The Bard of Armagh

I recently learned, much to my dismay, that the great Tommy Makem is battling cancer. The “Godfather of Irish Music,” whose songs comprise a substantial portion of my life’s soundtrack, was diagnosed with lung cancer in May 2006, and the folk-music discussion site reported last week that the cancer has now spread to his liver. Blogger Ron Olesko says Makem is “receiving hospital treatment.” [CORRECTION: In a later Mudcat post, a guest identified as “The Makem family” writes, “His cancer has not spread to his liver and right now he is resting comfortably.”] [UPDATE, 8/4/07: Sadly, Tommy Makem has passed away. More below.]

Makem was “too ill” to attend the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Nova Scotia a month ago, and he has cancelled his scheduled appearance at this weekend’s Dublin Irish Festival in Dublin, Ohio. His official schedule still includes upcoming performances at Irish Fest Milwaukee (Aug. 17-19) and the Newport Irish Festival (Sept. 2), but I don’t know if that’s a solid plan or just a hope. Information on his current condition is rather sketchy.

In any event, the sad news of Makem’s worsening health has given me occasion to reminisce about the importance of his music — as well as that of the Clancy Brothers, with whom Makem performed in various combinations and incarnations through the years — to my life. I feel very much like Olesko, who wrote, “For many of us, Tommy Makem has been a huge part of our lives and the music we love. Thank you Tommy for all you have shared with us.”

Here’s a video clip of Makem singing one of my favorites, Roddy McCorley:

Much more, including more videos, after the jump.

My dad is a lifelong fan of Makem and the Clancys, and, never the rebellious sort, I adopted their music as my own at a very young age. Indeed, one of the more infamous stories from my early childhood is how, at the tender age of 3, I shocked my Grandpa Loomer by singing the rather raunchy chorus to Makem’s “Drink Up The Cider” — Drink up the cider / Drink up the cider / For tonight we’ll merry be / We’ll knock the milkmaids over / And roll ‘em in the clover / The corn’s half cut and so are we — without, of course, having any idea what it meant. Grandpa famously snapped at my parents, “What kind of a song is that for a 3-year-old?” Heh.

My affinity for Makem & the Clancys continued as I got older, and enjoyed a resurgence after our family vacation to Ireland in 1998, during which we visited many of the locations mentioned in songs I’d known since I was little. I also branched out into Irish folk music more generally, as well as Atlantic Canadian folk music — the Barra MacNeils, Great Big Sea, etc. — and, more recently, American roots music. Although they’re different in various ways from the Irish stuff, the Canadian and American genres do have a lot in common with good old-fashioned Irish folk. And it was thanks to the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem (well, and my dad, of course) that I got interested in Irish folk music in the first place. So every time I attend a GBS concert, or listen to a bluegrass song on WDVX, a bit of credit goes to Tommy Makem.

I’ve often tried to share with others my love of Irish music (and folk music more generally), with varying levels of success. My senior year, for instance, I made a mixed tape filled entirely with Makem and Clancy songs for a Hindu friend who was much more accustomed to traditional Indian music, a rather different genre. I think she was more bemused than anything else. :) On the positive side, I’ve successfully gotten Becky hooked on Great Big Sea, and while she regularly skips past some of the random folk songs that I’ve snuck onto her mixed CDs over the years, she’s taken a liking to others, such as “Old Brown’s Daughter” by the Barras. More importantly to the topic of this post, I was able to give her a taste of Tommy Makem when we went to his concert at Notre Dame last fall, and to my everlasting delight, she loved him. Although Makem had (unbeknownst to us) already been diagnosed with lung cancer by that point, he put on a fantastic show, inspiring Becky to write on her blog:

Tommy Makem…is an utterly enchanting performer. There’s something about listening to Tommy Makem’s music that makes me feel like I’m five years old, sitting in the living room of a traditional Irish house a hundred years ago listening to my grandfather tell stories about the way it used to be, stories about fairies and the bastard British and heroism and love. If Kennedy’s Kitchen is the aural equivalent of accidentally gulping a mouthful of sour milk, Tommy Makem is like the most delicious ice cold beer after mowing the lawn or a steaming mug of hot chocolate after an afternoon of sledding.

I feel very much the same way (not about Kennedy’s Kitchen, but about Makem), and I’d dearly love to see him in concert again, though I’m not sure that will realistically happen. In any event, listening to his music now, especially in light of the latest sad news, gives me an almost overwhelmingly nostalgic feeling. The subject matter of the song might be rebellion or alcohol or love — or “knocking the milkmaids over” — but regardless of the actual topic, these songs take me back to my childhood and fill me with warm fuzzies.

