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A Woman from Bandit Country

Sarah and Peter Makem/photo Tommy Makem

I never knew my grandparents on my mother’s side, but my father’s parents, Peter and Sarah Makem, left an indelible mark on me. It was April 1983 that Sarah passed away, thirty-eight years ago. So, with the anniversary of her passing, I thought it appropriate to pen a few lines in her honor.

To give you an idea of what kind of woman my grandmother was, you’ll need to understand a little bit about where she was from: Keady, County Armagh, N. Ireland. The town was in the heart of what was known as bandit country, the Republic of South Armagh, where they served neither king nor Kaiser. That’s a roundabout way of saying that although they were located in Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, they weren’t particularly fans of the crown.

As such—and with their proximity to the border—there was a heavy British military presence.

With that in mind, picture a woman of about eighty, strolling down to the local shop for some bread and butter. It was the early 1980s. A young soldier, maybe seventeen or eighteen, held the door for her and she stopped and said, “Thank you very much, young man. I hope that the good Lord will save you a cool spot in hell.”

And that was my granny.

Now I’ll admit, this is making light of a deadly serious subject. There was a soldier killed outside that very store in the 1980s. It was one of the last places a British soldier would have wanted to be during the troubles and my heart goes out to the families who lost their young ones during that period.

Sarah and Peter

Sarah Makem was born in 1900. She was a Pioneer, just like my father after her (Pioneers were an organization of Catholics who vowed not to drink).

Not so much for my granda. Back in the day, locals weren’t allowed to drink in the pubs on a Sunday in Northern Ireland, but in the Republic of Ireland, bona fide travelers weren’t straddled with the same restrictions. As a man from the north, who had traveled over seven miles, he was exempt from the drinking rules.

As sure as clockwork, every Sunday, my grandfather would tell his wife he was going “to buy a pair of shoes.” He would ride the bike over the border and disappear for the evening. It’s possible that there was no drinking involved and that the whole bona fide traveler thing was just a coincidence. But every week, he’d return a little tipsy without a new pair of shoes.

Until one week, when he did buy a pair of shoes. Unfortunately, after tying them to the handle bars via the laces, one of them came loose and fell off somewhere, leaving the old man with a single new shoe. No problems. He told my granny, “I’ll go back for the other one next week.”

Perhaps more than anything, Sarah Makem be remembered as a singer. Her maiden name was Greene, from an infamous family of singers in Keady. Like so many of the other local girls, she left school to work as a factory weaver nearly twelve hours a day. Then she might head home for a session with other musicians and singers. She had a knack for memorizing songs after only a couple of hearings.

Collecting her songs

She married my grandfather Peter in 1919 and started the family. Always singing and humming, she became what was known as a source singer and song collectors showed up at her doorstep, tape recorders in tow, eager to preserve traditional Irish music that maybe only a few people in the country would know. Her recorded version of “As I Roved Out” opened up the BBC Radio Program of the same name for quite some time.

In the fifties, the collectors included Diane Hamilton (of the Guggenheim family), Jean Ritchie, Sean O’Boyle and Peter Kennedy. It was during Diane Hamilton’s trip that young Liam Clancy met my father, sowing the first seeds for what would eventually become the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.

In 1977, David Hammond recorded a short video of Sarah for TG4. I watched it one time as she sang and layered spoonful after spoonful of sugar into a mug of granda’s tea. I later asked my cousin, Tom Sweeney, if she was just playing up for the camera, letting the film roll and wasting sugar all the while. He told me no, my grandfather liked a little tea with his sugar, and that’s starting to explain a little bit about myself now, too.

My grandfather died later in 1977 and it wasn’t long after that Sarah moved from the family homestead a few houses up the hill, ‘til she was just a couple doors away from her daughter, my Aunt Nancy and her husband, the gentleman James Mone.


Awhile after her passing, they set up a plaque in her honor at the original home, and you can make it out on Google Maps street view (44 Victoria Street, Keady, Northern Ireland). You can also see the convenience store (now McGrane’s Shop) from earlier in the article just a few steps away. Toward the center of town, at the bend, there’s now a Tommy Makem Arts and Community Center (a true community center, as he would have wanted), and across from that, the gas station where my father and his coworkers used to burn tires to keep warm). Right there, as well, is the Keady Library, which contains a Sarah Makem room.

Just up near the monument is Mone’s bar, which houses an evil spirit trapped in a bottle behind the fireplace…but that’s another story.

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