, fix his blue eyes on Dylan and say in a measured way: "Bob - no malice, no fear, no envy." Dylan took the words to heart.

Dylan took more than the words. Once upon a time, he seduced Clancy's girlfriend, hardly a crime against humanity since Clancy, as he let Alan Gilsenan know in the two-part documentary broadcast for RTE's Arts Lives, scattered his seed with such abandon that he fathered a brood of children by various women years before he married his life's love.

Clancy was a would-be actor from Carrick-on-Suir who left the narrow world of 1950s Ireland for the US where he became a kind of celebrity with Tommy Makem and his elder brothers, making and performing folk music in a way no Irish people had really done before.

It wasn't as though there was much for them at home. Like hundreds of thousands of men and women, they left to find their fortune or, failing that, to make a living in wealthier societies where whatever skills they had might have a chance to be noticed.

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were genuinely talented but along with Liam's dramatic and eventful life, what drove this documentary - twice as long as for any other artist in the series - was a sense of that love affair with drink that lubricates so many stories of Irish people in the twentieth century.

Liam drank and drank and drank and thought nothing of it. Whiskey, you're me darlin, you're leading me astray, the Clancy Brothers used to sing. It was the 'divil' too. The drink led to great nights with people who became household names - Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Walter Matthau and an encounter with Johnny Cash - and even now, brought a laugh to Liam's face when an elderly crony from New York reminded him of the time a waitress with whom he'd had a one-night stand thought she was pregnant by him. She wasn't.

But up close, the drink was an alibi to mask the religious and sexual repression Clancy wrote so well about in his best-selling memoir The Mountain of the Women.

"The mountain of the women is not to be confused with the mounting of the women," he told a reviewer at the time. "It's the mountain. It overlooked our town that nestled underneath it. And it was called Slievenamon."

So if it took 30 pints to stop geniuses like Dylan or Clancy feeling malice, fear or envy, what happened to the thousands of others who were less talented but just as far away from home?

Clancy's story wasn't officially about being a man in 20th century Ireland, yet coming as it did while the St Patrick's Festival was kicking off, it paved the way for some more serious questions about the darlin'-or-demon drink.

The drink we know about - it's in petrol stations, corner shops as well as bars all over the place. The difference is that we've run out of alibis. Getting out of our heads more than any generation ever in Ireland - even compared with the Clancy Brothers - isn't Catholicism's fault and can't really be blamed on sexual repression, as they could. There's nowhere to hide except personal responsibility.

The Taoiseach believes that self-regulation within the drinks industry is the best option and, to that end, we've seen various discreet advertisements suggesting that we 'drink sensibly'. Not 'drink less', because that would reduce their profit margins. Instead, and especially this weekend, anecdotal evidence is that we're drinking more insensibly than ever. Which is probably the point of drinking to excess.

It's one thing for a genius like Liam to be snared in the drink trap that stereotypes many artists, such as James Joyce, Brendan Behan and Shane MacGowan. The trouble is that most drunks just aren't talented. As Liam himself went on to discover, the drink starts off as your best friend and ends up killing you. Meanwhile, it wrecks your relationships, blunts your judgement and hurts anyone who cares about you.

His road to Damascus emerged in a Dublin pub where he was having what was euphemistically called 'a few jars' with other musicians when he started hallucinating, literally thinking he was falling apart. He woke to find himself in a psychiatric hospital whose name still escapes him - 'Grangegorman?' - under the care of Dr Ivor Browne.

"How did I want to be remembered?" he asked himself and decided he was a musician not an alcoholic. He hasn't touched a drop since. Meanwhile, he's still making music - he's on tour currently with gigs in Limerick, Dun Laoghaire, the Helix, Cork Opera House, Kilkenny's Watergate, Enniskillen and Mullingar over the next six weeks.

For every returned emigrant such as Liam, there are thousands of elderly exiles still suffering on the streets of London and New York, men and women who kept the country going with the money they sent home who are now forgotten. For every reformed alcoholic, there are thousands queueing up to get a drink.

ANGELA PHELAN IS ON

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