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Tommy Makem

Thomas 'Tommy' Makem (November 4, 1932August 1, 2007) was an internationally celebrated Irish folk musician, artist, poet and storyteller, best known as a member of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. He played the long-necked 5-string banjo, guitar, tin whistle, 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".

Life and work

Makem was born and raised in Keady, County Armagh (the "Hub of the Universe" as Makem always said), in Northern Ireland. His mother, Sarah Makem, was also a successful folk singer, as well as 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.

He emigrated to the United States in 1955, carrying his few possessions and a set of bagpipes (from his time in a pipe band). He went to work in a mill in Dover, New Hampshire; but in 1956, a mill accident crushed his hand. With his arm in a sling, he sought out the Clancy Brothers in New York to make music.

The Clancys 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 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 at The White House for President Kennedy. They also played in smaller venues such as Gate of Horn in Chicago.

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.

In the 1980-90s, Makem was a principal in a well-known New York Irish music venue, "Tommy Makem's Irish Pavilion." This E. 57th Street club was a prominent and well-loved performance spot for a wide range of musicians. A random list of performers and visitors includes Paddy Reilly, Joe Burke, and Ronnie Gilbert. Makem was a regular performer, often solo and often as part of Makem & 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 1997 he wrote a book, Tommy Makem's Secret Ireland, and in 1999 premiered his own one man theatre show, Invasions and Legacies, in New York. His career includes various other acting, video, composition, and writing credits. He also established the Tommy Makem International Festival of Song in South Armagh in 2000.

Makem died following a lengthy battle with lung cancer in Dover, New Hampshire. He continued to record and perform until very close to the end. Paying tribute to him after his death, Liam Clancy said, "He was my brother in every way

His sons Shane, Conor, and Rory ("The Makem Brothers") and nephew Tom Sweeney continue the family folk music tradition. He also had one daughter Katie Makem-Boucher and two grandchildren Molly Dickerman and Robert Boucher. His wife, Mary predeceased him in 2001.


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", "Red is the Rose", "The Rambles of Spring", "The Winds Are Singing Freedom", "The Town of Ballybay", "Winds of the Morning", "Mary Mack", and "Farewell to Carlingford".

Performance notes

Makem had a gripping stage presence – the result of years of public performance, a charismatic personality, and a bard's voice. An army of friends and fans attended his frequent concerts, many recognizing each other at far-flung venues. Performances frequently included the following familiar elements:

  • Original Makem compositions; the first set often began with "The Rambles of Spring"
  • The standard repertoire of folk and Irish music, both well-known and little-known (but never "Danny Boy", "When Irish Eyes are Smiling", "Toorah Loorah Looral", or other forbidden requests)
  • Oddball songs, such as "Bridie Murphy and the Kamikaze Pilot" (Colm Gallagher) or "William Bloat" (Raymond Calvert)
  • Poetic recitations, often as introductions to songs; a frequent source was William Butler Yeats. (Thus "Gentle Annie" usually began "When You Are Old and Grey", and Four Green Fields usually began with Seamus Heaney's "Requiem for the Croppies".)
  • Jokes, often silly, made funnier through repetition:

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

  • Rarely: monologues, such as Marriott Edgar's "The Lion and Albert"
  • Exhortations, nearly always successful, for the audience to join in the singing

Awards and honours

He received many awards and honours, including three honorary doctorates: one from the University of New Hampshire in 1998, one from 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.


Makem made dozens of recordings. A partial discography is available at (see additional links below):

Specific examples follow. (solo recordings only)

  • Songs of Tommy Makem (1961) - Tradition (also on CD)
  • Tommy Makem Sings Tommy Makem (1968) - Columbia
  • In the Dark Green Wood (1969) - Columbia
  • The Bard of Armagh (1970) - GWP
  • Love Is Lord of All (1971) - GWP

*These last two are available on "From the Archives" - Shanachie CD

  • Listen...for the rafters are ringing (1972) - Bard (US) / Columbia (overseas)

*This is available as "An Evening With Tommy Makem" - Shanachie CD

  • Recorded Live - A Roomfull of Song (1973) - Bard/Columbia (as above)
  • In the Dark Green Woods (1974) - Polydor (Ireland Only)
  • Ever the Winds (1975) - Polydor (Ireland Only)
  • 4 Green Fields (1975) - HAWK
  • Lord of the Dance (exclusive live version) / Winds are Singing Freedom - HAWK

Following releases all available on Shanachie CD unless noted otherwise

  • Lonesome Waters (1985)
  • Rolling Home (1989)
  • Songbag (1990) - reissued on 'Red Biddy'
  • Live at the Irish Pavilion (1993)
  • Christmas (1995)
  • Ancient Pulsing Poetry With Music (1996) - Red Biddy
  • The Song Tradition (1998)

Guest Recordings

  • The Lark in the Morning by Liam Clancy, Tommy Makem, Family and Friends (1955) - Tradition (also on CD)
  • Folk Festival at Newport, Volume 1 (1959) - Vanguard
  • The Newport Folk Festival, Volume 1 (1960) - Vanguard
  • Songs for a Better Tomorrow (1963) - UAW
  • Songs of the Working People (1988) - Flying Fish
  • The Makem Brothers - On the Rocks (1995) - Red Biddy
  • Where Have All The Flowers Gone?: The Songs of Pete Seeger (1998) - Appleseed
  • Schooner Fare - A 20th Anniversary Party (1999) - Outer Green
  • Barra MacNeils - The Christmas Album (1999) - label unknown
  • Cherish the Ladies - The Girls Won't Leave the Boys Alone (2000) - Windham Hill
  • Roger McGuinn - Treasures from the Folk Den (2001) - Appleseed
  • 25th Annual Sea Music Festival (2004) - Independent release
  • Barra MacNeils - The Christmas Album II (2006) - unknown label


  • The Story of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem (1984) - Shanachie
  • Reunion Concert: Belfast (1984) - Shanachie
  • Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest (1965) (circa 1985) - Central Sun / reissued on Shanachie
  • Tommy Makem and Friends in Concert (1992) - WMHT/PBS
  • Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (1993) - Sony
  • Tommy Makem in Concert With Pete Seeger and the Egan-Ivers Band (1994) - WMHT/PBS
  • Tommy Makem in Concert With Odetta and The Barra MacNeils (1994) - WMHT/PBS
  • Tommy Makem's Ireland (1994) - WMHT/PBS
  • A Christmas Tradition (1995) - WMHT/PBS
  • The Road Taken With Tommy Makem (2001) - WMHT/PBS
  • The Makem and Spain Brothers In Concert (2006) - WMHT/PBS
  • The Best of 'Hootenanny' (2007) - Shout! (Clancy Brothers featured in 3 performances)
  • Come West Along the Road (2007) - RTÉ (completion video, featured in one performance)


External links

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