Tommy Makem

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Tommy Makem
TommyMakem DublinOhio.jpg
Makem at the Dublin Irish Festival, 2005
Background information
Born(1932-11-04)4 November 1932
Keady, County Armagh, Northern Ireland
Died1 August 2007(2007-08-01) (aged 74)
Dover, New Hampshire, United States
Genres Folk, traditional Irish
Occupation(s)Musician, songwriter, artist, poet
Instrument(s)Vocals, banjo, tin whistle
Years active1956–2007

Thomas Makem (4 November 1932 – 1 August 2007) was an Irish folk musician, artist, poet and storyteller. He was best known as a member of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. He played the long-necked 5-string banjo, tin whistle, low whistle, guitar, bodhrán and bagpipes, and sang in a distinctive baritone. He was sometimes known as "The Bard of Armagh" (taken from a traditional song of the same name) and "The Godfather of Irish Music". [1]



Makem was born and raised in Keady, County Armagh (the "Hub of the Universe" as Makem always said), in Northern Ireland. [2] His mother, Sarah Makem, was an important source of traditional Irish music, who was visited and recorded by, among others, Diane Guggenheim Hamilton, Jean Ritchie, Peter Kennedy and Sean O'Boyle. His father, Peter Makem, was a fiddler who also played the bass drum in a local pipe band named "Oliver Plunkett", after a Roman Catholic martyr of the reign of Charles II of England. His brother and sister were folk musicians also. Young Tommy Makem, from the age of 8, was a member of the St. Patrick's church choir for 15 years where he sang Gregorian chant and motets. He did not learn to read music but he made it in his "own way". [3]

Makem started to work at 14 as a clerk in a garage and later he worked for a while as a barman at Mone's Bar, a local pub, and as a local correspondent for The Armagh Observer.

He emigrated to the United States in 1955, carrying his few possessions and a set of bagpipes (from his time in a pipe band). Arriving in Dover, New Hampshire, Makem worked at Kidder Press, where in 1956 his hand was accidentally crushed by a press. [4] With his arm in a sling, he left Dover for New York to pursue an acting career. [5]

The Clancys and Makem were signed to Columbia Records in 1961. The same year, at the Newport Folk Festival, Makem and Joan Baez were named the most promising newcomers on the American folk scene. During the 1960s, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem [6] performed sellout concerts at such venues as Carnegie Hall, and made television appearances on shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show . The group performed for President John F. Kennedy. They also played in smaller venues such as the Gate of Horn in Chicago. They appeared jointly in the UK Albums Chart in April 1966, when Isn't It Grand Boys reached number 22. [7]

Makem left the group in 1969 to pursue a solo career. In 1975, he and Liam Clancy were both booked to play a folk festival in Cleveland, Ohio, and were persuaded to do a set together. Thereafter they often performed as Makem and Clancy, recording several albums together. He once again went solo in 1988. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Makem performed both solo and with Liam Clancy on The Irish Rovers' various television shows, which were filming in Canada and Ireland. In 1974 he co-hosted the Tommy Makem and Ryan's Fancy show that was filmed in St. John's, Newfoundland and broadcast on CBC. [8]

In the 1980s and 1990s, Makem was a principal in a well-known Irish music venue in New York, "Tommy Makem's Irish Pavilion". This East 57th Street club was a prominent and well-loved performance spot for a wide range of musicians. Among the performers and visitors were Paddy Reilly, Joe Burke, and Ronnie Gilbert. Makem was a regular performer, often solo and often as part of Makem and Clancy, particularly in the late fall and holiday season. The club was also used for warm-up performances in the weeks before the 1984 reunion concert of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem at Lincoln Center. In addition, the after-party for Bob Dylan's legendary 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration at Madison Square Garden in 1992 was held at the Irish Pavilion.

In 1997 he wrote a book, Tommy Makem's Secret Ireland and in 1999 premiered a one-man theatre show, Invasions and Legacies, in New York. His career includes various other acting, video, [9] composition, and writing credits. [10] He also established the Tommy Makem International Festival of Song in South Armagh in 2000. [11]

Personal life and death

Makem was married to Mary Shanahan, a native of Chicago, for 37 years, and had four children – daughter Katie Makem-Boucher, and sons Shane, Conor and Rory. They also had two grandchildren, Molly Dewar née Makem and Robert Boucher. Mary died in 2001. [11] The Makems initially moved from New York to Ireland early in their marriage, but returned to the United States to escape the Troubles, settling permanently in Dover, New Hampshire in 1972. Makem became an American citizen in 1986. [12]

Makem's three sons (who perform as "The Makem Brothers") and nephews Tom and Jimmy Sweeney continue the family folk music tradition.

Makem died in Dover on 1 August 2007, following a lengthy battle with lung cancer, and was buried next to his wife at Saint Mary's New Cemetery. He continued to record and perform until close to the end. Paying tribute to him after his death, Liam Clancy said, "He was my brother in every way." [13]


Makem was a prolific composer/songwriter. His performances were always full of his compositions, many of which became standards in the repertoire. Some, notably "Four Green Fields", became so well known that they were sometimes described as anonymous folk songs. During the fall of the Iron Curtain, Makem often proudly told the story that his song "The Winds Are Singing Freedom" had become a sort of folk anthem among Eastern Europeans seeing a new future opening before them.

