Archive for the ‘Ireland & the U.K.’ Category

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

Friday, August 3rd, 2007

WARNING: This is a long post, but darn it, I want it all above the jump. If you’d like to skip over the family stuff, and go straight to where I make fun of the Associated Press, click here.

Readers who didn’t catch my Tuesday post about Tommy Makem may be wondering why I’m making such a fuss over his death, especially with so much else happening in the news. Indeed, a friend texted me this evening, “I’m embarrassed to ask, but I don’t know who he is!”

Well, the AP obituary gives the basic gist of the answer to that question, as does the NPR audio story. But the bottom line is this: there’s a good reason they call him the “Godfather of Irish Music.” Tommy Makem was a great Irish folk singer, but more than that, he was an extraordinary musician and storyteller who played a huge part in popularizing Irish folk music here in America — real Irish folk music, not the sort of maudlin stuff that Bing Crosby sang. I’m talking songs of rebellion, booze and love: songs like “Roddy McCorley,” “The Irish Rover,” and “The Leaving of Liverpool,” to name a tiny handful of the many, many awesome songs that he and the Clancy Brothers performed over the years.

Makem, along with his former bandmates the Clancys, lent pop-culture credibility to Ireland’s traditional songs, injecting them with a unique style and weaving them into the folk-music revolution of the 1960s. (To give you an idea, the boys were close with Bob Dylan, among others. Indeed, the very last joint performance by Makem and the Clancys occurred in 1992, when they sang together at the televised 30th Anniversary Concert for Dylan.) Makem also enhanced those traditions with his own wonderful compositions, such as the tender “Red Is the Rose” and the poignant, militant “Four Green Fields” (about which I’ll have much more to say below).

The Boston Globe‘s Kevin Cullen puts Makem’s success in a broader cultural context, writing that his “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.”

Well, that doesn’t quite apply to me, nor to the Loy family’s original Makem fanatic, my dad. We’re considerably more than three generations removed from our Irish roots: my paternal grandmother, Helen McNamara Loy, was 100% Irish, but she was already several generations (we’re not sure exactly how many) removed from the McNamaras who immigrated. My dad is 50% Irish, and I’m just 25%. Still, I don’t think there’s any doubt that consciousness of our Irish heritage made each of us, in turn, more likely to enjoy and embrace Makem’s music.

Anyway, a bit of history is in order here. Papa & Nana Loy liked the Bing Crosby-type Irish music, not the rowdier fare sung by the lads in white sweaters on Ed Sullivan in 1961 (when my dad was 13), so Makem and the Clancys never made their way into the Loy household when my dad was growing up. Thus, although he was a teenager throughout much of their glory years, my dad wasn’t actually exposed to their music until he arrived at Georgetown in the fall of 1966. His interest was piqued by a roommate’s vinyl record of the band, and before long, a lifelong pastime was born.

My dad attended his first Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem concert in November 1967 at Lisner Auditorium on the George Washington campus. After the concert, he went to a nearby Irish pub with his then-girlfriend. Liam Clancy was at the pub, too, with two lovely ladies — both of whom he left at his table to walk over and flirt with my dad’s girlfriend. Heh. (Liam was always something of a ladies’ man, what with his mountain of women and all.)

In 1969, Makem left the Clancy Brothers to pursue a solo career but in 1975, he reunited with Liam — and so it was that my parents’ first date, on April 24, 1976, was a Makem & Clancy concert at The Bushnell in Hartford. So, in the Marty McFly/Enchantment Under the Sea sense, it’s entirely possible that if it weren’t for Tommy Makem, I wouldn’t be here.

My parents got married in May 1977, and I was born in October 1981. By that point, they had built up an impressive collection of Clancy Brothers and Makem & Clancy records, and I grew up listening to those records. While other kids were singing about mulberry bushes, twinkling stars, and row, row, rowing boats, I was learning sea chanteys like “Haul Away Joe,” rebel anthems like “The Rising of the Moon,” and drinking songs like “The Moonshiner.” By age three, I could recite most of “Will You Go Lassie Go” verbatim, and not long after, I was intoning whole verses of “Four Green Fields” and — most infamously — “Drink Up The Cider,” the one about knocking the milkmaids over and rolling them in the clover. ;) In other words, I grew up listening to this stuff, singing it, and loving it. Irish music, as sung by Makem and the Clancys, became part of my identity from a very early age… so much so that, as I said on Tuesday, the songs “comprise a substantial portion of my life’s soundtrack.”

