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My father's last trip to Ireland

“I’m afraid this is expired.” This was July 2007 and the Aer Lingus agent was holding my father’s American passport.

The old man was not in the greatest of shape for this trip. He’d mistakenly grabbed the wrong passport. My father, Tommy Makem, had been battling lung cancer all year and we were heading over so he could be awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Ulster. I started to panic.

This was weeks before he passed away and I think he knew it would be his last time in the country of his birth. The thought was certainly front and center in my mind. I don’t recall too many times when he sounded as disheartened. “I guess I’m not going to Ireland,” he said.

“What about your Irish passport, do you have that?” I asked. He handed it to me and I gave it to the agent. “Will this do?”

“That will get him into the country, but I don’t know how he’s getting back here,” the man in the snazzy green vest retorted.

“We’ll worry about that later,” I replied. I called my older brother, Shane, and told him to look for the most recent passport.

Anyway, the pair of us found seats beyond security and I envisioned a week at the American Embassy in Dublin trying to work out a fix instead of being with the paterfamilias. It was hardly the way I had hoped to spend the week. The crisis was averted when Shane returned my call saying he had located the passport and that he would overnight it to our hotel.

We stayed at our go-to digs in the north, the Armagh City Hotel. He had a steady stream of well-wishers and though he was tired, he jumped at every chance to head out for a visit with cousins or friends.

I recall one dinner we had at the hotel, where I had schemed myself a way to pay. My father, you see, was one of those people who always grabbed the bill before anyone else could, and I wanted to treat him for a change. I excused myself for a bathroom break and slipped the waiter a few pound notes on the way. When I arrived back at the table, the man was returning the money saying he couldn’t accept it. In a hurry to beat my father to his wallet, I threw more money at the waiter. He regarded it and said he couldn’t take that either and my father handed him a credit card.

It turns out, Northern Bank had been robbed of £26.5 million in December of 2004 and in a blow to the robbers, all of the ten, twenty, fifty and one-hundred-pound notes were updated and reprinted. The old notes were unusable. Since I hadn’t been up north in a couple years, the cash I had left over from my last trip had to be converted at the bank. My father’s stint of footing the bill remained unbroken.

We traveled to the University of Ulster for the big day so the old man could accept his Doctorate of Letters. I should mention that he only attended school until eighth grade and that he had received doctorates from both the University of New Hampshire and the University of Limerick prior to this. To say I have pride for my father’s accomplishments is quite the understatement.

I was informed that I would be taking part in the ceremony when we arrived and I immediately demurred. But they told me it was in the program, and that I had no choice. Hours before the graduation ceremony, a man brought me out from the backstage area onto the stage to show me where I’d be sitting, the chair up front on the far left. A sheet of paper with my name was taped to it and I told the man I understood. Then he spent a good five minutes reiterating that that was my chair and it was where I’d be sitting. I restated that I truly did understand.

As the witching hour approached, I was given a cap and gown, which I reluctantly accepted. Then they lined us up and told me I was leading the procession into the auditorium. “The what now? I’m not leading this thing in.”

“You are,” I was told. “It’s in the booklet.”

The horns started blaring in the big room and the doors whooshed open and there I was leading a line of professors and dignitaries into a hall filled with thousands of spectators. After a few feet, the professor behind me whispered, “Walk slower.” She was very kind and I obeyed. Then she said, “Slower.” And I once again paid heed.

Then it hit me. I glanced at the stage at the bottom of the gangway, straight ahead. I had no idea where the stairs were to climb onto it. They had only shown me my spot from an onstage access. What was I supposed to do, turn around and ask directions while the music is playing and everyone is standing up and watching the first man in line?

I inched forward, the sweat beading up on my brow. This line was going to come to a stop when I reached the bottom of the auditorium.

Then the professor behind me saved the day. “Turn right at the man with the scepter.” It’s a quote that sticks in my head to this day, one that I never could have predicted I would hear in my lifetime.

When I reached the man, I indeed turned right and there were the stairs, at the end of the stage. Thank the stars. I led the group onstage and there was my seat, just as it had been left. It never dawned on them to run me through my duties at least once.

My father received a standing ovation when they awarded him his degree. I didn’t think most of the students would have been old enough to appreciate what he had contributed to Irish music. But I’ve become an old curmudgeon myself and I sometimes love it when I’m wrong.

Tommy Makem passed away fourteen years ago, on Aug. 1, 2007.

These are a few of my favorite things

It would be no surprise to Ohio Irish American News readers that I’m a considerable enthusiast of the Irish food revolution taking place over the past decade or more. The gastro pubs and farm to table offerings have exploded, and as far as I’m concerned, are world-class nowadays. Ireland has been in a perfect position to experience the melding of the old with the new.

