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Hall of Fame Award for legendary Keady folk singer Sarah Makem

The impact of the Makem family on folk music all over the world can never be under-estimated, with Sarah finding richly-deserved fame despite never leaving her beloved Keady, the south Armagh town of her birth

Sarah Makem

The legendary Sarah Makem has been inducted into RTE Radio 1’s Folk Awards Hall of Fame.

In a ceremony due to be broadcast this Saturday, Christy Moore was also bestowed with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

The richly-deserved inclusion of Sarah Makem will be a great cause for celebration in her native Keady and a welcome boost for the Armagh borough.

Sarah Makem is a legend in the Irish folk scene and the recognition comes almost 40 years after her death.

The mother of Tommy Makem, who found global fame and fortune and sang alongside the Clancy Brothers, Sarah Makem passed away in April 1983 at the age of 82.

She never left her home town of Keady but made such an impact and several recipients of awards at the ceremony paid tribute to her contribution to the worldwide impact of Irish folk.

According to the the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem website, her father, Tommy Boyle, was a plumber and tinsmith by trade.

According to a citation by Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eirenn: “Her mother was ‘one of the Singing Greenes of Keady, a family famous for its music for generations’ (to quote collector Sean O’Boyle), and it was from her mother that Sarah learned most of her songs. Her house was full of music and song, which continued when she married Peter Makem.

“Together Peter and Sarah had five children, the most famous of whom was her youngest, Tommy Makem.

“But it was not through her son alone that Sarah made an impact. As a centre of the linen industry and a market town for the small farmers around it, Keady was a community in which Irish, Scots and English songs intermingled.

“Given this rich musical mixture, Sarah in time acquired a repertoire of over 500 songs from the various traditions, which she sang with a fluent and effortless style.

“Beyond the odd local social event, she never performed in public and yet her reputation preceded her. She came to world attention in 1950 when folk music collectors came to record her for the BBC.

“One song from that recording session eventually was used as the title song of the 1950s folk music radio program, As I Roved Out, on which she was a regularly featured performer.

“In 1968 she recorded her only complete album, Ulster Ballad Singer for Topic Records. From that point on she played host to a generation of aspiring traditional singers and folk music scholars who came to visit Keady to learn from her.

“Sarah also is responsible for reviving and popularizing a long forgotten traditional song.

“Through her plaintive rendition, other singers (among them Geordie Hanna, Tommy Makem, and Paddy Tunney) came to know The Month of January. The song tells the story of a young girl who falls in love with a man far above her socially. Betrayed and abandoned by her lover, the young girl and her baby are cast into the cold and snow by her scandalised parents.

“Through her masterful editing and her flawless rendition of an otherwise maudlin nineteenth century parlor song, she popularised the song, placing it once again within the traditional repertoire.”

A plaque was erected at the home in Victoria Street in Keady where Sarah Makem was born.

It read: “Sarah Makem the famous traditional singer was born in Keady in 1900 and lived in this house. Her mother’s family were known as the ‘Singing Greene’s of Keady’. Her mother was a linen mill worker and her father, Tommy Boyle was a plumber. Sarah had five children, lack, Peggy. Mona. Nancy and Tommy who is also a famous singer. Sarah Makem’s voice has been broadcast all over the world. Her recording of ‘As I Roved Out’ was used as the signature tune for a BBC radio programme.”

The winners of the RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards were announced in Vicar Street this week and live on RTÉ Radio 1 in a celebration of the very best in folk music in Ireland from the past year.

Hosted by RTÉ presenters, John Creedon and Ruth Smith in front of a live audience and on RTÉ Radio 1, the RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards was a very special night, with live performances from KÍLA, John Francis Flynn. Stephanie Makem, Allanah Thornburgh, John Spillane, Mick Flannery and Susan O’Neill, Christy Moore, and more.

The Hall of Fame award was presented by Nuala O’Connor to Sarah Makem’s granddaughter Stephanie Makem, who gratefully accepted it on behalf of the family, and who gave a beautiful rendition of one of her grandmother’s best-loved offerings, ‘Our Ship She’s Ready to Sail Away’.

A television highlights programme will also be broadcast on RTÉ One this Saturday, November 20, at 10.50pm.

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