The parting glass: tributes to Tomás Clancy

The Business Post’s wine and spirits correspondent, who died last week, was a warm and entertaining man who wore his knowledge lightly, and shared it generously

Gillian Nelis

Managing Editor @gnelis
7th June, 2020
The parting glass: tributes to Tomás Clancy
Tomás Clancy, the Business Post’s wine and spirits correspondent: his untimely death following an illness has led to an outpouring of love, affection and warmth

It started, appropriately enough, with vintage Champagne. One of the first articles written by Tomás Clancy for this newspaper was in 1999, and it appeared in a glossy magazine that was given away free to readers to mark the millennium.

The magazine was called Meltdown – no one can quite remember why – and it was edited by Irish Times journalist Jennifer O’Connell, who herself was not long in the door at what was then The Sunday Business Post.

“I dug out a copy of Meltdown when I learned with huge sorrow of his death,” she says. “I wasn‘t surprised to find that it was as fresh, succinct and – for a Champagne lover – as useful now as it was then.”

“Vintage Champagne,” he wrote in that piece, “is a gift from God. It is quite simply left to get on with the business of growing old spectacularly.”

Jennifer speaks for all of us who knew Tomás when she says that she is heartbroken that he won‘t get to grow old spectacularly. But she also speaks for those who felt they knew him through his writing, his broadcasting and his college lecturing.

In the days since his untimely death following an illness, the outpouring of love, affection and warmth has been astonishing, though not surprising.

Journalism can be a world of rivalries, petty jealousies and long-held grudges, and there is no better arena for them than events like press launches and events.

Normally, you focus on who you don‘t want to sit beside, and desperately try to avoid them. When Tomás was in attendance you fought hard for one of the seats near him, because you knew if you bagged one you were in for a great time.

Wine was, of course, a passion for Tomás, but so were many other things. Chief among them were his wife Claire and their two boys, Tomás and James; a prouder father you could not meet.

Music, history, politics, the law and broadcasting were just some of his many other passions. Flying, as you will read below, definitely was not.

His wine knowledge, if you‘ll pardon the pun, flowed out of him, and the greatest challenge he posed to an editor was trying to fit all that knowledge in. I learned fairly quickly that if I needed 1,000 words from Tomás, the best way to get it was to ask for 500.

But time spent working on Tomás’s copy was always time well spent. Any knowledge I have of wine and spirits came solely from him, and I know I am far from alone in that.

I had asked for anyone with special memories of Tomás to get in touch. So many came that it would have been impossible to fit them all in. But the ones here will, I hope, reflect the life of a man who was truly one of a kind.

Tomás now rests beside his beloved mother Peggy in Galway, sadly missed by Claire, Tomás, James, his father Luke, his brothers Luke and Neil, and so many more of us who knew and loved him. We will never forget him.

Sean Moncrieff, Newstalk presenter

I can‘t quite remember how Tomás ended up contributing to our radio show, but I do remember that within five minutes of him starting to talk, we all realised how amazing he was.

He was incredibly intelligent, but never patronising. When he was doing the Movies and Booze slot, we would regularly get texts from listeners asking if Tomás could go round to their house and just talk while they drank the wine.

It was that voice – you could listen to it all day – and that incredible knowledge. It was never just about the wine for Tomás, it was about human history, and connecting apparently disparate things into those wonderful narratives.

When I called Esther McCarthy, who worked with us on Movies and Booze, to tell her the news, she said: “I loved Tomás. But you really loved Tomás.” And I did. There wasn‘t a mean bone in his body. I loved him, I admired him, and I will miss him terribly.

Sean and Francoise Gilley, wine retailers

Tomás loved writing and he was unbelievably good at it. His articles were exemplary. He was also remarkably, and notoriously, late for any wine dinners or tastings.

He worried us. Would he come? Would he not come? Should we start? Should we not start? We waited and we waited. Then suddenly, much like a butterfly and always dapperly dressed with a certain je ne sais quoi, Tomás would make a discreet entrance, apologising profusely.