There are times, however, when all one wants is a bit of nostalgia, the return for a short while to less complicated days when calories, cholesterol, climate change, animal welfare, food allergies, nutrient intake and the like weren’t constantly in the back of the mind. Such is the state of affairs running around my gray matter this morning as I amble around the streets of Galway on Google Earth, recollecting the spiritually fulfilling nosh we used to not even appreciate.

Especially during these Covid years when travel is only starting to enter the conversation again, I thought I’d run down some of the Irish food experiences I miss the most while sitting on this side of the Atlantic.

And I’ll start with carvery lunches, which is what originally sparked this column. In particular, I digitally zipped past the Skeffington Arms Hotel and started salivating at the thought of fresh carved turkey breast, mashed spuds, rolls and a few ladles of gravy. Picture, if you will, sliding your tray along the rails, studying each of the steaming comestibles behind the glass separator. The chef, with blade in fist, asks which of the meats you’d prefer. You study the roast and the turkey, but there’s no correct answer. They both look juicy and delectable. “A bit of both,” you say. “A wise choice,” he replies.

I’m sorry, where were we? Food, yes.

If you’ve ever stopped into a shop of any kind in Ireland, you’ll no doubt agree with me that their selection of chocolate bars and crisps is second to none. From Tayto Cheese and Onion and Buffalo Hunky Dorys to Lion Bars and Cadbury Flakes, the difficulty is selecting just one and not filling up several plastic bags with the top twenty. Inevitably, we all have our favorites, but there always seems to be something you’ve never tried before, and exploration is half the fun, isn’t it?

Next up on our culinary tour is the staple of all staples, the full Irish breakfast. I’ll admit to you, one of these bad boys is enough to satiate my desire for a week or so, but when the calling comes back, it’s a strong one. Given a choice, I’ll skip the mushrooms, and fill up on sausage, hash browns, beans, black pudding, fried tomatoes, fried eggs and toast. These all slightly edge out potato farls, white pudding and Irish bacon (I know, send in the hate mail). It’s the one meal I promise myself to snarf down whenever I head back over.

Since I only ingest the occasional full Irish, I skip the urge to fill up at the airport on the way into the country. Sure, it will have all of the ingredients, but for me the full Irish isn’t meant to be eaten in an ultra-bright, fast-paced, plastic-chaired operation. It should be savored in an establishment with at least a modicum of charm or character, especially if you’re only having the one. Do yourself a favor and find a real restaurant or pub.

And speaking of pubs, I couldn’t skip one of my favorite ways to spend an evening, sipping a pint with a simple packet of bacon fries with plenty of old wood, stimulating conversation and a stunning lack of lighting. I suppose the food and drink takes a back seat to the atmosphere with this one. I recall a night I spent sharing a few with an old gentleman in Sligo in a pub with no televisions and no stereo. Just a handful of folks, a choice of snugs and quiet conversation. It’s a shame that these types of places are becoming relics. It might be ne’er impossible to find a pub without something to distract patrons nowadays.

Next on my ravenous list are tea sandwiches. We’re talking two pieces of white bread filled with only a slice of ham and butter, or a slice of cheese and butter, or cucumbers or egg salad or the like, cut into quarters and eaten in three bites. There’s something so deceptively delicious about such a simple concoction. They can be combined with the next contender, a bowl of veg soup for a perfect lunch. Take either of them separately and they’re just what the doctor ordered for a quick pick-me-up.

And if you’d like to complete the trifecta, just pull up a seat in front of a peat fire, a ham sandwich, a bowl of veg soup, a small Coca Cola and a few red embers to blow you some heat.

Not to be missed for snacks are chips (that’s fries to some folks), cut thick with malt vinegar. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a ketchup lover, but chips and vinegar sometimes hit the spot. Manys a night I’ve sat contented on a barstool with nothing to focus on but a plate of chips. And I miss it.

Last up is the classic pot of tea. I drink more tea than you can shake a stick at, but it never reaches Nirvana like back home—steeped in a metal pot with sugar cubes on the side, real milk and small tea mugs.

With all of that said, all is not lost if you can’t make the trek over to the ould sod. In fact, perusing the OIAN, you’ll be able to locate Irish restaurants, pubs and import shops with a lot of the grub in this column obtainable through them. You’ll be satisfying your belly while supporting the Irish-American community. And every small business could use a little help right now.

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.


My father never forced anything down our throats, but if there was one thing that came close, it was the importance of an ancient mound of stone and earth in the Boyne Valley known as Newgrange. He used to bring the family to experience it starting in the 1980s.