I’m not certain whether I ever attended a Tommy Makem concert as a kid. My mom thinks we all went to a Makem & somebody concert in Shelton, Connecticut at some point, probably in the very late ’80s or very early ’90s, but I’m not certain about that. I remember going to an Irish music concert in Massachusetts during roughly that same time frame, but I believe that was the Clancy Brothers in some combination, without Makem. I know my parents saw Makem in Newington in 1994, when I was 12, but it so happened I was out of town that week, visiting Wisconsin with my uncle and aunt and cousins. I also know I saw Liam Clancy with my parents at Mystic in 2001, but that was looong after his 1988 breakup with Makem.

Regardless, I feel very lucky that I was able to see Makem twice in the last two years of his life, both times at Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. The first time was on September 30, 2005; regular readers might remember me blogging about the unique sequence of events that began with a prayer for serenity at the Grotto (this was shortly after Sarah LeFoll’s death) and ended with me remembering, at almost literally the last minute, that Makem was on campus that night, snatching a ticket just as the doors were closing, and having an absolutely fantastic time. The only downside was that, because I forgot about the concert until just before showtime, I wasn’t able to drag Becky along. But almost a year later, on September 15, 2006, I did just that when Makem returned to campus, and Becky — who is not easily impressed — declared Makem “an utterly enchanting performer.” I’m so glad I was able to share him with her before he died.

I want to harken back, though, to the 2005 concert for a moment. Whereas Makem’s opening act in ’06 was the middling local Irish band Kennedy’s Kitchen (Becky thinks they’re awful; I think they’re OK, but not great), his opening act in ’05 was the Makem & Spain Brothers — his own sons Shane, Conor and Rory, plus Mickey and Liam Spain — and they were very good. Moreover, Tommy himself was excellent in 2005. Not that he wasn’t good in 2006 too, but by then he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer, and you could tell he’d lost just a little of the spring in his step and the robustness in his voice. In 2005, though, the Bard of Armagh was still just about 100% on top of his game, particularly in the concert-ending encore performance that I’ll remember as long as I live, of Makem’s own “Four Green Fields.” Before I describe it, those who don’t know the song should probably listen to it:

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Here are the song’s lyrics. As you can tell, it’s a potent anthem for the Irish republican cause. Well… I presume you can tell that. If you can, that puts you a step ahead of Associated Press writer David Tirrell-Wysocki, who, in a hilariously clueless spasm of ignorant literalism, said Makem “brought audiences to tears with ‘Four Green Fields,’ about a woman whose sons died trying to prevent strangers from taking her fields.” That’s kind of like saying that George Orwell enthralled readers with his children’s story about talking pigs. “Four Green Fields” isn’t about a woman and her fields, it’s about Ireland (personified as an “old woman”) and its four provinces (represented by “green fields”), one of which remains occupied (“taken”) by the British (the “strangers”) despite the best efforts of the Irish people (her “sons”). How anyone could be allowed to write the official AP obituary of Tommy Makem without understanding that basic bit of fairly straightforward symbolism in his most famous song, I have no idea.

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, the ’05 concert at Notre Dame and its grand finale, Makem’s rousing performance of “Four Green Fields.” Now then, before I continue, I should probably pause to say that just because I love the song doesn’t necessarily mean I endorse everything it arguably espouses (although it doesn’t explicitly endorse violence, it can certainly be interpreted that way). I love the song not because of its political message, but because it’s a beautiful, poignant, powerful song, and because when Makem was on the microphone, it was always beautifully, poignantly, and powerfully sung — never moreso than on that September night in 2005, when the then-72-year-old Bard of Armagh belted out every note with so much flair and vigor that you’d have thought he was still 28 and fresh off his white-sweatered debut on Ed Sullivan. In my mind’s ear, I can almost still hear his wonderfully warbling baritone, decrying the “plundering and pillage” and mourning the starvation of the Irish people “by mountain, valley and sea.” To borrow a turn of phrase: his voice shook the very heavens. (In the process, it apparently shook down the thunder from the sky, considering he was at Notre Dame on the eve of the Purdue game, and his appearance had been advertised by flyers asking, “Can this man help us beat Purdue?” Answer: yes!)

