Thursday, November 21, 1996

Maureen Clancy / Irish Music in Clancys

I had intended to write last week of Maureen Clancy, well loved patron of the famous hostelry in Leinster Street who recently passed away. Other commitments however conspired to divert my attention elsewhere so that it is only now that I can return to the subject. Let me first of all make a declaration of interest insofar as I made my first hesitant steps in pursuit of the delights of Eros in the company of a daughter of the hostelry at a time when the young daughter was pushing out the present proprietor Ger Clancy in an old fashioned baby pram. That as they say was in God's own time but I have fond memories from those days of both Maureen and her husband Jim who died 20 years ago.

Clancy's of Leinster Street and O'Brien's of Emily Square are the last of the old time grocery cum public houses which were once to be found in every street in Athy. As other premises were modernised or as someone has said "were demonised", the gentle atmosphere of another age was replaced by the slick but frantic ways of the 1990's and the mock bar fittings of the displaced era. It was only in Clancy's or O'Brien's that the loaf of bread and butter could be ordered for collection after you had slaked your thirst in the inner sanctum where only the male patrons were once to be found.

Since the death of her husband Jim in January 1976 Mrs. Clancy of the small porcelain-like figure presided over the business which prospered under her wise and generous direction. Over the years she had helped many people and Sr. Consillio speaks warmly of her generosity when the first Cuan Mhuire Centre was opened in outbuildings attached to the local Convent of Mercy. In time Clancy's became a favourite meeting place for many and it was in the small back room that the South Kildare Literary Group met for many years. Amongst those who were members of that group were Desmond Egan, now a renowned and internationally acclaimed poet and John MacKenna, a writer who has achieved enormous success to date with his works of fiction.

It is however the Thursday night gatherings of the traditional musicians in Clancy's back room for the past thirty years who have given Clancy's its unique position in Irish music circles. Twice in the last few weeks I have had occasion to bring overseas visitors to Clancy's Thursday night session and on each occasion the visitors have come away delighted and astonished at the quality and virtuosity of the music played there.

Sitting on bar stools in the back room the players and singers alike effortlessly but with enormous skill and talent put on a performance which enthrals their audience and allows one to luxuriate in the richness of our Irish musical culture. On the nights I attended the musicians included two uileann pipers, Toss Quinn and Seamus Byrne who are continuing a musical tradition which stretches back through Willie Clancy and Leo Rowsome to the legendary County Kildare piper William Kelly. After Kellys death a set of Uileann pipes which had been presented to him by King George IV were given to a Mrs. Bailey of Newtown Bert, Athy whose son Sam was also a famous piper. In September 1995 I wrote an article on St. Brigid's Pipe Band, Athy which was formed prior to World War I and I mentioned, amongst others, two members of that band, George Bailey of Oldcourt who later emigrated to Canada and John Bailey, Publican of Stanhope Street. I have often wondered whether these two men were related to Mrs. Bailey who once had possession of William Kellys famous pipes so many years ago.

To return to Clancy's back room other musicians at the Thursday night sessions included Tony Byrne, a fiddle player from Glencolumbkille in Co. Donegal who came to Athy in 1954 as Principal of Ballyadams National School. If that other Donegal man Tommy Peoples and Sean Keane of the Chieftains are regarded as master fiddlers in the Irish tradition, Tony Byrne is not far behind as he bows and fingers his Fiddle with an expressiveness which prompts a desire to hear more of his solo playing.

Jack Dowling of Kilgowan played the Button Accordion with gusto and the retired County Council Overseer now approaching the 10th year of his retirement also regaled the audience in Clancy's with renditions of his comical monologues. Monologues are also the speciality of Ger Moriarty who at 85 years of age is not quite the oldest performer in Clancy's. That honour falls to Ned Whelan, former banjo player who now joins in the sessions on his tin whistle. There are many other regulars including Conor Carroll, Niall Smyth and his wife Mary who as one would expect of a member of the extended Doody clan, has a nice singing voice. Martin Cooney, Banjo player extrordinaire and Dinny Langton are some of the others who regularly take part in what is one of the best Irish Music sessions in the area.

On the last night I was there, the musicians and audience stood for a minutes silence in honour of their patron Maureen Clancy who had passed away the previous week. How the sessions in Clancy's first started I cannot say but no doubt Mrs. Clancy's helpful efficient manner nurtured the quiet respectful pub atmosphere which each Thursday encouraged the Irish Traditional Musicians to give of their best. That the sessions continue so splendidly after 30 years is a fitting tribute to the good lady of the house who passed away a few short weeks ago.

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