Thomas "Tommy" Makem (4 November 1932 – 1 August 2007) was an internationally celebrated Irish folk musician, artist, poet and storyteller. He was best known as a member of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. He played the long-necked 5-string banjo, tin whistle, low whistle, guitar, bodhrán and bagpipes, and sang in a distinctive baritone. He was sometimes known as "The Bard of Armagh" (taken from a traditional song of the same name) and "The Godfather of Irish Music".
Makem was born and raised in Keady, County Armagh (the "Hub of the Universe" as Makem always said), in Northern Ireland. His mother, Sarah Makem, was an important source of traditional Irish music, who was visited and recorded by, among others, Diane Guggenheim Hamilton, Jean Ritchie, Peter Kennedy and Sean O’Boyle. His father, Peter Makem, was a fiddler who also played the bass drum in a local pipe band named "Oliver Plunkett", after a Roman Catholic martyr of the reign of Charles II of England. His brother and sister were folk musicians also. Young Tommy Makem, from the age of 8, was member of the St. Patrick’s church choir for 15 years where he sang Gregorian chant and motets. He did not learn to read music but he made it in his "own way".
Makem started to work at 14 as a clerk in a garage and later he worked for a while as a barman at Mone’s Bar, a local pub, and as a local correspondent for The Armagh Observer.
He emigrated to the United States in 1955, carrying his few possessions and a set of bagpipes (from his time in a pipe band). Arriving in Dover, New Hampshire, Makem worked at Kidder Press, where in 1956 his hand was accidentally crushed by a press. With his arm in a sling, he left Dover for New York to pursue an acting career.
The Clancys and Makem were signed to Columbia Records in 1961. The same year, at the Newport Folk Festival, Makem and Joan Baez were named the most promising newcomers on the American folk scene. During the 1960s, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem performed sellout concerts at such venues as Carnegie Hall, and made television appearances on shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. The group performed for President John F. Kennedy. They also played in smaller venues such as the Gate of Horn in Chicago. They appeared jointly in the UK Albums Chart in April 1966, when Isn’t It Grand Boys reached number 22.
Makem left the group in 1969 to pursue a solo career. In 1975, he and Liam Clancy were both booked to play a folk festival in Cleveland, Ohio, and were persuaded to do a set together. Thereafter they often performed as Makem and Clancy, recording several albums together. He once again went solo in 1988. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Makem performed both solo and with Liam Clancy on The Irish Rovers’ various television shows, which were filming in Canada and Ireland.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Makem was a principal in a well-known Irish music venue in New York, "Tommy Makem’s Irish Pavilion". This East 57th Street club was a prominent and well-loved performance spot for a wide range of musicians. Among the performers and visitors were Paddy Reilly, Joe Burke, and Ronnie Gilbert. Makem was a regular performer, often solo and often as part of Makem and Clancy, particularly in the late fall and holiday season. The club was also used for warm-up performances in the weeks before the 1984 reunion concert of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem at Lincoln Center. In addition, the after-party for Bob Dylan’s legendary 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration at Madison Square Garden in 1992 was held at the Irish Pavilion.
In 1997 he wrote a book, Tommy Makem’s Secret Ireland and in 1999 premiered a one-man theatre show, Invasions and Legacies, in New York. His career includes various other acting, video, composition, and writing credits. He also established the Tommy Makem International Festival of Song in South Armagh in 2000.