But the grand finale’s grand finale came in the third and final verse when — as Tommy took a breath after singing “I have four green fields / One of them’s in bondage / In stranger’s hands / Who tried to take it from me” — his sons, the Makem Brothers, emerged from the shadows (they and the Spain Brothers had been quietly doing background vocals and instrumentals throughout the song) and sang the next line along with him: “But my sons have sons / As brave as were their fathers!” Then the sons stepped back into the shadows, and the father finished the song: “My fourth green field / Will bloom once again, said she!” It was an exquisitely powerful musical moment, one that words can’t do justice, nor could a video or audio recording, if I had it (which I don’t). I daresay it’s right up there with Great Big Sea’s a capella rendition of “Old Brown’s Daughter” as the most memorable single musical performances I’ve ever seen. And, especially now that Makem’s gone, I know I’ll cherish that memory forever.

Anyway… I think that’s just about all I have to say about Makem (finally, right?). But before I sign off, here’s a bit more of what the Globe‘s Kevin Cullen had to say:

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.

Anyway… how to end this post? Not with another “Rest in Peace” or “Thanks for the memories”… I mean those things, but I’ve already said them. I’ve also done the whole irreverent tribute thing. So I guess perhaps the best conclusion is to post one final Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem video clip. And it’s a good one: Rocky Road to Dublin, back when the boys were all together. Enjoy:

So fare thee well…

Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

My parents won’t want to miss this video: it shows a very hippieish-looking Tommy Makem — with sideburns! — singing The Leaving of Liverpool on a rather psychedelic stage in 1973:

More Makem clips

Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

I’ll Tell Me Ma:

A classic Makem story/joke, followed by The Ballad Of William Bloat:

Little Beggerman:

And for anyone who missed it in Tuesday’s post, here again is Brennan on the Moor, which I think is my favorite of the YouTube clips I’ve found so far:

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

Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

That which I feared has come to pass: Tommy Makem has died. He was 74.

Here is the official thread on the Bard’s passing. More here. I can’t even access The Mudcat, presumably because they’re overwhelmed with traffic from Makem mourners. [UPDATE: Here’s the Mudcat thread about Makem.] There are lots of tributes over on, too, including this post by Liam himself:

Good friends – I just got the word from the family that Tommy passed away at about 6.45PM in Dover NH. As you all probably know he has been ill for quite a while. His suffering at last is over.

He was a friend and partner-in-song for over fifty years. We shared a great hunk of our lives together. We were a hell of a team. Tommy was a man of high integrity, honesty, and, at the end, courage. Our paths diverged at times but our friendship never waned. He was my brother every bit as much as my blood brothers.

His death has left a void that cannot be filled. A great entertainer has left us.

All our thoughts and prayers go out now to his family – Katey, Shane, Conor, Rory, Molly and all those close to him.

But perhaps the most fitting tribute comes from a poster, Kevin Tunstill, who quoted “The Parting Glass” in its entirety. Here’s an audio recording of that lovely, and appropriate, song:

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While I’m sure Makem would appreciate that send-off, I also think he’d probably enjoy something a bit more upbeat. After all, the Irish are renowned for their rowdy wakes, based on the notion that we should celebrate the life of the deceased rather than merely mourning his death — and in Makem’s case, there’s certainly a long and wonderful life to celebrate. Moreover, while Makem’s death is a sad blow to those of us left here on Earth with a sudden musical void in our hearts, I don’t doubt that he’s looking down from Heaven and getting a kick out of all the commotion that’s being made, and will continue to be made in the coming days, over his passing. To that end, and in honor of this great man, I offer the following rough transcription of Makem’s own thoughts from beyond the grave:

Heck, he’s probably singing that, or some other similarly irreverent song about death (“Finnegan’s Wake,” perhaps?) with Tom and Paddy right now. I’m sure God and the angels are enjoying the show. I bet even King Billy is tapping his feet.

I’ll have more to say about Makem’s passing in the coming hours and days. For now, all I can say is, Rest in Peace, Tommy Makem. Thanks for all the wonderful music and memories. You’ll be sorely missed.

