Big Tom ‘monumentalised among the people who loved him best’

Bronze statue of beloved singer unveiled in Castleblayney at climax of inaugural festival

President Michael D Higgins and Sabina admire the Big Tom statue in Castleblaney, Co Monaghan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

President Michael D Higgins and Sabina admire the Big Tom statue in Castleblaney, Co Monaghan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Big Tom was still very much alive when his long-time friend Margo first suggested that there should be a statue of him in his home town. He was not enthusiastic about the idea then. “You can’t be doing that,” was the immediate reaction of a star in whom modesty had never died.

But then his wife Rose went to work on the case, arguing that a statue would be “nice for the fans”. So he agreed, reluctantly. And two years later, the result took up residence in Castleblayney’s Market Square on Sunday, before an admiring crowd of thousands.

Alas, neither Tom nor Rose was around to unveil it, as planned, having died within weeks of each other earlier this year. Instead, the honour fell to their daughter Siobhán, and to President Michael D Higgins, who declared it only right that Big Tom had now been “monumentalised in bronze among the people who loved him best”.

The work, by English sculptor Mark Richards, drew approving aahs from spectators as the drape fell away. Margo planted a kiss on the likeness of the man she said she had loved “dearly”.

Sculptor Mark Richards prepares for the unveiling of his Big Tom McBride statue in Castleblaney, Co Monaghan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Sculptor Mark Richards prepares for the unveiling of his Big Tom McBride statue in Castleblaney, Co Monaghan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
People gather for the unveiling of the Big Tom statue in Castleblaney, Co Monaghan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Others to pose for the first photographs with the seated figure included the singer’s son, another Tom McBride, who had played drums in one of his father’s bands. “Ah, isn’t he the image of him?” said a woman in the crowd.

The man himself

Richards, whose subjects have included Queen Elizabeth and the late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, visited Big Tom at home last year to see him up close. One of his dilemmas was whether to portray the performer, with guitar and microphone, or – the sculptor’s preference – to concentrate on the man himself.

So he constructed two maquettes to help the family decide and was glad they went with the unadorned figure. Richards summed up the qualities he tried to capture: “Warmth, a hint of steel, complete absence of self-importance, his incredible shoulders, the sense of humour, a glint in his eye.”

There was general agreement in ’Blayney that he had got it right. Richards returned the compliment, saying that of all the unveilings he had attended “I have never seen anything like this”.

The ceremony marked the climax of an inaugural Big Tom Festival, also in planning before the singer died. Events included a concert, dance, Big Tom-themed quiz, and the opening of a “music wall of fame” celebrating the many stars of a town that has been called the “Nashville of Ireland”.

Vintage tractors

There were also, inevitably, tractors. As local TD and Minister for Business Heather Humphreys said, Tom McBride was “the quintessential rural man”. A picture nearby showed him at the wheel of a modest Massey Ferguson 35, the Big Tom version of the Popemobile, and a collection of his vintage models was also on display during the weekend.

So was the first winner of a prize to be awarded annually in his and his wife’s honour at the Castleblayney Show: The Big Tom and Rose McBride Shield for “most original tractor”.

It wasn’t only the President who turned up to honour the former King of Country. Another musical monarch – Elvis – was also present, at least in the form of one of his many impersonators, Myles Kavanagh from Kilkenny.

Wearing a powder-blue rhinestone outfit, Kavanagh explained that he had made the journey north for personal reasons connected with his late mother-in-law Mary Feehan, who had been a great fan of Big Tom and had died on the same day, “almost the same time”, last April.

She especially loved the song Gentle Mother, which Kavanagh was supposed to sing at her graveside. In the event, that proved too much for him, he said. “I had to do a less emotional one – Little Old Wine Drinker Me instead.”

The “Kilkenny Elvis” made the pilgrimage to ’Blayney in his beloved mother-in-law’s memory. On behalf of one king to another, he declared the statue “beautiful”.