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Irish music legend Tommy Makem loses battle with cancer

With illness slowly lowering the curtain on his historic career, Tommy Makem paused to muse about what inspired him to keep walking onto stages to play traditional Irish tunes and hush audiences with stories passed down from Hibernian ancestors.

"When I do a concert," he told the Globe last November, "I'm hoping that not only will people have a good time, but that they'll find something that will stretch their minds a little."

Drawing from a repertoire that numbered hundreds of songs, Mr. Makem performed solo and with the Clancy Brothers for more than half a century in venues ranging from the humblest of pubs to Carnegie Hall. Playing a banjo and tinwhistle, and singing in his rich baritone, he became the voice of the rebel Irish to audiences around the world.

Mr. Makem was 74 when he died Wednesday in Dover, N.H., where he moved decades ago to be close to his siblings. He had been diagnosed last year with lung cancer, the illness that took his wife, Mary, six years ago.

"Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, I always thought, allowed Ireland suddenly to be proud of itself," said Brian O'Donovan, the host of "Celtic Sojourn" on WGBH-FM. "They burst upon the scene at a time when Ireland's countenance was shaky, and suddenly here were these guys being endorsed by America, singing the same songs my father sang in his butcher shop."

Less than a month ago, Mr. Makem traveled to Ireland for the last time and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Ulster. Accompanied by his son Conor, he spent much of his time in the Armagh City Hotel, not far from where he was born in Keady, and basked in a familial embrace.

"He had the time of his life because I think he knew it was going to be his last time over there," Conor said. "He just sat and held court in the hotel, and his friends and relatives came to visit."

Though he was a musical citizen of the world, Mr. Makem's impact was deeply felt in Boston with its Irish Catholic traditions and in the folk festivals that saturate New England's performance scene.

"We'll never survive this loss because he was a legend in his lifetime," said Larry Reynolds of Waltham, chairman of the local branch of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, an international Irish music preservation group. "He and the Clancys put Irish music on the map."

In Ireland yesterday, President Mary McAleese paid tribute to Mr. Makem, the Associated Press reported. "Always the consummate musician, he was also a superb ambassador for the country, and one of whom we will always be proud," she said.

An heir to the tradition he bequeathed to generations of followers, he was the son of Sarah Makem, a singer whose intimate grasp of music tradition brought students and musicologists to the family's doorstep in Keady.

"She sang incessantly," he told the Globe in 1988. "There was music around me every day."

At 6 he began singing in the parish choir. By age 14, he had left school. In 1955 he immigrated to the United States, where a customs agent sent him on his way with a cheerful, "Have a great life." Said Mr. Makem: "I took him at his word."

Working first in a foundry in Dover, he moved to New York City and landed acting jobs before beginning to sing with Paddy, Tom, and Liam Clancy, musicians from County Tipperary who also were aspiring actors. They recorded an album and landed an offer to play in Chicago.

"We had a meeting to discuss the offer," Mr. Makem said in 1989. "We decided to give the music thing six months before we got back to our proper work."

When they arrived at the Gate of Horn, a legendary Chicago folk music club, the owner had put "The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem" on the marquee. The name stuck. So did the career.

Performing with the Clancy Brothers, then solo, then as a duo with Liam, and solo again, Mr. Makem filled dozens of albums -- he lost count of how many. He sang traditional tunes and songs he wrote, such as "Four Green Fields," "The Rambles of Spring," and "Gentle Annie."

Buoyed by the folk music boom, the Clancys and Mr. Makem performed on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "The Tonight Show."

At the 1961 Newport Folk Festival, Mr. Makem and Joan Baez were named the folk scene's most promising newcomers.

In later years, Mr. Makem estimated that he knew between 500 and 1,000 songs, and perhaps as many stories. "With him goes a lot of knowledge that even his cousins have forgotten," his son said. "I can't tell you how many of his stories will never be told again."

Conor Makem said a funeral Mass for his father will be said Thursday at 11 a.m. in St. Mary Church in Dover. Burial will be in St. Mary Cemetery.

In addition to Conor, Mr. Makem leaves a daughter, Katie Makem-Boucher of Dover; two other sons, Shane of Dover and Rory of Amesbury; and a granddaughter.

"Celtic Sojourn" host O'Donovan, who was in Ireland yesterday, 20 miles from where Mr. Makem grew up, said that in their last conversation, the musician ruefully canceled his scheduled appearance at the Irish Connections festival in Canton, which begins next Aug. 10. Instead, musicians will perform a tribute to Mr. Makem on Aug. 11.

"He said he was just blessed that he made the right choice when he was younger to follow music," his son said.