As well as a colossus of wine, Tomás loved music, art and politics. He loved life. He was a jovial man, great company, inexhaustible with an acute sense of humour. We will miss our dear friend so much, and we will remember him as we nose, sip, swirl and enjoy.

Neven Maguire, chef and restaurateur

I got to know Tomás when we worked together on the Christmas food and drink editions of the Marian Finucane radio show over the years, and also on the Today programme on RTÉ One.

His passion and his knowledge were unreal, as was his eloquence – I loved just sitting back and listening to him. I can still remember him telling listeners that they didn‘t need to buy a wine decanter, they could just pour the wine into a bucket, then pour it back into the bottle.

He offered great support and encouragement to me and my business, and to Bláithín Ennis, our sommelier. He really did a huge amount for our industry, but above all he made you smile.

Stephane Robin, Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud

It is difficult not to speak about Tomás Clancy without using wine metaphors, because he was indeed a rare vintage.

It’s not often enough that you come across his kind. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of wine, absolutely, but he seemed to have an in-depth knowledge of everything, the nuggets of which he could bestow upon you without ever making you feeling lacking for not knowing them.

He was infinitely interesting, wonderfully witty and warm – an expert without parading his expertise. We were always appreciative of his kind words. He once likened our cellar to a national treasure. Allow us to return the compliment. We were all the better for having known him.

Tobi M Adeshiya, former student

Tomás regaled us with tales of historic feudal lords interspersed with quotes from legendary poets and philosophers during land law and jurisprudence lectures that would have otherwise lulled one to sleep.

I literally hear Tomás's voice anytime I come across the phrase "nasty, brutish and short“ from Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, as he first introduced me to the world of the great philosophers and thinkers.

Tomás had a way with words. He made the most boring lectures come to life and I always looked forward to his class. I am forever grateful to have crossed paths with such a knowledgeable gentleman and scholar.

Laurence Veale, former wine writer

I have some very fond memories of Tomás, but by far the most outstanding involves a wine trip to Lake Garda. While the rest of the travelling party departed from Dublin airport at a very early hour, Tomás took a different route because of his fear of flying.

In his trusty BMW jeep he drove from Dublin – non-stop – all the way to northern Italy for dinner. And when he got there, boy did he entertain the whole table for the night, not showing a bit of tiredness.

His stories were legendary, whether they were about how he nearly flattened a row of vines in one of Bordeaux's most prestigious vineyards, his time as a music journalist for Hot Press, his love of music and film, or how his sons were getting on with karate.

After my short jaunt with the wine world, he always had time to stop and chat. Tomás was unstoppable, erudite, charming and, above all, a gentleman.

Jean Smullen, wine writer

Tomás‘s fear of flying was legendary in the industry. It was the result, or so he told us, of a transatlantic flight many years ago when the cabin de-pressurised and the plane dropped altitude at an alarming pace. Although everyone lived to tell the tale, Tomás never got over it.

To avoid flying, Tomás drove all over Europe to visit wineries. Many of the trips included Claire and the boys, and a lot of their holidays involved trips to wine regions.

In recent years he realised that all the driving was getting a bit too much, and with the aid of a few glasses of wine he managed to make it onto some planes. But he was never a happy camper until he was back on the ground.

Raymond Blake, wine writer and friend

Tomás Clancy enriched every life he touched, and those who knew him and loved him are the poorer for his loss. To spend time with him was a joy, a delight, and I count myself lucky to have been richly blessed in that regard.

We worked together on Intermezzo, a radio slot produced by his brother Luke that cast us as the Statler and Waldorf of the National Concert Hall, full of opinion and analysis – sharp in his case, shaky in mine.

As we discussed the evening’s performance over an interval drink, he would make connections and associations I could only marvel at, weaving together his opinion, thread by eloquent thread, sentence by cogent sentence.

His mind took flight, revelling in the joy of his subject, his formidable intellect casting new light on a piece of music, its composer and their place in the world of the arts and the wider world too.

Tomás was the best of company, as the not always seemly scramble to snaffle a seat near him when places were being taken prior to a masterclass or meal showed. Even the most desiccated wine presentation – labouring under the weight of tedious fact and detail – turned to conversational gold when passed through the prism of his mind.

