Folk hero beloved home and abroad

IT WAS in 1967, as the beginnings of the Troubles were brewing in the North that Tommy Makem penned his trademark song Four Green Fields.

And in the days before his passing, as British Army operations came to an end four decades later, many would say that the prophesy of the song’s closing line had come true: “My fourth green field will bloom once again, said she.”

Born in November 1932, the same year as Johnny Cash, Tommy Makem was to become a folk legend of equal significance in the US as at home in Ireland.

The son of legendary singer Sarah Makem, he grew up to the sounds of her collected traditional songs in Keady, Co Armagh, where he was a member of the local pipe band and drama society.

He met with Liam Clancy from Co Waterford on a visit to New York to see the 1956 St Patrick’s Day Parade.

The pair had met some years earlier when Clancy travelled to Armagh with Diane Hamilton who was collecting songs from Sarah Makem and other local singers.

While both he and Clancy began working together as actors in New York, their combination of songs and ballads — with Tommy playing banjo and tin whistles — from their respective counties made them a star attraction during the folk revival rising in the US at the time.

It was during this phase that a young Bob Dylan was making his first trips to the folk clubs of New York’s Greenwich Village and was inspired by their ballad singing and playing.

The pair joined with Liam’s brothers, Tommy and Paddy, marking the start of a collaboration which would last more than a decade, boosted by their appearance in front of 80 million viewers on the Ed Sullivan show — the US equivalent of the Late Late Show — in 1961. An absence by another guest gave the quartet a chance to perform more numbers than planned, and their legendary status was born.

It was during this period that Makem’s songwriting calibre came to the fore, with Four Green Fields becoming a regular element of their set in later years.

He went solo in 1969 but an appearance on Liam Clancy’s successful Canadian TV show in 1973 put them in mind to work together again.

In preparing a new album, the pair recorded The Band Played Waltzin’ Matilda and its chart-topping success back in Ireland in 1976 prompted the beginning of their touring as a duo.

They crossed the Atlantic dozens of times in that period to perform at home and finally went their separate ways, musically at least, in 1988.

While Tommy was in ill health in recent years, he continued to perform and was listed to play concerts up to the end of this year.

His illness did not prevent him from travelling and he arrived to collect an honorary doctorate from University of Ulster in Belfast just a month ago.

During what would turn out to be his last visit, he took the opportunity to see his native Keady and south Armagh one final time before returning to New Hampshire, where he passed away on Wednesday night.

More in this section

Puzzles logo
IE-logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day.

Puzzles logo
IE-logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day.