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Monday 20 May 2019

Tommy Makem, Irish folk music legend, dies

Tommy Makem receives the Fusion award last month on his final visit home to Armagh
Tommy Makem receives the Fusion award last month on his final visit home to Armagh

Fergus Black

PRESIDENT Mary McAleese yesterday led the many tributes to one of Ireland's great ambassadors of traditional music, Tommy Makem, who has died at the age of 74.

The legendary musician passed away in New Hampshire of lung cancer.

Armed with his banjo, tinwhistle, poetry, stagecraft and his baritone voice, Makem gained international fame with the Clancy Brothers and helped spark a huge revival in Irish folk and traditional music.

Arts Minister Seamus Brennan described Tommy Makem as "truly a music legend in his own lifetime".

"He was a multi-talented artist whose abilities went beyond music, with skills as storyteller, actor, songwriter and poet."

His friend and former colleague Liam Clancy described him as an entertainer who had a knack of making an audience laugh and cry, holding them in the palm of his hand.

"We shared a great hunk of our lives together. We were a hell of a team," he recalled.

"Tommy was a man of high integrity, honesty, and his courage really shone through towards the end.

"Our paths diverged, of course, many times, but our friendship never waned. I suppose he was a brother in many ways."

Tommy's nephew Peter Makem said folk music enthusiasts and scholars described Tommy and the Clancy Brothers as the greatest ambassadors for Irish song since John Count McCormack.

He added: "The one thing he felt he would be remembered for was as one of the instigators of the great revival of Irish music in the '60s."

The Arts Council described his death as a huge loss for Irish music. Director Stephanie O‘Callaghan said he was one of the most influential and talented folk musicians this country has produced.

Born in Keady, Co Armagh in 1932, Tommy Makem spent 13 years performing with the Clancy Brothers before leaving in 1969 to pursue a solo career.

He later joined Liam Clancy in 1975 to perform as Makem and Clancy and went solo again in 1988.

Tommy Makem came from a musical family and his mother, Sarah Makem, was well known as a traditional singer who recorded and broadcast and who had a repertoire of more than 500 songs.

Tommy followed a family tradition when he emigrated to Dover, New Hampshire in 1955 seeking work. But his job in a factory was cut short after his hand was crushed.

He left for New York in 1958 where joined up with Liam Clancy and went on to start a musical career to last more than three decades.

Together with Paddy and Tom Clancy, he and Liam appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Tonight Show, the Morning Show, PM East and PM West, and on every major television network show in the US.

They soon became the four most famous Irishmen in the world.

They played to audiences from New York's Carnegie Hall and London's Royal Albert Hall to every major concert venue in the English-speaking world.

Liam had first met Tommy in the mid-1950s when Liam went to Keady to collect songs from Tommy's mother.

In New York they met up again and tried their hand at acting but in between jobs teamed up to make a recording for a budding folksong recording company.

Said Liam Clancy: "We recorded a dreadful album called 'The Rising of the Moon' but it sparked off something in people's imaginations and we went on to record another one."

The pair were earning about $40 dollars a week in the theatre but got an offer to perform in a folk club and discovered they could make three times as much singing Irish ballads.

It was the appearance of the group on the Ed Sullivan Show along with Barbra Streisand and Liberace that gave them coast to coast publicity and kick-start their hugely successful career.

Their influence was considerable, not only in reviving and transforming Irish balladry, but also on American folk performers.

Bob Dylan adapted their version of Dominic Behan's 'The Patriot Game' to become 'With God on Our Side', one of his most potent early protest songs.

Decades later, Dylan acknowledged the debt when he invited Makem and the Clancys to appear at his star-studded 30th anniversary gala concert at Madison Square Garden, New York, in 1992.

Tommy Makem is survived by sons and daughters. His wife Mary predeceased him.

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