He was modest, but not falsely so. He simply carried his learning and wisdom lightly, and loved sharing it, not imposing it.

A particular treat was to hear him recount the experience of attending a function to someone who had not been there. At times I had to pinch myself as the lily was gilded for the listener’s benefit. And if that happened, who cared, for what gild it was!

Above all, he dearly loved his family, and it is Claire and their sons, Tomás junior and James, who will miss him most. It is scant consolation now, but in time they will have the most marvellous store of memories and reminiscences to look back on, able to rejoice in the privilege of sharing a sadly short time with a wonderful man.

Lynne Coyle, wine director, O‘Brien’s

I first met Tomás around 1998. Always charming, he was happy to share stories of his Edinburgh childhood, which made me feel welcome as a Scot in Dublin. Tomás was not only deeply passionate about wine, but extremely knowledgeable with a refreshingly humble, insatiable desire to discover more.

I have been lucky enough to have gotten to know him better over the years and I have been able to appreciate his love of his family and his absolute sense of fairness and kindness to those he came in contact with.

Tomás encouraged countless people in the Irish wine world, and his sense of fun and unique rapier wit, coupled with his boundless enthusiasm, is something that we will all find irreplaceable.

The O’Brien family, as well as its management and store teams, were deeply saddened to hear of his passing. We enjoyed his company on many occasions over the years, and felt very privileged to have counted him as a friend. His loss will be greatly felt by all in the wine community.

Philip Dunne, sommelier, the Westbury, Dublin

It‘s no coincidence that the most special memories of my wine career to date are from times when Tomás was around. When others closed their doors to helping young members of the wine community, Tomás always held his open for me and others.

I had the pleasure of his charismatic presence and company at many winemaker dinners in Ashford Castle and the Westbury over the years. I even got to share a glass of wine with Tomás and the great Steven Spurrier at Old Street restaurant in Malahide. Special times, with a special person.

Simon and Emma Tyrrell, wine importers

We will remain forever grateful to Tomás for supporting us as a small business. We were honoured to have been included in his annual awards. I hope he knew that he was always very much one of our gold stars.

Justine McGovern, California Wine Institute

On one of the trips we went on together, Tomás picked me up. I hadn’t been in a car with him before, and the last thing I would have imagined was that he had missed his calling as a Formula 1 driver.

We sped around the country, and I kept hoping he would stop and get a coffee or water or even a snack, but oh no – we had to keep moving and see everything! He had such enthusiasm for life that he just wanted to get the most out of the day, and that did not include sustenance.

When we eventually got home, I slagged him badly about my enforced hunger. He giggled and told me his family had also mentioned this ‘problem’ of his on a recent trip to England. As an adult, you don’t get to giggle too often. I will miss our giggles, my dear friend.

Julia Kennedy, wine PR

I first met Tomás when I was working in the wine industry. Returning from London and unable to get work in TV, I reinvented myself as a PR in the wine trade and I owe much of my success to Tomás. From the first phone call he could not have been more helpful.

I promised that I would never send him a press release which was more than two sentences long. He liked that, and so for the next six years Tomás came to every single tasting and wine trip which I invited him to.

He hated flying and drove everywhere. His arrival at wineries in Burgundy and Bordeaux were always an occasion – he would rock up in his black Saab, rock music blaring out of the windows.

The winemakers loved him because he was so knowledgeable and had a wicked sense of humour. Tomás was so well read and could talk for Europe on any subject. He was great company and everyone wanted to sit next to him at lunches and dinners because that’s where the craic was.

Martin Giblin, barrister

Tomás devilled with me in the Law Library. I enjoyed his charming and witty company very much. He loved the film Casablanca and had a detailed knowledge of its background which he shared freely.

I learned that Bogart and Bergman loathed each other, the geography was completely inaccurate, the props could be identified as having been ‘borrowed’ from other film sets, the actors were unhappy with their pay and conditions, and that it was rushed to meet a necessary deadline. He was highly amused that out of all the chaos came such a wonderful film.

