Tommy Makem: 1932 - 2007
Tommy Makem, singer, songwriter, author, actor, tin whistler and piccolo player, raconteur and passionate advocate of Irish culture, passed away on August 1st, 2007 in Dover NH where he had been based since arriving in the United States in 1955. He had battled lung cancer for over a year with enormous fortitude and grace and continued to perform at concerts and festivals until very recently. He was the consummate stage performer and unfailingly brought an infectious energy and enthusiasm to his performances. He was one of Ireland's foremost musical ambassadors for nearly half a century and it is hard to imagine how Irish music might have evolved over that time without his magisterial presence.
Tommy was born in Keady, County Armagh on November 4th 1932. He grew up in a musical household. His father Peter played the highland pipes and tin whistle. Tommy got a lot of his songs from his mother Sarah Makem who had a huge repertoire. As Tommy told me in a 1991 interview: "my mother never stopped singing, from morning 'til night-continuously singing...She just had a vast, vast collection of songs. She got a lot of them from her mother's family... They all worked in the mills, the linen mills-including my mother and her mother, my grandmother. All of the family, her family, would have worked in [the mills].. My father was also a scutcher in a flax mill... I always sang. We always sang. Everybody in the house sang"
Folk song collector Diana Hamilton visited Sarah Makem in 1955 and brought along with her as a recording assistant Liam Clancy from County Tipperary, who also came from a well known musical family. That meeting with Liam was to lead to an association that lasted for decades. In New York in the late 1950's they found themselves working as actors in off-Broadway productions earning barely over 40 dollars a week. There they teamed up with fellow actors, Liam's elder brothers Tom and Paddy to form a singing group which became known The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. They were heavily influenced by luminaries such as Pete Seegar and the Weavers and other musicians and singers in the American folk music revival which was in full spate in Greenwich Village at that time. The four of them began singing Irish songs in a new animated and exuberant style and they went on quickly to achieve national recognition assisted greatly by a 16 minute appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Their Irishness was accentuated by the traditional hand-knitted Aran sweaters they adopted as their stage "costume." Their newly found fame in America caused a sensation back in the homeland where their records were played constantly on radio. Their Columbia recording; The Boys Won't Leave the Girls Alone arguably stands as the finest of the scores of LP's they made.
Their first tour of Ireland in 1962 established them as veritable superstars assisted by the newly established Irish national television station which broadcast their performances nationwide. Their success validated the traditional culture even if the songs were packaged in novel fashion. It was exactly what the country needed in a time of great social transition and their success helped kick start an extraordinary revitalization of traditional Irish music and song which extends to this day. Indeed the genre of Irish pub singing worldwide owes its very existence to the pioneering quartet.
Tommy's world renowned composition Four Green Fields, written in the long standing tradition of allegorical Irish political song, is one of the most famous and enduring songs in this genre.
Tommy left the group in 1969 and embarked on a solo career. He teamed up with Liam Clancy again in 1975 and the two of them toured and recorded together for the next 13 years before Tommy returned to a solo career. He continued to do concerts and festivals and produced and performed on numerous television shows in Ireland, the United States and Canada.
His fame continued to grow in his final years as he became one of the elder statesmen of Irish music. He added steadily to his already prodigious output of recordings. He wrote a book titled "Tommy Makem's Secret Ireland" in 1997 and was awarded three honorary doctorates between 1998 and 2007. Last year the Republic of Ireland issued an official postage stamp of himself with the Clancy Brothers.
He is survived by his daughter Katie, grandchildren Molly and Robert and sons Shane, Rory and Conor, who are also singers and musicians and perform in a well known group known as The Makem Brothers.
If it weren't for Tommy Makem many of us Irish musicians and singers performing today might never have been able to make a living doing what we love best. His talent, exuberance, and bigheartedness helped pave the way for us all, and we will forever be in his debt.
Mick Moloney: New York University