Ireland: The Roads Taken With Tommy Makem

Season 1, Episode 1 of 2

The program opens in Keady, County Armagh, the town in Northern Ireland that Tommy Makem left as a young man to seek his fortune in America. He found fame during the folk music revival of the 1960s as a member of the legendary singing group The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. His many trips back to Ireland over the years - whether to perform, to collect folk music, or just to visit family and friends - have added to his encyclopedic knowledge on the history and culture of his homeland. "The great treasure of Ireland is its culture," Tommy Makem remarks in the first episode of the two-part travelogue, and in that regard, Ireland must surely be one of the richest countries on earth. Makem showcases many of these treasures in a journey around the island, stopping at castles and cottages, monasteries and museums, to tell a story about each site and its place in Irish history. Along the way, he reveals who really discovered North America, how a Victorian spinster preserved the song "Danny Boy" for the ages, and where the last "high king" of Ireland is buried. Tales of Viking raids, battles with the English foe, ghostly lovers, and martyred saints are interwoven with Makem's own music and that of other musicians he meets in his travels. Roaming the streets of Limerick, he follows the footsteps of another famous Irish emigrant, Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes. In an interview, McCourt talks with Makem about the changes in Limerick since he fled the poverty and hopelessness his memoir describes. "If I had stayed in Ireland, I don't know what I would have become," he says. "All doors were closed to me, since I didn't have any secondary education." Yet McCourt himself is now an indirect benefactor of his home town, where proceeds of "Angela's Ashes" tours benefit a local charity. The tour concludes in County Down, where Ireland's patron saint is said to be buried, just a few miles from Tommy Makem's own birthplace. One of the few facts known about Saint Patrick is that he was captured and enslaved by the Irish as a young man. Though he eventually escaped back home to Britain, he returned to Ireland years later as a Christian missionary -- evidence, perhaps, that even unwilling inhabitants find it hard to resist Ireland's allure. As Tommy Makem sings at the close of the program, "far off hills are fair and friendly...still there's fairer hills at home." In this program, Makem shares his own love of the fair hills and cultural treasures of his homeland.

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