He achieved something notable in my own struggle to stop smoking. He gently offered me a calendar with photos of lungs progressively degrading from cancer. I imagined the calendar on my fridge and declined, as the offer was more than enough; I never smoked another cigarette.

If he had a failing as a barrister, it was a reluctance to see badness in people; all his geese were swans. His passing shows that it is all too often true that the good die young. Go mbeidh leaba aige i measc na naoimh.

Aileen O’Toole, co-founder, The Sunday Business Post

Tomás’s passion for wine and his encyclopaedic knowledge were evident in the first sample column he submitted to The Sunday Business Post in the late 1990s. So too was his willingness to advise and provide ideas to the editorial team on developing the newspaper’s coverage of wine – and occasionally what they should choose when faced with the daunting prospect of choosing wines for a wedding or a family occasion.

He also played a key role in limiting the damage when a staff member made an unauthorised bid for a bottle of vintage wine at an event where the newspaper had taken a table. With the exuberance that comes with having too much wine over dinner, and wanting to outdo staff of a rival newspaper at the next table, the staffer decided to engage in a bidding war at the charity auction, in the name of The Sunday Business Post.

The staff member knew nothing about wine – and with no Google to rely on to see how much it was worth – he took it at face value that the wine was valuable and could easily be sold on. A senior editorial figure at the table tried and failed to stop him bidding. Ultimately, The Sunday Business Post won the bid.

Not relishing the prospect of telling the chief executive and the financial controller, and not being able to imagine what the newspaper could do with the wine, the senior figure called Tomás. He instantly knew that the newspaper had overpaid for the wine. A few minutes later, he called back with a firm valuation – and a proposal about selling it to a collector.

While the price represented a steep discount on what was paid, the deal helped to soften the blow when the events of the night were relayed to the newspaper’s management.

Bernard Walsh, Walsh Whiskey

Tomás was an avid fan of one of our core whiskeys and contacted me early on when we were developing the distillery at Royal Oak. He was keen to come down and see all and most importantly taste all.

So we set aside a day for Tomás to arrive at 10am and depart at 3pm. He set off from Dublin in good time but he never arrived. At about 11am I got a call from him saying he had got lost and was somewhere in the Wicklow Mountains. After an hour of trying to talk him through the route we both agreed to postpone the excursion.

Six months later Tomás actually made it and we had one hell of a day dramming over a lazy lunch that I will always remember very fondly. Tomás was one of the great gentlemen and a valuable advocate for all things great in food and drink. Together with everyone at Walsh Whiskey, Rosie and I extend our sincere condolences to Tomás’ family and friends.

David Gleave, Liberty Wines

Tomás was funny, kind, erudite and generous. It was a great joy to chat with him, whether over a cup of tea or a glass of wine, and watch him take a thread of information on one topic and weave it into a wonderful fabric on something else altogether.

His love and knowledge of wine were evident in everything he said and wrote, as was his honesty and integrity. He will be greatly missed.

Elaine Prendeville, editor, the Business Post Magazine

My first meeting with Tomás was at the Merrion hotel, where we drank tea for three-and-a-half hours and talked right the way through. For the next four years I had the pleasure of receiving his wine column copy each Monday, and had come to take for granted the flourish Tomás added to it every week. Frequently, the Magazine might ask for an extension to his usual missive, or a special feature of some kind – often at late notice – and Tomás’s first response was what a wonderful idea that was, even if it meant more work, more words, or presumably more hassle for him.

Aside from our functional correspondence, I am glad that one of our last email exchanges involved my mentioning that I am expecting my first child. Tomás’s return email was filled with happy exclamation marks, deeming it “wonderful, life-affirming, beautiful news”. He explained how the same news “had transformed my life when Claire told me in November 1999” and duly proceeded to note his intention to explore the wines of modern Greece in his upcoming column. Before he signed off, Tomás offered a sentence that will stick. “Parenthood is,” he wrote, “in my very subjective view, the greatest adventure of anyone’s life.”