More Makem clips

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

Here’s another wonderful old Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem clip, showing the boys in concert singing The Irish Rover, one of my favorites as kid. (Sean and others can attest that I used to sing it during recess when I was in elementary school.)

And here’s a clip from a BBC documentary showing, among other things, Makem and the Clancys performing for President Kennedy:

I know I said this in yesterday’s post about Tommy Makem’s declining health, but since it was after the jump and thus most readers probably missed it, I’ll say it again: if anybody is reading this from South Bend, would you mind lighting a candle for him at the Grotto for me? Thanks!

The Bard of Armagh

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

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.


Best wishes (and hopes) on The Twelfth

Thursday, July 12th, 2007

On the twelfth of July as it yearly did come
Bob played on the flute to the sound of the drum
You can talk of your fiddles, your harp or your lute
But there’s nothing could sound like the Old Orange Flute.

Yes, it’s time again for good Orangemen everywhere to celebrate the bloody coup by King Billy glorious victory of Prince William of Orange over James II & his forces of Popish Jacobite tyranny at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. ;> (Seems like Only yesterday… :)

But today, a mere 317 years On ;>, there seems to be Real reason for hope that at last ~ at long last! ~ the ancient animosities are Finally beginning to fade (and God send that this hope be Realized). From the BBC, a short Two months ago (emphases added):

…There was talk of sunshine and showers – a forecast that does us perfectly well on nine days out of 10 in Ireland – but no mention, as there surely should have been, of hell freezing over.

For this was the day when Ian Paisley – custodian for 50 years or more of the loudhailer of Northern Irish Unionism – came to the site of the Battle of the Boyne as a guest of the Irish government.

…[Republic of Ireland Prime Minister Bertie Ahern] told the DUP leader: “As we work to build a shared future we are all coming to acknowledge that we have a shared and complex past… We owe it to the generations that preceded us, but most of all, we owe it to those who will follow.”

…[newly-inaugurated UK Province of Nothern Ireland First Minister Paisley] was in reflective mood himself – poetically evoking the manner in which the gentle countryside of [the Irishrepublican county] Meath has reclaimed the battleground.

As he put it: “Instead of reverberating to the roar of cannon fire and the charge of men, the shot of musket or the clash of sword steel, today we have the tranquillity of still water where we can contemplate the past and look forward to the future.”

Amen, amen, to both the Taoiseach and the First Minister. / And, God send that it be a future of Peace ~ spiced with a dash of peace’s flavourful companion, good Humour :) ~

There is still a touch of devilment about Ian Paisley though – even as an 80-year-old head of government.

He chose to present Mr Ahern with a musket as a gift – a rather handsome 350-year-old relic of the fighting – taking care to remind him that it had been recovered from the losing side.

And he even managed a jocular reference to the issue of disarmament which held up Ireland’s peace process for so long saying: “If you ever want to use it, remember you’ll have to see the decommissioning organisation.

Now the Old Flute was doomed, and its fate was pathetic:
‘Twas fastened and burnt at the stake as heretic.
As the flames rose around it, you could hear a strange noise
‘Twas the Old Flute still a-whistlin’ “The Protestant Boys”.

A truly Happy Twelfth to one & All. :)


Saturday, July 7th, 2007

It’s 7/7/07, which means some superstitious folk are gambling or getting married — or better yet, doing both (in Vegas). Meanwhile, in Connecticut, one man is turning 77.

On a far more somber note, it’s the second anniversary of the 7/7 bombings in London.

“Those who cure you will kill you”

Wednesday, July 4th, 2007

All joking aside, it really does seem that the recent terror plot in Britain was the attack of the killer doctors.

If this doesn’t drive a stake into the heart of the oft-repeated, repeatedly disproven mantra that terrorists are all “poor and desperate,” I don’t know what will.

Proof that socialized medicine is evil

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2007

If we adopt nationalized health care, the terrorists will win:

An Iraqi junior doctor and a brilliant neurologist working for the NHS are among the suspects being quizzed over the series of bomb attacks across Britain, it emerged today.

For those who don’t know, “NHS” refers not to Newington High School, my alma mater, but to the National Health Service, Britain’s much-maligned, Michael Moore-endorsed public health-care system. Which, we now learn, breeds terrorists. So, y’see? HILLARYCARE = TERRORISM. Now there’s a bumper sticker for you. ;)

Report: cell-phone failure thwarted London car bombings

Monday, July 2nd, 2007

The U.K.’s Evening Standard reports:

Anti-terrorist detectives swooped on five members of the gang across Britain after gathering crucial clues from phones found in the two London car bombs.

