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Tommy Makem, “Bard of Armagh,” dies at age 74

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Early years in Ireland
The younger son of Peter and Sarah (nee Boyle) Makem, Tommy Makem was born on Nov. 4, 1932, in the market and mill town of Keady, where he grew up in a house filled with music. For a time his father was a scutcher, or flax beater, but music was Peter Makem’s passion, playing fiddle, bagpipes, tin whistle, and drums. His wife Sarah possessed an astonishing repertoire of more than 500 songs, many of which Tommy learned directly from her.
He also learned a number of songs from Mary Toner, who lived across the street from Mone’s Bar, where Tommy worked after leaving a job as garage clerk. One of the songs Toner taught him was “The Cobbler,” later a performance staple of his, complete with aping the actions of repairing a shoe. While holding down day jobs, Tommy pursued acting and music, including a stint with a showband called the Clippertones.
When American song collector Diane Hamilton and 19-year-old Liam Clancy visited Sarah Makem in 1955 to record her at home in Keady, he and Sarah’s 22-year-old son, Tommy, struck up an immediate friendship. Those two left Ireland for America within a month of each other: Liam heading for New York, Tommy for New Hampshire, where many family members had previously gone to work in its mills and factories.

A career-changing accident
In Dover, a heavy piece of printing press machinery smashed Tommy Makem’s left hand. Impaired and unemployed for a time, he visited New York City, where he met Paddy and Tom Clancy and afterward reconnected with Liam Clancy. All four became absorbed in acting.
“Tommy and I were once cast in the unlikely roles of two priests in ‘Shadow and Substance,’ a play by Paul Vincent Carroll,” Liam Clancy recalled with a laugh from his home in Ring, Waterford. “We got forty bucks a week.”
But beginning in 1956, music became ascendant when the Clancys and Makem recorded “The Rising of the Moon: Irish Songs of Rebellion” for Tradition Records, a cottage label managed by Paddy Clancy. The cover of that album and their next one in 1959, “Come Fill Your Glass With Us: Irish Songs of Drinking and Blackguarding,” listed the performers individually.
The name of “The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem” was not chosen by them but for them. Impatient with their dithering over what to be called (at one point “the Chieftains” was considered), the owner of Chicago’s Gate of Horn nightclub put those blunt six words on the marquee at the onset of the quartet’s six-week engagement. The name stuck.
As their fame grew, so did their gigs, and talent scouts for “The Ed Sullivan Show” caught the quartet in concert at Manhattan’s trendy Blue Angel club. In January 1961, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, originally slated for four minutes, performed for about 16 minutes on TV’s most popular variety show after a headlining act called in sick.
Before millions of TV viewers, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were a sensation, singing “Brennan on the Moor” and other Irish songs with a boldness, gusto, and pride not previously witnessed by the wider American public. The cream-colored, cable-knit Aran sweaters they wore projected their native identity as Irishmen and professional identity as an Irish singing group. Their genuineness was unmistakable and unavoidable, with no hint of a shamrocks-and-shillelaghs performance style ingrained in many non-Irish audiences’ minds. It was a heady, head-raising period in Irish America: JFK in the White House, the Clancys and Makem on “Ed Sullivan.”
Signed shortly thereafter to a Columbia Records contract providing a princely advance of $100,000, the quartet now officially called the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem made their initial Columbia album in 1961, “A Spontaneous Performance Recording,” which received a Grammy nomination. Several more highly successful Columbia recordings followed, including “Home Boys Home,” a 1968 LP that featured for the first time Makem’s own stirring song “Four Green Fields.” In its lyrics, “the fine old woman” represented Ireland, and her “four green fields” represented the four provinces of Connacht, Leinster, Munster, and Ulster, the last “in bondage in strangers’ hands” that “will bloom once again.”