Back then, we could just drive up to the base of the hill, walk past the unmanned booth where someone should have been selling tickets and explore. There was often no one else there, though occasionally we’d run across someone the old man inevitably knew.

Many Ohio Irish American News readers will already know about Newgrange and will have their own stories about it, but I would be remiss in my son duties if I didn’t at least dedicate one column to it.

What the heck is it?

Newgrange was built by stone-age farmers 5,200 years ago, making it older than the Great Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge. In fact, there wasn’t much that boiled my father’s bottom more than the international press swooning over the 100 stones in Wiltshire while simultaneously ignoring the gem of the Boyne Valley. But, I digress.

Located in Meath, just west of Drogheda in County Louth, the circular mound is 279 feet in diameter and 43 feet high and archaeologists somewhat agree that it was a passage tomb and ancient temple. There is a sixty-two-foot entrance passageway (at times tight) that leads into the main chamber, with three alcoves. Above your head, you’ll find a corbelled roof that hasn’t leaked in its more than 5,000-year history. Let’s see your modern roofer offer that kind of guarantee.

Surrounding the whole affair are ninety-seven large kerbstones, some of which are engraved with megalithic art, the most prevalent being its entrance stone with the famed triple spirals adorning it.

But the most striking feature about Newgrange comes in the form of a roof-box at its entrance. For five days around the winter solstice, the morning sun shines through the opening, glides up the passageway and illuminates the inside of the chamber. Now when I say morning sun, I’ll add that this jumble of rocks is in Ireland, so morning clouds are more often the case, but you can’t blame the old farmers for trying. The solstice would have marked the beginning of a new year, which is quite the impressive feat when you figure they needed to know the seasons and the position of the sun and all of that malarkey.

The folks in charge have a handy light bulb that shines into the dark confines of the main chamber (the builders weren’t big on windows other than the roof-box) which gives visitors an idea of what the solstice would look like inside. They shut off the original electric lighting from 3,200 B.C. for complete darkness before flipping on the artificial sun (also original, I believe). For those of you with claustrophobia, you might want to skip this bit on the tour.

My cousin, Peter, surprised my father one time by securing him a spot on one of the coveted winter solstice tours, usually reserved for muckity-mucks, princes, sheiks and the like. The sun did indeed make the rarest of showings on that fateful day, allowing an Irish Times photographer to capture the sunlight shining off the red hair of a young girl for the paper’s all-time best-selling photograph. In subsequent years, my father called it the single greatest moment of his life, even after I reminded him that he had children.

Too big for its britches

Alas, like all good things, people eventually found out about Newgrange. One time while bringing a friend to visit the old stomping grounds, I wasn’t able to locate it. The road I used to take simply wasn’t there. Come to find out, they no longer wanted people just showing up and walking in. There was a spanking new visitor center located a hop, skip and a jump away where patrons were corralled into groups and herded one small bus at a time to the site. I suppose it was all for the best.

The center is a wonderful spot for discovering the history of Newgrange, as well as nearby Knowth and Dowth (two other massively important Neolithic sites in the Brú na Bóinne complex). And if you’re being dragged around because you couldn’t care less about ancient history, there’s a handy café with hot soup, sandwiches, tea and biscuits. Of course, all of this is closed due to a global pandemic, but you’ll know about it for later.

It looks in great shape

I’m sure you’re pondering by now that the picture indicates the joint hasn’t aged a day. How’s that possible? Well, the site was sealed up after its initial use and time did indeed take its toll on the place. Those beautiful quartz stones lining the front of the façade tumbled to the ground and Mother Nature slowly took over. Eventually it just resembled a mound of earth.

It sat undisturbed until 1699 when landowner Charles Campbell sent some of his laborers out to dig parts of it up looking for stone. They realized it wasn’t just a dirt mound, and archaeologists have been interested ever since. There was even word that skeletons were found inside the alcoves off the main chamber, causing some to speculate that it might have been where they brought their dead to make the trip to the afterlife. This matched up quite well with the birth of a new year at the winter solstice.

In the 1970s, Newgrange was restored to how they presumed it looked 5,200 years ago, including the quartz stones in the front. They also added stairs to get around the giant stones in front, as originally one would have had to climb over them to gain access.

So, there you have it. One of the most important archaeological discoveries in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located just a couple miles from Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, in Drogheda, where a certain OhioIANews columnist was born. Makes you think that Stonehenge might be the “jumped the shark episode” of neolithic sites, doesn’t it?

Visit for more information.

