seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA

Death of Sarah Makem, Traditional Irish Singer

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Sarah Boyle Makem, traditional Irish singer, dies on April 20, 1983, in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. Born on October 18, 1900, in Keady, County Armagh, in what is now Northern Ireland, she is the wife of fiddler Peter Makem, mother of musicians Tommy Makem and Jack Makem, and grandmother of musicians Tom Sweeney, Jimmy Sweeney (of Northern Irish Canadian group Barley Bree), Shane Makem, Conor Makem and Rory Makem. She and her cousin, Annie Jane Kelly, are members of the Singing Greenes of Keady.

Makem lives in Keady her entire life. Living in the border region of Ulster and in a market town, she is influenced by Irish, Scottish, and English traditions. She learns songs from her mother while she is doing household chores such as cooking. She often picks up these songs while sitting with her mother after just one repetition. She also learns some of her repertoire from songs the children sing in school.

Makem leaves school early to work as a factory weaver as do many of the girls in her town. She works from 7:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. then comes home to have sessions with many of the other musicians living in the same area. She marries Peter Makem in 1919.

In the 1950s, song collectors from the United States tour Ireland recording its musical heritage. Makem is visited and recorded by, among others, Diane Guggenheim Hamilton, Jean Ritchie, Peter Kennedy and Sean O’Boyle.

Makem does not consider herself a musician; however, she has an extensive musical career. She is a ballad singer who has over five hundred songs in memory. These songs she describes as life stories of murder and love and emigration songs. She records many of her songs, mostly for collection purposes. In the 1950s, one of these songs, her rendition of “As I Roved Out,” is used to open a BBC Radio program named after her ballad and featuring Irish folk music. She does not intend to use this recording as such and is very embarrassed to know her voice will be heard everyday across Ireland.

Makem dies at the age of 82 on April 20, 1983, in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. She is buried in St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Graveyard in Keady.


Author: Jim Doyle

As a descendant of Joshua Doyle (b. 1775, Dublin, Ireland), I have a strong interest in Irish culture and history, which is the primary focus of this site. I am a Network Engineer at The Computer Hut, LLC, which is my salaried job. I am a member of the Irish Cultural Society of Arkansas, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization (2010-Present, President 2011-2017) and a commissioner on the City of Little Rock Arts+Culture Commission (2015-2020, 2021-Present, Chairman 2017-2018).

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