Going solo
Toward the end of the 1960s, Tommy Makem wanted to embark on a solo career, and after giving a year’s notice, he amicably departed the quartet in 1969. His success continued as a soloist until he encountered Liam Clancy at a 1975 Cleveland festival, where the two did a set together. That sparked another run of success.
“Tommy and I really got our creative juices going again, and we went into a studio in Calgary to record our first album as a duo,” Liam Clancy remembered. “We did Eric Bogle’s ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,’ and it went straight to the top of the charts in Ireland. We began a new career together that lasted 13 years.”
The duo of Makem and Clancy flourished until 1988 when each returned to a solo career.
“In many ways Tommy and I were closer than my brothers and I,” Liam Clancy said. “Basically Tommy and I spent 50 years together. There was never a harsh word between us, never a fight. Our paths diverged more by happenstance. I’d get interested in something, and he’d get interested in something else.”
Fifteen years after the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem separated, the original quartet got together in 1984 for a documentary on them that would culminate in a highly anticipated, sold-out reunion concert in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall on May 20.
“We always had this incredible vibe of good will from audiences toward us,” Liam Clancy noted.
The triumph of that night led to more reunion concerts that year and next before the history-making quartet of Paddy, Tom, and Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem disbanded for a last time.
Resuming his solo career in 1988, Tommy Makem never slowed down. For 16 years before it closed on June 30, 1998, he owned Tommy Makem’s Irish Pavilion, a restaurant-pub on Manhattan’s East 57th Street. He also released many more solo albums, wrote and performed a one-man theatrical show called “Invasions and Legacies” in 1999, hosted several public television specials for WMHT in Schenectady, N.Y., as well as Irish travel videos for PBS, and toured extensively right until lung cancer in its final stage made him too frail to perform after May of this year.

Honors and tributes
A true man of letters, he wrote “Tommy Makem’s Secret Ireland” in 1997 for St. Martin’s Press and received three honorary doctorates between 1998 and 2007. Two years ago, he was honored in Ireland with an official postage stamp of himself with the Clancy Brothers.
A key part of what made Tommy Makem so inspiring as an artist was his unabashed love of the best in Irish culture. In his distinctive baritone, he sang Irish songs that mattered to him, and his admiration for Irish poetry poured forth in his stirring recitation of Seamus Heaney’s “Requiem for the Croppies” that often preceded his singing of “Four Green Fields.” Other songs he composed, such as “Rambles of Spring,” “The Winds Are Singing Freedom,” and “Farewell to Carlingford,” will no doubt retain their appeal as well.
Tommy Makem’s music, wit, storytelling, conviction, theater-bred actions, and bardic enthusiasm for verse turned his concerts into events and him not just into a star but a friend embraced by audiences everywhere.
“Nobody can duplicate the kind of first-time freshness and excitement that Tommy brought to Irish music,” Liam Clancy said. “His enthusiasm and zeal were admirable. He was an entertainer in the best sense of the term.”
Limerick-born musician and scholar Mick Moloney echoed that sentiment: “Were it not for him [Tommy] and the Clancy Brothers, many of us Irish musicians and singers might never have been able to make a living doing what we love best. Tommy’s talent, exuberance, and bigheartedness helped pave the way for all of us, and we will forever be in his debt.”
In her own tribute, Irish President Mary McAleese said, “In life, Tommy brought happiness and joy to hundreds of thousands of fans the world over. Always the consummate musician, he was also a superb ambassador for the country, and one of whom we will always be proud.”
Pride, rooted in love of country rather than self-love, is part of the enduring legacy of Tommy Makem. His mark on Irish music is inextinguishable.

In sympathy
Predeceased in 2001 by his wife Mary (nee Shanahan), Tommy Makem is survived by sons Shane, Rory, and Conor, daughter Katie, grandchildren Molly and Robert, and several cousins. A funeral Mass for Tommy Makem will be held at 11 a.m. on Aug. 9 in St. Mary Church, 25 Third St., Dover, N.H., with burial to follow in St. Mary New Cemetery.
Condolences can be sent to P.O. Box 336, Dover, NH 03821, and expressions of sympathy and remembrance can also be posted on the message board at www.makem.com. In lieu of flowers, memorials can be made to the Tommy and Mary Makem Fund, c/o Attorney William H. Shaheen, P.O. Box 977, Dover, NH 03821.

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