Tommy Makem was born in Keady, Co Armagh. His mother, Sarah Makem, born 1900, and her cousin Annie Jane Kelly were members of the Singing Greenes of Keady. They contributed a number of fine songs to the BBC and other collections. Sarah's song As I Roved Out was used by BBC radio in the 1950s as the title and signature tune for their folk music programme. Her husband Peter was a fiddler and their sons Jack and Tommy are both musicians. As well as singing, Tommy plays whistle, war pipes (bagpipes), banjo, drums, piccolo and guitar.
The American song collector Jean Ritchie visited the Makem homestead in the winter of 1952-53 to record Sarah Makem. "It became a party that just grew; by evening the whole community was there," she wrote later. Tommy was so impressed with the project that long after the collector had left he was still going around the locality collecting old songs.
It was during a visit by another collector, Diane Hamilton, in 1955, that Tommy met Liam Clancy. Intent on pursuing a career as an actor, in the following year he and Liam travelled to New York and teamed up with Liam's older brothers. They were doing some stage acting in summer stock and off Broadway. Tommy and Liam started singing in a place called The Fifth Peg in Greenwich. They soon found themselves getting $125 a week compared to $45 for acting in summer stock and off Broadway. They also listened to American folk revival groups like The Kingston Trio and The Weavers.
Tommy Makem played a full role as a singer, raconteur and instrumentalist in the Clancy Brothers which enjoyed 14 years of fame after a guest appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1961. In 1969 Tommy Makem left the Clancy Brothers for a solo career.
He also became well-known for his television work, being involved in over 70 programmes, including a number of series for the BBC, Ulster and Scottish TV and a 90-minute special in 1992 for a New York TV station called Tommy Makem and Friends.
In 1975 he met up with Liam Clancy when they were both booked into a folk festival in Cleveland, Ohio. They decided to team up and became a successful duo best remembered for their version of Archie Fisher's Waltzing Mathilda. This was from their album The Makem and Clancy Concert, recorded July 25-30 at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, in 1977.
His three sons, Shane, Conor and Rory formed a group and continue the family tradition.