Tommy Makem, 74; singer-songwriter popularized traditional Irish music

From Times Wire Services

Tommy Makem, a musician, singer and master storyteller who teamed up with the Clancy Brothers to popularize traditional Irish folk music around the world, has died. He was 74.

Makem died of lung cancer Wednesday in Dover, N.H., where he lived for many years, his son Conor told the Associated Press.

Playing banjo, tin whistle and singing in a deep baritone, Makem was known as the Godfather of Irish music for bringing Irish culture to audiences. His original songs, such as “Four Green Fields” and “Gentle Annie,” have become Irish folk music standards.


“He was a great entertainer,” his lifelong collaborator Liam Clancy told Ireland’s RTE state radio. “He had a knack of making an audience laugh and cry, holding them in the palm of his hand.”

Working with the Clancy Brothers -- Liam, Tom and Paddy -- Makem shot to fame in the late 1950s and early 1960s, playing to sold-out audiences at New York’s Carnegie Hall and London’s Royal Albert Hall. They appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Tonight Show” and other TV variety programs.

Three weeks ago, Makem visited his home county of Armagh in Ireland and traveled to Belfast, where he was presented with an honorary doctorate at the University of Ulster.

Makem was born in Keady, County Armagh, in 1932. He got much of his musical education from his mother, Sarah Makem, a folk singer. The songs she taught him provided the foundation for his later work with the Clancy Brothers and as a solo artist.

Seeking a career in acting, Makem moved to New York in the 1950s. He appeared on television, in summer stock and in off-Broadway shows. He began singing professionally in 1956 when he was asked to perform at the Circle in the Square Theater in New York’s Greenwich Village.

He became friends with Pete Seeger and the other members of the folk group the Weavers. After he teamed up with the Clancy Brothers, they were signed to Columbia Records by talent scout John Hammond, who also discovered Bob Dylan. Along with Joan Baez, Makem was named the most promising newcomer at the 1961 Newport Folk Festival.

In 1962, when playing for President Kennedy, whose ancestors came from Ireland, Makem introduced a song about Irish immigrants in America:

“This song is about some people who came and got a rather black welcome,” Makem said. “I think, all things considered, some of them didn’t do too badly.”

Makem left the group in 1969 to pursue a solo career before teaming up with Liam Clancy from 1975 to 1998. Tom Clancy died in 1990, and Paddy died in 1998.

“In life, Tommy brought happiness and joy to hundreds of thousands of fans the world over,” Irish President Mary McAleese said in a statement. “Always the consummate musician, he was also a superb ambassador for the country, and one of whom we will always be proud.”

Besides Conor, Makem is survived by sons Shane and Rory.