Makem's best-known songs include "Four Green Fields", "Gentle Annie", "The Rambles of Spring", "The Winds Are Singing Freedom", "The Town of Ballybay", "Winds of the Morning", "Mary Mack", and "Farewell to Carlingford". Even though many people mistakenly believe that Makem wrote "Red is the Rose", it is a traditional Irish folk song. [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19]

Performance notes

Makem had a forceful and charismatic stage presence – the result of years of public performance, a strong personality and a bard's voice. Performances frequently included the following elements:

"If your nose is running and your feet smell, you're upside down."

Awards and honours

He received many awards and honours, including three honorary doctorates: one from the University of New Hampshire in 1998, one from the University of Limerick in 2001, and one from the University of Ulster in 2007; as well as the World Folk Music Association's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999. With the Clancy Brothers he was listed among the top 100 Irish-Americans of the 20th century in 1999. [11]

A bridge over the Cochecho River on Washington Street in Makem's long-time home of Dover, New Hampshire, was named the Tommy and Mary Makem Memorial Bridge in 2010. [20]

In 2015 a new Tommy Makem Arts Centre was opened in his home town of Keady.


Makem made dozens of recordings. [21]

Specific examples follow (solo recordings only).

Following releases all available on Shanachie CD unless noted otherwise
Guest recordings
Posthumous releases



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  1. Martin, Douglas (3 August 2007). "Tommy Makem, 74, hero of Irish folk music, dies – International Herald Tribune". Retrieved 29 July 2008.
  2. Dicaire, David (2011). The Folk Music Revival, 1958–1970: Biographies of Fifty Performers and Other Influential People. McFarland. p. 184. ISBN   978-0-7864-6352-7.
  3. Williams Stacey, text on the back cover of the record "Songs of Tommy Makem" Tradition Records, TLP 1044.
  4. Makem, Conor (20 January 2011). "First Person by Conor Makem: Johnny we hardly knew ye". Retrieved 26 November 2011.
  5. "The Makem & Spain Brothers : Tommy Makem Bio". 4 August 1998. Retrieved 30 December 2011.
  6. "Issue no.47, 327:obituary". The Daily Telegraph . 3 August 2007. p. 27. Archived from the original on 29 October 2007. A popular refrain at the time was Why do the Clancy Brothers sing? Because Tommy Makem
  7. Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 107. ISBN   1-904994-10-5.
  8. "Tommy Makem and Ryan's Fancy | History of Canadian Broadcasting".
  9. Archived 14 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine : Documentary videos seen on PBS
  10. IMDB partial listing of Makem work
  11. 1 2 3 Derek Schofield (3 August 2007). "Tommy Makem – Obituary". The Guardian . p. 39.
  12. "Tommy Makem". The Music Museum of New England. 15 November 2022. Retrieved 16 July 2023.
  13. "Musician Tommy Makem dies aged 74". As a tribute to Makem, the Dover radio station, WTSN, broadcast two tributes to Makem, one on 2 August, and one on 9 August, the day of Makem's funeral. The tributes were aired on the Open Mike Show With Mike Pomp
  14. "Irish love song Red is the Rose". Irish Music Daily. Archived from the original on 11 February 2024. Retrieved 11 February 2024. Makem said he learned the song from his mother, Sarah, who was a well known singer and folk song collector from Armagh in Northern Ireland. ... A recording of Red is the Rose that was made in 1934 by Josephine Beirne and George Sweatman under the title, My Bonnie Irish Lass
  15. "Loch Lomond / Red is the Rose |". (in German). 8 February 2018. Retrieved 11 February 2024.
  16. "690. Red is the Rose (Traditional Irish)". YouTube. 12 January 2009. Archived from the original on 12 December 2021. Retrieved 30 December 2011.[ unreliable source ]
  17. "Tommy Makem - Biography". IMDb. Archived from the original on 11 February 2024. Retrieved 11 February 2024.
  18. "Decca 12031 (78-rpm 10-in. double-faced)". Discography of American Historical Recordings. Retrieved 11 February 2024. Decca 39096 11/24/1934 My Bonny Irish lass / Josephine Beirne
  19. Beirne, Josephine; Sweetnam, George (24 November 1934). "'MY BONNIE IRISH LASS'". YouTube. Google. Retrieved 11 February 2024.
  20. Claffey, Jason. "Makems honored: Dover ceremony marks naming of bridge for Tommy and Mary".
  21. "The Makem & Spain Brothers : Discography".
  22. 1 2 Also available on "From the Archives" – Shanachie CD
  23. Also available as "An Evening With Tommy Makem" – Shanachie CD
  24. "A Time to Remember". 26 August 1988. Retrieved 3 February 2020.

Further reading