The phones were meant to trigger a blast when they were called. The bombers twice called the car outside the Tiger Tiger nightclub in Haymarket, and the one in Cockspur Street four times, but the bombs failed to detonate for technical reasons.

“Technical reasons,” eh? Wouldn’t it be great if it turned out the terrorists were trying to set off the bombs with newly purchased iPhones, but failed because they couldn’t activate them? ;)

Ineffective terrorists hit Scotland airport

Saturday, June 30th, 2007

Another attempted terror attack in the United Kingdom? Apparently so, but it doesn’t seem to have done much damage, heavens be praised:

GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) – Two men rammed a flaming sport utility vehicle into the main terminal of Glasgow airport Saturday, crashing into the glass doors at the entrance and sparking a fire, witnesses said. Police said two suspects were arrested.

The airport – Scotland’s largest – was evacuated and all flights suspended, a day after British police thwarted a plot to bomb central London, discovering two cars abandoned with loads of gasoline, gas canisters and nails. …

In Glasgow, the green SUV barreled toward the building at full speed shortly after 3 p.m., hitting security barriers before crashing into the glass doors and exploding, witnesses said. Two men jumped out of the burning vehicle, one of them engulfed in flames, they said.

“The car came speeding past at about 30 mph. It was approaching the building quickly,” said Scott Leeson, who was nearby at the time. “Then the driver swerved the car around so he could ram straight in to the door. He must have been trying to smash straight through.” …

Passengers fled running and screaming from the busy terminal, Margaret Hughes told the British Broadcasting Corp. … Police said it was unclear if anyone was injured. ….

Leeson said bollards – security posts outside the entrance – stopped the driver from barreling into the bustling terminal at Glasgow’s airport.

“He’s trying to get through the main door frame but the bollards have stopped him from going through. If he’d got through, he’d have killed hundreds, obviously,” he said.

Leeson said only the nose of the vehicle made it inside the building. Richard Grey told the BBC that the vehicle was lodged into the center of the terminal’s main entrance.

“The jeep is completely on fire and it exploded not long after. It exploded at the entrance to the terminal,” witness Stephen Clarkson told the BBC. “It may have been an explosion of petrol in the tank because it was not a massive explosion.”

More here and here.


British authorities raised that nation’s threat level to “critical” today following a vehicle attack on a passenger terminal at Glasgow airport in Scotland, British authorities said.

The last time the threat level was raised to critical in the United Kingdom was last August after a liquid bomb plot was foiled.

Subsequently the threat level had been reduced to severe where it remained until today.

Although the threat level “critical” is meant to indicate an attack is imminent, in practice the British appear to have reserved its use for after an attack or attempted attack has already occurred and a follow-up attack is imminent.

Terror attack foiled in London

Friday, June 29th, 2007


LONDON (AP) – Police thwarted an apparent terror attack Friday near Piccadilly Circus, defusing an explosive car loaded with gas cylinders, nails and a detonator after an ambulance crew reported seeing smoke coming from the vehicle.

The explosives were powerful enough to have caused “significant injury or loss of life” – possibly killing hundreds in an area famed for its nightlife, British anti-terror police chief Peter Clarke said.

The ambulance crew was there “responding to a call just before 1:30 a.m. about an injury at a nearby nightclub” when they noticed the smoke coming from the car. Whoever caused that injury may have saved a lot of lives!

P.S. According to the BBC, “Police sources say it is quite possible the device failed to ignite – and might have been minutes away from exploding.”

Roundup of links here.

Blair out, Brown in

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007

Fiddle in the middle and I can’t catch Josie
Fiddle in the middle and I can’t get around.
Fiddle in the middle and I can’t catch Josie
Hello Gordon Brown!

(Does anyone get that reference without Googling it? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?)

British pilot spots “mile-wide” UFO

Friday, June 22nd, 2007

I for one welcome our cigar-shaped brilliant white light overlords.

P.S. Speaking of spacecraft… the Space Shuttle Atlantis is about to land in California.

UPDATE: The Shuttle has landed safely.