Hall of Fame - Tom Makem

Geoff Harden on one of our finest musical exports

Born in Keady, not far from the Monaghan border in Co Armagh, it would have been well nigh impossible for the young Tommy Makem not to grow up with music coursing through his veins.

His father Peter played the fiddle and his mother, the legendary Sarah Makem, sang 'incessantly' (in Makem's words) around the house. She had a huge store of songs as well as a marvellous voice and there was a constant stream of visitors from around the world, learning the songs, making recordings and so on.

Tommy recalls one visit home from New York. 'I could hardly get into the house because there was a class from some university in the south west United States, and their professor with them, all sitting on the floor; and my mother stepping in and out through them trying to make tea for everyone and singing away and all these students making notes of everything she said and everything she sang. And my father was sitting near the fire smoking his pipe and he was laughing like mad at all these young people writing down everything my mother said.'

Tommy’s first ambition was to be an actor and it was with this in mind that he headed for New York as a young man. He worked on stage and live TV but the music still called and he played his first paid engagement, for $30, in Greenwich Village in 1956.

Before long he fell in with Liam, Tom and Paddy Clancy to join the newly emerging boom in folk music. In 1961 he played the legendary Newport Folk Festival where he and Joan Baez were chosen as the most promising newcomers.

His partnership with the Clancy Brothers brought him to the world’s leading stages and TV shows, putting him on a par with the pop stars of the day. The band had countless successful records and laid the foundations for the boom in Irish folk music that was later taken up by The Dubliners and The Chieftains.

He worked on his own for a few years before teaming up again with Liam Clancy in 1975. This brought further success over the next thirteen years with gold and platinum records, Emmy nominated TV series and more. Tommy’s baritone voice, banjo and tin whistle, combined with an engaging stage presence, once more won him friends and admirers around the world. And as well as his performances, many of the songs he wrote such as ‘Four Green Fields’ and ‘Gentle Annie’ became part of the staple diet of Irish music.

These days Tommy lives in Dover, New Hampshire, and although his New York restaurant, The Irish Pavilion, has been closed since 1998, he is as busy as ever, touring on his own or with The Makem Brothers, his three sons. He will not reveal his age – he is rumoured to have been on the Mayflower – but retirement is clearly the last thing on his mind.