Folk Music: Sarah Makem

Sarah Boyle was born at High Street, Keady, the daughter of Tommy Boyle and Margaret Greene, in October 1900.  

In her teens she became a weaver in one of the local linen mills. Later, in 1918, she married Peter Makem from Derrynoose and as a mother, had five children named Jack, Mona, Peggy, Nancy, and Tommy.

Rooted in the traditions of her native place, she was a bright, kindly woman of strong Christian principles, with a wicked sense of humour; and she was hospitality personified.   She achieved fame and renown as a traditional singer and collector of songs.

 Music was in Sarah’s blood, and she only had to hear a song once to remember it perfectly.  David Hammond – himself no mean singer – considered her one of the best traditional singers in the world, but although her repertoire encompassed more than four hundred songs, she didn’t see herself as a woman with a mission.  She simply loved to sing.

When her rendition of As I Roved Out was used as the theme for a radio programme in the early 1950s, musicologists from both sides of the Atlantic started turning up on her doorstep.  Sarah accepted with equanimity the attention of luminaries like Pete Seeger.  Jean Ritchie and Diane Hamilton also visited, as did a young Liam Clancy, who acknowledges his debt to Sarah’s ‘vast store of songs’, and is confident of her place in the canon of greats of the folk scene.        

 Apart from love songs and romantic ballads, many of her songs recalled local incidents, or were songs of loss, poverty, and harsh experience.  Her contribution lies not just in remembering them, but in singing them when they were no longer fashionable, keeping them alive for more mature times when we can appreciate them for what they are: part of our heritage; a record of a people in the making.

Among those she inspired were her son Tommy, who was to achieve superstar status on both sides of the Atlantic as part of The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem.

May the sod rest lightly on Sarah Makem, songstress, 1900-1983.


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