I’ve found a whole bunch of video clips on YouTube, from various eras, so I can hopefully give y’all some idea what I’m talking about, and what Becky was talking about last fall. (There I go again, with that whole “wanting to share my love of the music with others” thing.) For instance, here is Makem at his best, the consummate performer and storyteller, reading the Patrick Kavanagh poem “On Raglan Road” and then singing the song Gentle Annie:

That clip is, I believe, from sometime in the 1990s. (Same goes for the Roddy McCorley clip.) Here’s one from much earlier, back when the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem were still together, singing Brennan on the Moor in concert:

Even older is this clip of Clancy and the Makems singing portions of four songs:

Back to the 1990s, and with apologies for the crappy video quality, here’s Makem singing another one of my favorites, Rambles of Spring:

And finally, a Loomer-Loy family classic, Will You Go Lassie Go:

I’ll probably post some more of these as I come across them in the coming weeks. Of course, I dearly hope we have many more years to appreciate Tommy Makem while he’s still around. But even if he drinks from the “Parting Glass” sooner than we’d like, I will join countless other fans in feeling forever grateful for the wonderful musical memories he’s already left me with.

Feel better, Tommy. You’re in our thoughts and prayers. (Speaking of which, if anybody is reading this from South Bend, would you mind lighting a candle for him at the Grotto for me?)

UPDATE, 8/4/07: Sadly, Tommy Makem has passed away. I have posted several subsequent posts about him since this one:

More Makem clips

Let’s not have a sniffle, let’s have a bloody good cry

Still more Makem clips

So fare thee well…

Tommy Makem, 1932-2007 … and what he means to me

I’m a Catholic, I’m not a Protestant

Makem wake, funeral next week

7 Responses to “The Bard of Armagh”

  1. Tbone says:

    I love Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers. Much like you Brendan, their music paints a soundtrack to my childhood, especially the early 60’s material. Tommy is as great a story teller as he is a musician. The Children’s Medley from “In Person at Carnegie Hall” brings back fond memories of playing with friends and cousins in our basement while our parents drank martinis and it seemed like every day was St. Patrick’s Day.

    I’ve passed this on to my own kids who even today, at ages 7 and 10, beg me to chase them around the house to the Shelliky-booky song. And the real Fighting Irish fight song?

    “Up the long ladder and down the short rope, to Hell with King Billy and God Bless the Pope! If that doesn’t do we’ll tear ’em in two and send them to Hell with their Red, White and Blue!”

  2. Joe Loy says:

    “The ‘Godfather of Irish Music,’ whose songs comprise a substantial portion of my life’s soundtrack…”

    Yes & not only That but in a cosmic sense Tommy played a role (a very Indirect one, mind you now :) in your Being here to Record it in the first place. For as well you know, my first date with yer future Mom was to a 1976 concert of the future Doctors Makem & Clancy . [Photo from University of Limerick, circa 2001, honorary Doctorates of Humane Letters to Tommy & Liam. ]

    But that momentous LoomerLoy First Date was hardly my first time seeing Makem in live peformance; that concert (with the original 3 Clancy Bros.) had been nearly a decade earlier, and with many more in between, and Since.

    Tommy Makem’s is a truly remarkable life.

    And Yes, by all means let us pray that it may yet go On, in renewed health & joy & song. / IOW we Irish love a good Wake but we needn’t be callin’ fer th’ Priesht & uncorkin’ the uisgebaugh too Early, here :}.

    A few days back, on the Makem thread in the Discussion Forum at the Mudcat Cafe site linked by Brendan, the Makem family posted a brief report stating among other things that “His cancer has not spread to his liver and right now he is resting comfortably.” (The Family, btw, would include Tommy’s fine strong sons Conor, Shane and Rory who, with their bandmates Mickey & Liam Spain, carry on the ever-evolving Song Tradition.)

    There is Always hope. (And, remember Tim Finnegan :)

    In the summer of our lifetimes, the skies were always blue
    We’d weave our dreams with noble thoughts and dreams could all come true
    Believe in all your youthful dreams and they’ll live on for you
    When the grey October clouds go drifting by.

  3. the fourth one says:

    This is very sad news. Tommy Makem is a gifted man who has brought much beauty and happiness into our house with his music. My prayers are with him.

  4. Brendan says:

    Q: Who’s a pirate’s favorite Irish musician?

    A: The Barrrrd of Arrrrmagh.

    I’m here all week, folks. :)

  5. Joe Loy says:

    I just Linked to this post in a comment on The Mudcat. / Now you may get a Mudslide. :)

  6. Pati B says:

    Irish T. I am sure by now you have learned of Tommy’s passing here in New England. He died on August 1st. His obit is in the Boston Globe and it’s next week. Three days of waking and funeral on next Thursday the 9th. I am going to try to attend one of the wake days/nights. Loved your videos. Been a fan of Tommy’s since the 60’s whish is just about my age. Met him a few times and he was a lovely man, kind and funny and sweet.
    Congrats on your coming baby. And I am also a fan of Notre Dame. Not so much the Trojans LOL I’m a BC fan take care

  7. Claire says:

    Irish Trojan,

    Like you, much of the music in my life has been touched or inspired by Makem, and I had the pleasure to hear him speak two years ago on the history of Irish music and its influence on American music. Listening to him, it only makes sense that all of these different genres of yesterday and today tie into one another, and the music I’m drawn to has Irish roots. I’m saddened by his passing, as it means no more generations will get to hear him live and have the same type of influential experience. So, it’s up to us to spread the music on, to our children and our children’s children.