Mick Dempsey, a Business Post reader

A few words on your colleague Tomás. I never met him, but boy, oh boy did I look forward to reading his column every week. I think your magazine is where I first encountered him, probably around 2015. I loved his column. We have subscriptions to the Irish Times, the Economist, and the Business Post and honestly there were weeks when his column was the only piece I found time to read! I’m not a wine buff by any means but he stimulated an interest in it for me through his wonderful writing that made the world of wine come so alive in the form of history, culture, geography, law, politics and so on. He made it so accessible and so interesting. I now cultivate a few grape vines in my back garden in Kimmage thanks to Tomás!

I emailed him once in 2016 telling him how much I enjoyed his column, and beseeching him to write a book based on it. His reply was so charming and honest. He said he was having a bad day but my had email cheered him up. I was actually thinking of emailing him recently to ask for good wine/history book recommendations. Sadly now I will never send that email.

I was so shocked and saddened to hear of the death of this great man. May he rest in peace. I just wanted you to know the impact he had on me, a random punter who never met him.

Luke Clancy, Tomás’s brother

Tomás loved to talk, but he also had a fine singing voice. Educated initially in England, he had learned the school song Jerusalem, and often sang about "England's green and pleasant land" for his wife, Claire, despite his ardent republicanism.

He engaged regularly with government about the necessity and urgency of establishing protected status for the glories of Irish food and drink products, and developed a plan for an Irish system of "domaine d'origine" to protect unique Irish food culture. It distressed him that government remained complacent about this issue.

Music was central to his life and he adored vinyl and CDs, collecting enormous amounts of each. He had everything by the Beatles and John Coltrane and Bob Dylan, and was always ready to engage in discussion of the merits of different versions and takes of tracks, or the political conditions surrounding the session when things were recorded.

Tomás was a champion debater at St Conleth’s College and won their prestigious debating prize, the Kinlan Cup. He was delighted many years later when his sons Tomás and James began debating at the school, with Tomás jr also winning the Kinlan Cup. Big Tomás went on to debate seriously at TCD, solo and with his debating partner and great friend, later Holocaust Restitution lawyer, Gideon Taylor. They were a devastating team.

Tomás met his wife, economist, Claire Kearney at Trinity College and their love was the sort that left others misty-eyed and amazed. They worked together directing theatre at TCD. In particular their production of Casablanca, which Tomás adapted from the Bogart and Bacall movie, was legendary. Players theatre was turned into Rick's Cafe, with the audience at cafe tables, supplied with endless Jack Daniel's (Tomás’s brother Neil - later an early Head of Digital at RTÉ - organised a promotion deal with the distillers). Unusually for a student play, it was reviewed and featured in the national papers.

Tomás was the editor of Icarus magazine in TCD, wrote on film for the Dublin Event Guide, was film editor of In Dublin, and was commissioned to write for Magill magazine only to have his work nixed by the legendarily alert and communicative publisher, Vincent Browne, who found it hard to believe that the brother of the editor, Luke Clancy, was the best writer for the job. Browne was wrong.

Tomás loved the various posts he held lecturing in law, loved his students and was ever available to them. He particularly enjoyed teaching them legal philosophy, bringing his astounding knowledge of thinkers from Aristotle to Kant, Derrida to Baudrillard to explain what law is really about. His family often encountered ex-students keen to tell them exactly how extraordinary these sessions were.

He loved writing his column for the Business Post, and through his illness fought to keep writing. His final column appeared the week before he died.

He made radio documentaries, which combined his favourite things: travel storytelling and wine. The most popular and influential of these was the Wine Geese, his series for RTÉ Lyric fm on the Irish roots of the international wine business. The five-part series saw Tomás travelling from Kinsale to Bordeaux or Napa Valley, meeting with wine makers all of whom vociferously claimed Irish descent. Many others have since followed this story, but Tomás was the one who put the historical, cultural and wine pieces together in a way that only he could.

Tomás co-wrote the book Wine Republic with Martin Moran. He maintained deep friendships with his many fellow wine writers, men and women for whom rivalry never tarnished their love for Tomás, and he for them.

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