On Friday word came down that Irish folk singer Liam Clancy, 74 years old, had died. Within minutes Facebook was awash in the news. Radio DJs announced they were planning tributes. Others, including me, posted Clancy Brothers videos.
I found a clip of Liam Clancy singing The Patriot Game, the ballad written by Dominic Behan, brother of renowned Irish playwright Brendan Behan. I had not heard the song in years, but even so, I discovered I knew it by heart.
I am neither Catholic nor descended from the Irish, but you could not have guessed that from my family’s record collection. While my parents also had Scottish bagpipe music and such evocative titles as “Folk Songs From Many Lands,” we had every record ever released by The Clancy Brothers.
“The Patriot Game” was included in their landmark 1964 album, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem in Person at Carnegie Hall. That one album gave me more of a political and geographic education than my Dallas teachers ever could.
I didn’t know much about Ireland, or New York for that matter. What was Carnegie Hall? I only knew it was important because of the way the audience thundered their approval at one particular anecdote the Clancy Brothers — probably Liam, since he was reputed to be the storyteller of the group — told that November evening in 1961.
Irish boys would do something “very cruel.” They would “kill a little bird called the wren, harmless and tame.” On St. Stephens Day, boys would go door to door singing “The Wren Song” to raise money for the wren’s funeral. Some boys sang “The Wren Song” as fast as they possibly could, to make more money. Other boys, “the folk, ethnic type,” sang “slowly and deliberately. They never made any money, of course. (pause) but they ended up in Carnegie Hall.”
In my house the live album of the Clancy Brothers got played so many times, I had it memorized. When I caught the flu, I played it half a dozen times in one day. In feverish dreams, the Clancy Brothers were friends of mine.
Many songs were raucous and, naturally, full of drinking and other activities that were new to my tender, dry-county ears. Midway through the album, Liam Clancy sang “The Patriot Game” in a quiet, but clear and impassioned, voice:
For the love of one’s country is a terrible thing.
It banishes fear with the speed of a flame,
And it makes us all part of the patriot game.
My name is O’Hanlon, and I’m just gone sixteen.
My home is in Monaghan, where I was weaned.
I learned all my life cruel England to blame,
And so I’m a part of the patriot game.
It’s barely two years since I wandered away
With the local battalion of the bold IRA,
I’d read of our heroes, and I wanted the same
To play out my part in the patriot game.
This island of ours has for long been half free.
Six counties are under John Bull’s tyranny.
So I gave up my Bible, to drill and to train
To play my own part in the patriot game.
And now as I lie here, my body all holes
I think of those traitors who bargained and sold
And I wish that my rifle had given the same
To those Quislings who sold out the patriot game.
“The Patriot Game” was my first exposure to the ambiguities of war, rebellion and revolution. What I did not know at the time was that songwriter Dominic Behan had publicly criticized the Clancy Brothers rendition, since it left out the most controversial lyrics, condoning the murder of Irish police.
Furthermore, Clancy added two lines not in the original: “So I gave up my Bible, to drill and to train / To play my own part in the patriot game.” Clancy’s version was almost a pacifist lament, and that would later dovetail with novels I would read in high school — “1984” and “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
For many Americans, “The Patriot Game” was their first taste of music as an agent of change, a role that Woody Guthrie had pioneered and Bob Dylan would master. And this Irish ballad, as Liam Clancy portrayed it, later resonated with Americans questioning the Vietnam War.
As a fifth-generation Texan with ancestors who came from Missouri and Tennessee, I could not claim Irish blood, but I suspected that with advances in genealogy, someday I would learn my family was part Irish. Or maybe Scotch-Irish, as they were known in Texas. (I later learned there’s no such thing. Scotch-Irish was just a way to distinguish early Irish settlers from the new kids on the block.)
To my dismay, my brother found we were — on both sides — almost 100 percent English as far back as he could go. Even so, I’ll raise a parting glass to Liam Clancy, the man who gave me my first glimpse into a world bigger, more complicated and more beautiful than my own.
[originally published by Politics Daily in 2009]