On Tuesday morning, as the tributes pour in for the late Big Tom McBride on the Ryan Tubridy Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), one song in particular springs to mind. It's not one of the Irish country and western legend's hits such as Gentle Mother or Four Country Roads, but unlikely as it seems Joni Mitchell's proto-environmental classic Big Yellow Taxi. More specifically, the sad news recalls Mitchell's plaintive refrain of "Don't it always seem to go/That you don't know what you've got 'til its gone".
For years, mainstream Irish culture may have overlooked and, worse, derided Big Tom, but listening to his peers talk about him with Tubridy, the scale of his impact becomes clear, as well as the sense of loss. With news of McBride’s death having just broken, Daniel O’Donnell is palpably upset but still manages to convey a vivid impression of the man and his legacy. O’Donnell calls Big Tom “the king”, testifying that his physical stature was matched by his presence, despite his naturally quiet personality.
O’Donnell also highlights another crucial aspect of McBride’s career. “He reached out to people who had emigrated to England,” he says, name-checking the ballrooms of London and Manchester where Irish expatriates would flock to hear Big Tom from the 1960s on. O’Donnell even paints an evocative vignette from his own life, as he recalls seeing Big Tom perform while living in Dublin in 1980. “I remember going into the Ierne [ballroom],” says a wistful O’Donnell, as though in a reverie. “Oh, the memory is fantastic, the atmosphere.” It’s a poignant glimpse into the effect McBride had on his fans.
Tubridy is also joined by Irish country and western stars Philomena Begley and Margo O'Donnell. Begley speaks of Big Tom's ability to pick songs and his "divilment", while Margo talks about the recent passing of McBride's wife, Rose. Like her brother Daniel, she draws comfort that now "he's with Rose".
There's much talk of urban-rural divides in Ireland
The rural Ulster accents of these singers – and indeed of Big Tom himself, as heard in an archive clip of an interview with Tubridy – underline the “country” element of his music, and his deep appeal in areas far from the metropolitan spotlight. But at a time when there’s much talk of urban-rural divides in Ireland and beyond, the warmth, humour and, not least, lightly-worn artistry of these tributes to McBride has the effect of bringing listeners together, in appreciation of a man and the musical culture he embodied.
Tubridy, for his part, is ideal for the occasion, counterintuitive though it seems. For all his middle-class Dublin origins and urbane mannerisms, Tubridy’s oft-voiced scepticism for what he sees as hifalutin art or cultural oversensitivity is accompanied by a natural ease with genres and indeed practitioners deemed passé or naff by would-be cultural arbiters.
Aside from his own obvious sadness at McBride’s death, Tubridy forms an easy, sympathetic rapport with his guests, allowing the space for their testimony to unfold. (It also must seem like light relief for Tubridy, who the day before has conducted a harrowing interview with an English woman whose two sons were killed by her abusive husband.)
Today with Sean O'Rourke (RTE Radio 1, weekdays) also musters an impressive line-up of guests to recall McBride, but takes a different approach. The interviews include some wry memories from singer Paddy Cole as well as the odd biting insight, such as Fr Brian D'Arcy's tart observation that "the elitists looked down on him and he outlasted them all". Ultimately, however, O'Rourke's staccato interviewing style lacks the contemplative affection of Tubridy's take on McBride. It's a sad occasion, but it shows Tubridy at his formidable best as a broadcaster. More importantly, it's a reminder of what Ireland has lost with Big Tom's passing, low-key yet resonant, like the man himself.
There are of course some seemingly irreconcilable faultlines that run through Irish life, but they tend to be of the political variety, as can be heard on Saturday with Cormac Ó hEadhra (RTÉ Radio 1). Broadcasting the morning after the American-led retaliatory missile strikes on Syria, Ó hEadhra has a full agenda of issues to deal with, but inexorably gets drawn into the familiar quagmire of Irish politics, specifically the North. Though the presenter has five guests on his panel, the show is dominated by testy exchanges between just two of them, Fine Gael TD Martin Heydon and Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan.
The shooting of Palestinian demonstrators by Israeli forces
Their differences first emerge when discussing the Syrian strikes. Heydon has an ambivalent attitude: when pressed by the host on whether the attacks were right or wrong, the deputy replies “that’s very hard to say”. Boylan, on the other hand, condemns the actions of “the western states”, while chastising them for “ignoring” the shooting of Palestinian demonstrators by Israeli forces. (She in turn appears to ignore Russia’s role in Syrian horrors, but that’s whataboutery for another day.)
Boylan then clashes with Heydon over the Government’s signing up to the EU’s Pesco security project, claiming it will tie Ireland into military ventures. But it’s as nothing compared to the argument that ensues when Ó hEadhra mischievously asks Heydon about the possibility of a coalition pact between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. The TD rejects the notion on the basis of Sinn Féin’s “sectarian links”. This outrages Boylan, who asks what evidence Heydon has for such accusations. “What outreach work have you done with the unionist community?” she asks him, perhaps a tad disingenuously.
The pair indulge in a tit-for-tat slanging match until Ó hEadhra steps in. He tells Boylan to stop “harassing” Heydon – which is rather overstating the case – and instead asks if she is willing to condemn IRA violence during the Troubles. Now it is Boylan’s turn to qualify and contextualise, though she concludes that she “would rather there was no violence”.
Overall, it’s a riveting but rather unedifying spectacle. Ó hEadhra’s fondness for binary questions doesn’t leave much room for nuance, which only adds to the dispiriting clashes. But some divides in Ireland are deeper than others.
Radio Moment of the Week: Majella’s Eire B&B
Majella O'Donnell is as adept a radio presence as her husband Daniel. This she proves when the couple appear on The Last Word (Today FM). In their capacity as hosts of their B&B travel show for RTÉ, they talk to host Matt Cooper about bed and breakfasts across the country. When the presenter asks about pricing, Majella suggests that more than €100 per night is excessive. "You can afford more than that," guffaws Cooper. Majella's response is immediate. Even if you have a lot of money, she says, "you don't want to spend a tenner on a sliced pan".