‘He was a lifeline for a dispossessed people’: Big Tom remembered

Country star had a huge following despite being lampooned by critics as uncool

Irish country singer Big Tom McBride has died aged 81, in 2017 he released a duet with Margo O'Donnell called "A Love That's Lasted Through The Years". Video: Margo O'Donnell


Nobody could fill a hall at the height of the showband era like the late Big Tom McBride.

Long queues would form outside the local ballroom when Big Tom and his band, the Mainliners, came to town. Generally, dancing was 9pm to 1am, with a relief band getting proceedings underway.

In the 1960s, as Ireland was slowly changing, the ballrooms replaced as dance venues the parish halls, which had been frequently run by the local parish priest, whose task sometimes was to guard against the perils of close dancing.

Not so the ballrooms, where close dancing ceased to be a moral threat.

Many of the ballrooms were exotic, by comparison, and they introduced an element of glamour in a grey Ireland.

Their opening saw the emergence of the showbands, vocally more sophisticated than the parish hall band, with the singers and musicians sporting bright suits and modern hairstyles.

Big Tom and his band, the Mainliners, became the country stars of that new world. When he recorded the sentimental Gentle Mother in 1967, it became an instant hit, reaching the coveted number one spot in RTÉ Radio’s top 10 records.

An overnight success, he went on to enjoy a huge following at home and among Irish emigrants.

Yet the showband business was run on an informal basis, with mainly cash transactions.

In the midlands, a young businessman, Albert Reynolds, later to become Taoiseach, opened a series of ballrooms. He was later spoken of as a good promoter; the band was always paid and a hot meal provided before going on stage.

In Tralee, Co Kerry, a ballroom attached to the Mount Brandon hotel, opened by then Taoiseach Sean Lemass in the 1960s, was a hugely successful venue for Big Tom. It had a chandelier and a large balcony. Like the other ballrooms, though, it sold nothing stronger than soft drinks.

The women queued on one side of the hall and the men on the other. If there was a large crowd, there was a rush to ask a woman to dance.

This was the entertainment world dominated by Big Tom, Dickie Rock, Brendan Bowyer, Brendan O’Brien and Philomena Begley in the sixties and seventies.

With the exception perhaps of Bowyer, nobody rivalled Big Tom as a crowd-puller. His country audience followed him faithfully, sometimes driving miles to see him play, not least in the summer when the venue could be a marquee in a country village where the local carnival was being held.

He understood his audience. He came from Castleblayney, Co Monaghan, and knew rural Ireland. He had spent some time as an emigrant in London.

His songs were about love affairs, many of them ending in remorse and melancholy, old Irish ballads, and some modern songs.

Despite being the lead singer and playing the guitar in the band, he was intensely uneasy with fame.

I interviewed him many years ago when he was playing at the Festival of Kerry at the height of his fame.

He was a courteous, diffident, shy man. He told me he found public recognition difficult.

He had just turned down his own series on RTÉ television at the time because the station wanted to use professional session musicians rather than his own band members, all of whom hailed from his native Monaghan.

“They would be the best in the business,’’ he said. “But they would have no interest in country music.’’

Big Tom and his music were lampooned, of course. In an Ireland struggling for sophistication, having watched too much television, Big Tom and his likes were not cool.

His country fans dismissed the lampooning, followed him in the dancehalls and bought his records in abundance

In recent times, he would get due recognition on a country music special on The Late Late Show, presented by Ryan Tubridy, who helped the visibly ailing Big Tom to the microphone to sing his trademark Four Country Roads.

He had a huge following among Irish emigrants.

Some 400,00 people emigrated from Ireland between 1951 and 1961 alone, most of them poorly educated and ill-prepared.

Many headed for British building sites and factories.

“They were a silent generation,’’ the novelist John McGahern later wrote,”and they left in silence.’’

They followed Big Tom when he came to London to play in the then thriving Irish dancehalls, such as the Galtymore in Cricklewood, the National in Kilburn, and the Gresham in Holloway Road.

They played his records at home and sang his songs at Irish emigrant gatherings, the poignancy of his voice in harmony with the bitter-sweet experience of forced emigration.

It is very easy today to dismiss all this as crass sentimentality. It would be wrong, because it was no such thing.

Big Tom’s songs and music were a lifeline for a dispossessed people, forced out of their own country, which could not even provide them with the basic human right of a job.

Many of those songs were melancholic. But our history of forced emigration is laced with melancholy.

A good friend, John Mulrooney, from Sligo, was a close friend of Big Tom.

Some years ago, we said we would meet up at one of his concerts. We never did.

I regret that now.

The Ireland which made Big Tom a country star is gone. The ballrooms have long closed and the showbands are no more.

And now, sadly, Big Tom is gone. God rest him.