On August 1st 2007 The Bard of Armagh, Tommy Makem, passed away in Dover, New Hampshire where he had lived since coming to the United States in the mid 1950s. It is impossible to say all there is to say about a man who did so much for Irish music and folk music in general. Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers were the groundbreakers making it possible for the rest of us entertainers to make a living doing what we love most, performing Irish folk music. When we as performers travel around the United States doing our shows, it is because of the path that was paved for us and the course set by these men of great bravery and vision.
Tommy Makem was my hero and the main reason I wanted to sing and perform Irish folk music. As a young boy of 11 or 12, I remember sitting at my kitchen table in Coalisland, Co. Tyrone and listening to a live album of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem “Live at Carnegie Hall”. I could not believe my ears when I heard the songs and stories and to think that a man from Keady, Co. Armagh, just 25 miles from my home, could be up on that stage in New York City.
Tommy was the consummate performer who never gave less than his all and he was so generous to all of us who had the pleasure and good fortune to work alongside him. True to his craft, he was an artist who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand for hours. And after many encores, he would fondly remark, “have you no homes to go to?”
He loved his life and his friends and mostly his family. Having lost his wife Mary six years ago, it was obvious that the loss took a toll on him. But, as he often said, “Onward and upward.” The show must go on. He recently walked his daughter Katie down the aisle and danced with her at her wedding, his joy apparent on his face. And it is heartwarming to know that his sons, Rory, Conor, and Shane, are carrying on their father’s legacy of performing traditional Irish folk music.
I loved his wit, his commitment, and his friendship. He was without a doubt larger than life. But he never forgot where he came from or who he was. To him, Co. Armagh was heaven and he never missed the opportunity to go home.
His funeral Mass was incredible with renowned Irish piper, Paddy Keenan, playing “The Minstrel Boy” as the coffin was brought into the church. At the end of the Mass, Father Bartley MacPhaidin, Eugene Byrne, and Tommy Hardiman spoke of Tommy and his life. And then Liam Clancy, with concertina in hand, sang “The Bard of Armagh. There wasn’t a dry eye in the whole church. As the coffin was leaving the church, Tommy’s mother Sarah’s voice come over the sound system singing “Farewell and Remember Me” followed by Tommy and Sarah singing “The Little Beggarman.” And Tommy received one final round of loving applause.
There was no hearse. Tommy and Mary had been great supporters and fund raisers for the Dover Police and Fire Departments. And so his casket was brought to St. Mary Church and the cemetery by fire engine, another fitting tribute. The fire department ushered grieving attendees to their seats in church and made sure all had directions to the grave side.
It was one of the saddest days of my life. But his was a funeral I would not have missed for anything. I will miss Tommy Maken every day and I will remember him always, as we all should, for his many contributions to Irish Music, culture, and above all for the great ambassador he was for Ireland.
I was proud and honored to call Tommy my friend and I know I will never meet the likes of him again. Onward and upward Tommy.