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The Bard of Armagh: Tribute to Tommy Makem

Updated on January 11, 2017

The Bard of Armagh: Tribute to Tommy Makem (1932-2007)

Who was Tommy Makem? He seemed to go through numerous incarnations and redefinitions. He was the son of ballad singer Sarah Makem and fiddler Peter Makem, heads of a household frequented by American folklorists and folksong collectors. He was the member of the Clancy Brothers quartet in the 1950s and 60's who played banjo and tin whistle, and didn't look like any of the other guys. He was the humorist and songwriting half of the duo Makem and Clancy (with guitarist/singer Liam Clancy) in the 1970s and 80's. He was the father and mentor of the Makem Brothers, a group consisting of Tommy's three sons, who came into their own in the 1990s, and with whom he often performed.

Tommy was also, and often, a solo performer and songwriter as well, though he was seldom alone on stage. He was a stage actor, poet, author and composer of a special Mass for the Immigrants, near the end of his life. For me, he was a favorite folk musician, inspiration and role model; and a friendly and knowledgeable character with whom I discussed both music and Celtic archaeology after concerts and pub gigs. I still love him, remember him, and miss him very deeply. This lens is a tribute to his life and legacy, and enduring influence in folk and traditional Irish music.

One Voice Who Got Everyone Else Singing

His recorded output was extensive, and his career in music and acting spanned over five decades; but there was really no substitute for seeing and hearing Tommy Makem perform live. Whether in a pub in Washington, DC, or in a large auditorium, or even the White House, his singing, and choice of songs, could drive an audience of thousands to join in singing. This, in fact, was exactly what he wanted, regardless of whether the song that moment was a passionate romantic ballad, or an original composition of his, or some fast, rowdy drinking song that twisted your tongue up like a pretzel. You were guaranteed to have fun, whatever you sang with him; but he wasn't about to let you get away without taking a stab at a chorus or two.

Though he admitted, late in life, that he might have opted for a solo career if he had it to do over again, Makem is best known for his musical collaborations over a period of decades. With several years of showband performance already under his belt, he entered a life-changing partnership with Pat, Tom and Liam Clancy (who, somewhat by accident, came to be known as "The Clancy Brothers"--they were, in fact, siblings), and set about blending traditional Irish songs and vaudeville material with acting, poetry, and a touch of politics for extra spice. Their arrangements of traditional songs were a tad controversial at the time, with folk purists going apoplectic over the Clancys' and Makem's penchant for interpreting the music of their homeland in American "folk-revival" fashion. This cross-cultural blend, however, is largely responsible for keeping many old songs alive in our day and age.

My parents, intrigued at the way I fell in love with a National Geographic-produced lp of traditional Scottish music, bought me an album by this Irish group one evening when I was about ten; and it is not an exaggeration to say this was a life-changing experience. The album was called "Isn't It Grand Boys"; and I was hooked from the first song onward. I bought, and obtained, many more Clancy Brothers albums after that one; and read an article at one point which mentioned that Tommy Makem left this group in 1969, not over any disagreements, but simply because he wanted to have more scope to perform and record his original songs. The public reaction to his performance at the 1969 Free Derry Fleadh Cheoil may have influenced him toward this decision.

The first time I saw Tommy perform in person, however, was during his successful 13-year collaboration with Liam Clancy, the youngest of the Clancy Brothers. They were close in age and voice, and had done much of the instrumental work in the original group: Liam played primarily guitar, concertina and bodhran; and Tommy played mainly banjo, bodhran and an assortment of tin whistles and low whistles (including something called a "Bokwhistle"). During the first half of this partnership, they included guitarists, a fiddler/mandolinist, and sometimes a bassist as backups in their live shows. Some people felt the extra instruments were a bit extraneous; but I enjoyed their contributions to the Makem & Clancy sound. In fact, I began learning, and memorizing, the guitar and fiddle arrangements of their repertoire from my middle teens onward, as I felt a strong desire to perform with these musical heroes of mine one fine day. It may have been an ingenuous teenage fantasy, but it was a very sincere one.

In the several times I met and spoke with Makem and Clancy, it turned out to be Tommy that I spent the most time with, especially when he discovered that I was studying archaeology in college and grad school. He himself harbored an interest in ancient sites throughout Ireland, and mentioned to me that he might like to join in an excavation one day, either in Ireland or the U.S. We had several long discussions about archaeology, rather than music, after concerts and pub gigs during the mid-1980s. All I had to do, upon meeting him, was to mention archaeology, Celtic or otherwise, and he would launch into the latest news about Navan Fort or Newgrange, or some other site he had visited recently; and I found myself spending more time talking to him than I'd planned to do. The last time I saw him in person, at the Baltimore Irish Festival in Maryland in 1989, he autographed my festival program first of all; and then we picked up the thread of archaeological discussion again, right about where we'd last left off.

Tommy Makem passed away on August 1, 2007--Lunasa in the Celtic calendar--at age 74, after battling lung cancer for more than a year. All I could think of, upon hearing the sad news, is that I wished I'd gotten to know him better than I had. I'd tried to get him and his sons' group, the Makem Brothers, to do a show in Seattle, working through the Seattle Folklore Society several years before; but the SFS didn't quite have the budget at the time for a concert of that scale. I still had dreams of performing with them as well. I suppose this proves that for such dreams to take flight, one needs to be more vocal, and more direct, in expressing them. Nonetheless, I am profoundly thankful to have gotten to know Tommy and his collaborators, and their music, as well as I have. They inspired my passion for folk music, my decision to learn to play guitar, and Irish tunes on fiddle and bodhran. Their singing helped me polish my own skill in harmony singing, and gave me my first taste of the Irish Gaelic language, which I went on to study in Ireland as a college undergraduate. Tommy's voice survives in his recordings and video footage--a distinctive, broad-ranged baritone, with a vibrato that improved with age, and an incredible emotional depth. Once heard, even now, it is not likely to be forgotten.

Tommy's Music: Download and Hear for Yourself! - Current Feature: The Legendary Tommy Makem Collection

Here's a recent tribute compilation, apparently released just this past summer!

Great Tommy Makem items from Amazon

How about some downloads this time?

Tommy Makem on Videos - Tommy in all his groups and guises...

With a focus on live concert performances...

From the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem Reunion Tour, 1983-84

A portion of a legendary live performance on Ireland's "Late Late Show", then hosted by Gay Byrne.

Tommy Makem with Barley Bree: Live Performance

Tommy Makem, performing with his nephews' band, Barley Bree, sometime in the 1980's (not sure of the actual date).

Music Makers: Makem & Clancy at Bunratty Castle Banquet (1978)

Makem & Clancy at Bunratty Castle, Co. Limerick, Ireland

Extremely rare and delightful footage of Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy in medieval period costume, entertaining cosplaying revelers at a banquet at Bunratty Castle in the spring of 1978.

Shout Out For Tommy Makem!

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      I love Tommy Makem. He is much missed.

    • SongDog profile image

      SongDog 7 years ago

      Great lens! I just viewed Tommy Makem's Ireland on Create TV (PBS) last evening ~ it's a wonderful series~

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      Teenager-Books 8 years ago

      Poor Tommy must be very cut up at the moment. RIP Liam

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      anonymous 8 years ago

      Tommy was the man who inspired me and eventually I wrote a book on him and the Clancy Brothers.