An important Irish film is being released this Friday. It’s a documentary charting the rise of Liam Clancy and is directed by Alan Gilsenan.
It’s called The Yellow Bittern: The Life and Times of Liam Clancy.
I saw the movie at its premiere last week at the Lighthouse Cinema and got speaking to some people after the show to see what they thought:
(My thanks to Paul Brady, Eamon Ryan TD, Glen Hansard and the other lovely contributor for all their feedback.)
My own thoughts? It’s a great film but not a fantastic fabulous oh-my-God-you-have-to-go-see-it kind of movie, because that is neither the type of film or the man it’s about. It’s just a wonderfully intimate look at a man who sang songs and in many ways, Gilsenan lets the music speak for itself.
The Yellow Bittern (named for a poem by Seamus Heaney) is a frank portrait of what’s behind the performer’s mask, what’s in the man’s mind, his heart and psyche and what in his life – both positive and troubled – has brought him to where he is today.
“They were legends” said Alan Gilsenan, “and their songs still stir something deep within us. They are etched upon our souls in some profound way. Their story is our story, the story of a nation.”
It really was, in many ways, a remarkable rise to fame for The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem – they outsold The Beatles, inspired Dylan, Pete Seeger and the Pogues, performed for JFK, went on sessions with the Rolling Stones and lived a life where the excesses of rock-and-roll found their way in to the world of folk.
There’s no spin or hyperbole here though – this is a darkly revealing portait. Gilsenan recently told Movies Plus magazine that his spin for the audience was to give “the unadulterated truth. Spin is what we think we know about them. The raw truth is so much more interesting”.
While some might feel that The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem may have represented and exploited the worst of Oirishness and contributed to the paddywhackery image most Irish people were trying to shun, their contribution to the popular Irish folksong genre is extraordinary and this film is a compelling look at one man’s part in making that happen.
Anyone interested in the people behind making Irish music as hugely popular as it is today should appreciate the film, whatever their own musical tastes.
I spotted Liam Clancy on the way in, sitting in a wheelchair with an oxygen tube, surrounded by well wishers on what was his 74th birthday. He’s been ill recently, but that’s not stopping him. I can’t admit to knowing too much about him or the music (or so I thought) but a look at the trailer for the film was enough to convince me to at least give it a go.
I was extremely impressed. Why? Well, I’ll tell you after this.
The Yellow Bittern is an extremely touching, funny and intimate film where it feels just like Liam and his interviewer are taking a look at his life so far in a non-dramatic but eminently story-telling approach that makes it extremely watchable. There’s no melodrama or sense that the audience “must” like Liam, just very much matter-of-fact and take him as I am – how I’d imagine Liam is in life himself.
The picture above shows, in a way, the way the film is shot. Just Liam, the cameraman, his interviewer and his memories, with some incredible flashbacks and extremely impressive scenes from the archives interspersed throughout. The film took almost five years to complete and is, as was introduced in the Lighthouse, a take on “a man who has carried on a vibrant folk tradition and changed and revitalised it to pass on to a younger generation today.”
Starting with his boyhood in Carrick-On-Suir in Tipperary, the film reveals how the young Liam, growing up in small town Ireland with a mother who wanted him to be a priest and a father who wanted him to be an insurance salesman, gradually came, through Diane Hamilton, a woman who turned out to be part of the Guggenheim family, to be in New York with his brothers Paddy and Tom and how he met up with Tommy Makem.
There are wonderful early scenes. The tapes his brothers sent home from exotic sounding places in America – “Ohio” – developed his taste for new music. His experience in travelling Ireland collecting songs taught him how singing a song could give a whole different meaning to its lyrics just written on a book. Through the influence of ‘Mammy’ Clancy and Sarah Makem, the two boys had developed a great respect for music, and Liam himself admits to being in awe of the skill of Tommy Makem in grabbing and holding a crowd – there’s one scene where Tommy sings The Cobbler and you can see by his simple actions that he commands the attention of everyone in the place.
Moving to New York was an incredible culture shock for young Clancy, but it made a man of him, he says. He hit New York at the right time, at the eve of a folk music revival in New York. With their famous white aran sweaters – a present from Mammy Clancy during a cold winter – and boisterous, happy Irish drinking songs, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem caused a huge sensation in the USA. Appearing on the Ed Sullivan show was a huge boost for them – “doors opened where no one knew there was a door at all” – and over the space of a few years they had influenced Dylan, performed for John F Kennedy, toured the American South and got involved in the civil rights movements and really enjoyed life to the fullest. In fact, the sweaters gave two of my favourite lines from the film:
“Sure they were a great way of keeping off the weight.”
and, before their reunion concert started…
“We all got our sweaters cleaned in celebration, like we do once a year, every year. Whether they need it or not.”
This is however no fairy tale. At one stage Liam describes the lads as “four green-horn gobshites… wondering why people paid good money to see us twice a year at Carnegie Hall when they could go down to the White Horse Tavern and see us for free”.
By 1969, as the film shows, the group had run out of steam and Liam had to deal with an alcohol addiction that he’s very frank about, a problem with taxes that left him completely broke and the break-up of the band following their success. His line “It was like we were thrown into rubber rafts to go down the rapids for ten years… there was no hope of getting out” is incredibly potent and resounds throughout the rest of the film.
There was a Q&A after the screening which I filmed – I’d recommend it for the die-hard fans – just to hear Liam and Alan speak about the film, about Liam’s experiences and his style of storytelling – his passion for communicating – was a treat and something I’m glad I could see.
At the party afterwards, surrounded by friends, family and well wishers, Liam seemed to be in a reflective but happy mood. At the very end of the movie, there’s a quote something along the lines of
“You’re up there on the stage and the light catches you in such a way and the thought strikes you that nothing lasts. This will be gone. I’ll hold this image. It’s hard to imagine that this life, this thing I’m part of that’s so vibrant now will evaporate like a candle flame. The only place I’m going to be is on a CD, in a scrapbook or in a memory.”
The Yellow Bittern has captured Liam Clancy in a very clear, unflinching and honest way. It was a pleasure to watch and I’d highly recommend it to those interested enough to go. You’ll learn a lot about the time, the music and the man.
The Yellow Bittern is at Irish cinemas from September 11. See the Movies.ie page here, the Facebook page here and the website here. Of particular interest to some would be Alan Gilsenan’s director’s notes on the making of the film.
My thanks to Maria and Nell in Element Pictures.