Tommy Makem
Folk musical legend Tommy Makem died of cancer on August 1, ending a career that spanned more than five decades. He was 74.

Tommy Makem's soul music

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / August 2, 2007
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Like all great troubadours, Tommy Makem isn't dead. His body is lifeless, having finally succumbed to the lung cancer that ate away at him the last few years.

But Tommy Makem was an Irish soul singer, and souls don't die. His music is preserved, on the old vinyl LPs he made with his pals, the Clancy brothers, more recently on CDs, more intimately in memory, in the hard drive of any brain that heard his basso profundo voice.

To hear Tommy Makem sing "Four Green Fields" was to hear Enrico Caruso sing "Vesti la giubba," or James Brown sing "I Feel Good." He was for Irish traditional music a great ambassador, and a consummate performer.

But anyone who met Tommy Makem - and I met him several times - will tell you that he had that Clintonesque ability of making you feel like you were the only one in the room with him, that whatever you had to say was more important than what he had to sing.

When I first met Makem, 25 years ago when I was a cub reporter in Holyoke, Mass., we sat at a bar and talked about music. I wanted to ask him about his concerts in Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert in London. But when I casually mentioned I had recently sat in Gus O'Connor's pub in Doolin, in County Clare, and met a farmer named Miko Russell, who produced a tin whistle and played it like a virtuoso, Tommy Makem had stories about Miko Russell that went on for more than an hour.

Tommy Makem arrived at Logan Airport in 1955, with one of those make-shift, masking-tape bound suitcases Irish immigrants carried before the country got rich. Ireland was desperately poor then, and Makem and the Clancys - Paddy, Tom and Liam from County Tipperary - were desperate to get work as actors in New York.

But they found it easier to make a few bob in the pubs, singing the songs they grew up hearing, the Clancys in the southwest of Ireland, Makem in the north of Ireland, in the musically rich county of Armagh.

The pubs of New York then were in a post-beatnik era when anything was possible, and the beats who heard the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem sat up and noticed. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were soon on the Ed Sullivan Show and in major concert halls around the world.

Their music inspired a phenomenon sociologists call "third generation return," in which the grandchildren of immigrants discover and embrace their roots. Tommy Makem sang to the Irish diaspora, some 70 million of them, songs that gave some context to the colonization and subjugation of Ireland that explained why you were listening to the song in Boston, Bristol or Brisbane.

But the revival of Irish traditional music that the Clancys and Makem led went way beyond the diaspora. It brought it all home. The native Irish, poor and beaten down after nearly a half century of independence for 26 of its 32 counties had not yet successfully replaced centuries of oppression, rediscovered their own roots.

Because they were actors first and singers second, there was always more to a Clancys and Makem concert than music. They turned generations on to the poetry of Yeats, the plays of O'Casey, the myths and stories that the bards handed down orally for centuries. Their Aran sweaters were a bit corny, but their act was genuine, well-rooted in history and melody.

In August 1969, Makem went to sing at the Free Derry Fleadh, a festival meant to give some hope to the people of a town he loved so well, a town that bore the brunt of the bloodshed and battered heads of the Troubles. I've talked to maybe 20 people from Derry over the years who say that hearing Makem's version of "Four Green Fields" was their last great memory, before the north of Ireland descended into complete madness.

One of those metaphorical fields, Ulster, ran red with blood for 30 years. But now it is mostly at peace, and it is greening up again. That brought great peace to Tommy Makem.

Tommy Makem's nephew, Peter, will be speaking at his uncle's funeral in the next week. Tommy visited Peter in Newry, County Down, just a few weeks ago. Tommy was there to get an honorary degree from the University of Ulster. Tommy asked Peter to drive him around Keady and Derrynoose in Armagh, where Tommy grew up.

"He was obviously aware that he was looking at the scenes of his childhood for the very last time," said P.J. Bradley, a friend of the Makem family.

The music was in the soft, rolling hills of Keady. And then it was in Tommy Makem.

And now, thanks to Tommy, it's in all of us.

Kevin Cullen, a Metro columnist, previously reported from Dublin and London as a Globe foreign correspondent. He can be reached at

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Archives ARCHIVE | 11/21/06: He still sings to Irish ears
Listen to Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem:
Video YOUTUBE: The Parting Glass
Video YOUTUBE: The Wild Rover
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