Although Irish music has been around for centuries, it wasn’t until the past hundred years or so that its impact was felt in North America. With so many expatriates fleeing the homeland for a new beginning and a new life, the Irish culture made deep inroads wherever it pervaded in the new country and cities. Nowadays the Irish music scene is littered with traditional yet globally popular Irish bands such as Clannad, the Chieftains or Altan as well as pop groups such as the Corrs and, of course, U2. But those groups have only a few predecessors to thank, and none of them perhaps more important then Liam, Paddy, and Tom—the Clancy Brothers. Having lived in America for over a decade performing in various capacities, the foursome scored a national television appearance. Along with friend Tommy Makem, the group made the most of an extended Ed Sullivan in 1961 and the rest, as often said, is history. Even a certain young singer named Bob Dylan was quoted as saying, “I’m going to be as big as the Clancy Brothers!” And so, with this best of collection, the proof of the band’s greatness is quite apparent in these sixteen songs.
The songs are steeped in longtime Irish folklore and history, from the seafaring story in “Irish Rover” to songs about Irish nationalism and its troubles in “A Nation Once Again”, the group’s harmonies is the first of many things garnering one’s attention. While relatively free of heavy brogue, the subtle Irish lilt is charming throughout. Another distinctive asset is that of the 16 songs, 11 were recorded live, so the audience participation and overall live feel, particularly during “A Jug of Punch” and its comedic narrative introduction. But one of the many highlight of the album has to be “Ain’t It Grand Boys”, where the group tease the audience for arriving late as well as other things. “This is getting ridiculous, it’s gotten to the stage where I look into the audience and I recognize everyone,” one of them quip while performing at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
One problem with the album is the fact that six of the 16 songs are from a previously released album and CD, Ain’t It Grand Boys, while other numbers such as “Four Green Fields” or the lovely “Waltzing Matilda” are not on the release. But “best of” albums are usually subjective collections, so it’s an ongoing debate as to what to include and exclude. Another slight problem is how stale “Gallant Forty Twa” comes across, an obvious studio recording lessened by the performer/audience dynamic. The remastered version is quite noticeable on a personal note. Having been weaned on these songs as a youngster, it’s hard to listen to the songs and not hear the hiss or static of a needle on vinyl. Regardless, it’s a nice change for future current and future listeners.
The second half of the album tends to be lyrically and musically stronger than the first, a very equal mix of barroom shanties and poignant pictures. “Patriot Game”, written Dominic Behan, describes a soldier joining the Irish Republican Army and his eventual fate, with the vocals at times hair-raising in their intensity and delivery. Another Behan composition, “Royal Canal” is preceded by a brief description of a Dublin prison, which overlooked the song’s subject and has almost the same passion within. The lighter side of the group is often that most coveted with “Mr. Moses Ri-Tooral-I-Ay” having a sweet chorus and comedic story of mistaken ethnicity. “The Old Orange Flute” is another tune that is funny while dealing with the Protestant/Catholic controversy.
The traditional Irish drinking songs are present, but not as prevalent as one may assume on closer inspection. “Whiskey, You’re the Devil” as well as “Whiskey Is the Life of Man” are decent sing-a-long songs on St. Patrick’s Day, but the subtlety of other songs seem to carry the weight of the album. Although two of the four have passed, the power of the songs rings as true today as it did when they were debuted some four decades ago. On the whole the album is a good start to an incredible band, but more albums are needed to appreciate the foursome for their excellent craftsmanship and songwriting.