Julie Crowley was at the Cork Film Festival to see Alan Gilsenan’s documentary biopic of Liam Clancy, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year.
The Yellow Bittern is a 2009 music documentary about Liam Clancy, of the influential folk music group The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Directed by Alan Gilsenan, the current Film Artist in Residence at UCC, it tells the fascinating story of Clancy’s life and musical career. I was lucky enough to attend the screening at Cork Film Festival in the Gate Cinema, which was followed by a question-and-answer session with director Alan Gilsenan and Carrie Crowley.
The documentary chronicles Liam Clancy’s life, from his childhood in Carrick-on-Suir to his successful career in America. It combines studio interviews with Clancy, archival concert footage, newsreels, home videos, and personal photographs from the Clancy family. It’s an intimate biopic that gives insights into one of Ireland’s best-loved balladeers.
The group, comprising Paddy, Liam and Tom Clancy, and their friend Tommy Makem, went on to achieve international success that paved the way for other folk artists and played a vital part in the revival of folk music in New York City. The group performed at Greenwich Village and earned a favourable reputation.
Their trademark Aran sweaters were originally a gift from the Clancy siblings’ mother for the cold American winters. Liam Clancy became friendly with Diane Guggenheim, an heiress who developed feelings for him. The documentary team and Clancy returned to the Guggenheim House where he recalled his time there.
The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem performed on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1961, which brought them to an audience of millions and performing sold out concerts in Carnegie Hall and playing for John F. Kennedy at the White House. They collaborated with famous musicians such as Pete Seeger, Odetta, and Josh White. Bob Dylan was influenced by the group, describing Liam Clancy as the best ballad singer he had ever heard. In a then-controversial move, they supported the American Civil Rights Movement by performing concerts to raise money for the cause. Clancy also spoke out against the Vietnam War, having witnessed the tragic return of soldiers’ body bags in New York during the war.
The band released many successful folk songs and ballads over their long, illustrious career, including The Parting Glass, Will Ye Go Lassie Go, Finnegan’s Wake and The Irish Rover. They broke up due to interpersonal conflicts, later reforming successfully in the ’80s. Liam Clancy pursued a solo career and later re-joined Tommy Makem for a series of successful albums and won a Canadian Emmy for his television show.
Clancy speaks about his struggles with alcoholism and panic attacks at the height of their touring success. He became reliant on alcohol to quell nerves, eventually giving it up for his family’s sake.
The documentary is poignant at times. Many of the people involved in Liam Clancy’s life story have since died. Clancy was the last surviving member of the group at the time the documentary was made. He feels the loss of his comrades and family members, and is conscious of his own mortality. Clancy passed away in 2009 in a Cork hospital, leaving a rich legacy of musical tradition.
After the Film Festival screening, Gilsenan spoke about his friendship with the late Liam Clancy. They got to know each other well while making the film. He became forthcoming about his life while being interviewed. Gilsenan described the ‘wellspring of two folk traditions’ North and South of the Border, from the mothers of the Clancy Brothers and of Tommy Makem. He spoke about the rediscovery of important footage for the documentary, which they were fortunate to find. Clancy possessed rusty cans of old 16mm film which had never been developed. The film was brought to the Irish Film Institute and developed to reveal never-before-seen footage, including the video of Liam and Kim’s wedding ceremony and the after-party.
Gilsenan also answered questions about his other features, including his current Ulysses project inspired by Molly Bloom, and his early documentary The Road to God Knows Where. A new edition of The Yellow Bittern is soon to be released. It contains extra footage, including Greenwich Village, interviews with Tommy Makem and a concert with Odetta. I was glad to get the opportunity to see this fantastic film again in a new context. Liam Clancy was a talented singer and musician who is sorely missed. The Yellow Bittern is an important Irish film that chronicles an icon of folk music.
The Yellow Bittern screened on 14th November 2019 as part of the Cork Film Festival (7 – 17 November).
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