Sarah Makem, traditional Irish singer, is born in Keady, County Armagh on October 18, 1900. 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. Makem 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, often picking 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 many of the girls do in her town. She works from 7:00 AM until 6:30 PM and then comes home to have sessions with many of the other musicians living in the same area. She marries Peter Makem in 1919.
Makem does not consider herself a musician, however, she has a vast 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, 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. Her rendition of “As I Roved Out” is used to open the BBC Radio folk music programme of the same name in the 1950s. She does not intend to use this recording as such and is very embarrassed to know her voice will be heard every day across Ireland.
Makem dies in Keady, County Armagh on April 20, 1983. She is buried in St. Patrick’s RC Graveyard in Keady.