Gray matter travel restrictions

‘That’s the smell of Ireland,” I said to myself as I hauled plastic bags out of the grocery store one recent morning before the sun had truly crested the horizon. Perchance it was just the scent of morning and overnight rain, but there was also a hint of smoke in the air. It made me realize how much I’ve missed traveling this year.

The pandemic has me pacing back and forth around the old homestead, wiping out my memories of better times and as such, I’ve been trying to recall my last trip to Ireland. There are only bits and pieces of crumbling reel to reel memories left stuck inside the crevices of the dusty old cobwebs of my gray matter.

I recall the excitement of watching the Aer Lingus Airbus pull up to the gate at Boston’s Logan Airport for our last trip a lifetime ago. “That’s us,” I told Libby, who rolled her eyes as if she were bestowing upon me the “Most Bleeding Obvious Award for Outstanding Obviousness Award (presented by the Department of Redundancy Department).”

We had planned ahead and ponied up the extra dough for the front seats near the entrance so we wouldn’t have some dolt in front of us dropping his seat into our laps the nanosecond the front wheels left the tarmac. There was the ethereal boarding music, Enya, I believe. Then the red headed cartoon man showed all the befuddled passengers how easily they could unlock their safety belts and was shocked, himself, to find out that smoking was prohibited. He stored his briefcase in a cavernous area under the seat before him that, in reality is only big enough for the front half of your shoes, but who’s counting?

The first thing I always do on the trans-Atlantic flight to Ireland is to check the entertainment in the latest issue of Cara. (I’ll not say this lightly, Cara isn’t bad at all when compared to magazines on U.S. airlines, which all seem to assume that everyone is really into golf and business acquisitions.)

However, Aer Lingus is a big fan of pop music, and I’m not talking the Monkees crooning out an old Neil Diamond hit for the 98 percent of adults on the plane, no. They prefer the kind that makes even tweenagers ask, “what’s this load of bullocks?” But I’ll digress, because I’ve been informed that I’m a crusty old man and people like all sorts of music. Ah well.

Thank the stars Aer Lingus gives you entertainment choices. Life was considerably more difficult crossing the pond when there was only the one video, but then again, they used to fill you up on all the bevvy you could stomach back then and didn’t ask for anything in return.

I recall one time when the flight attendant asked if I wanted another can of Guinness. I replied in the affirmative and she asked if I wanted two. I was a bit shocked, but I answered swiftly lest she see her blunder: yes.

Of course, now they sell me one, then come by to see if I’d like to purchase a second, and that’s it. I suppose with all the airline rage fueled by alcohol I can hardly blame them.

When I’ve settled on a movie to bear the brunt of the time, I move to the grub selections. Chicken or beef lasagna? Beef lasagna or chicken? Oh, the choices! Rather than waste valuable cranium calories, I opt to wing it whenever the cart comes by.

I always close my eyes for a bit, but I just can’t sleep on planes. Still, the evening flight for me generally rolls by pretty quickly and I start to get excited when they roll out the morning tea and snack. From the entertainment console, I turn on the route tracker and watch as the plane flies over the ould sod as it’s oftentimes too dark to see out of the window. It’s a glorious feeling when the plane reaches Irish airspace, the plea from Liam Neeson for Unicef on all of the tellies, the video tour of Dublin and environs.

I can only speak for myself when I say that it’s truly like coming home. I’ve spent most of my life in the States, but I was born in Drogheda and there’s something that feels natural about being there.

And then the wheels touch down and I know it’s going to be increasingly hard to stay awake, despite the adrenaline of a new trip. The direct flight from Boston lands at an ungodly hour and there’s still customs and immigration lines to endure, the car rental to pick up, the drive to the hotel as the sun is beginning to peek out...and then the wait.

Very few hotels will let anyone check in so early, so we generally leave off our bags at the hotel and head out for some breakfast. A full Irish is usually the ticket and to be truthful, it’s probably the only one I’ll have for the trip. That’s enough arterial blockage for a couple of weeks, says I.

The juncture after eating is the hardest, knowing that there’s a bed with my name on it that’s not quite ready. All of the experts advise one to stay up for the first day, at least as long as you can, but I’ve never had much luck with that, so I hit the bricks as soon as I can with an alarm set, so I don’t sleep past 2-3 p.m. Then, as onerous as it is, I force myself to arise and stay awake as late as I can. Honestly, that first full night’s sleep might be the best thing that exists.

Staying off the booze for the day also helps…or so I’ve heard. It’s not until the following morning that I feel awake enough to appreciate anything.

Alas, it’s all but a memory. I’ll have to settle for early morning trips to the grocery store for now.

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