Belfast Telegraph

Big Tom: Humble, grounded star, devoted to his family, and accepted success as a gift from God


Big Tom at his home in Oram, Castleblayney
Big Tom at his home in Oram, Castleblayney
Big Tom with The Mainliners
Big Tom during a recording of Make Mine Country in 1976
Big Tom on the farm
Big Tom's cofffin is driven through the centre of the town yesterday

It was mid-March 1967 when I answered the telephone at my home.

"It's Henry here, John. We're playing in the National Stadium in Dublin tomorrow afternoon and then we're heading on to play at the Longford Arms Hotel. Maybe you'll come up with me and do a few lines on it. I'll be waiting for you at the house at ten o'clock."

As you may have gathered already, Henry McMahon, the bandleader of Big Tom And The Mainliners, had no time for small talk, nor has to this day.

I had got to know Big Tom and his musicians when their massive hit, Gentle Mother, took the country by storm in 1966 and suddenly this most modest and unassuming of men, someone who never forgot his roots and cherished his native Castleblayney, was transformed from an unknown into a superstar.

It was a status he was to retain up until his sad passing yesterday at the age of 81, just three months after the death of his beloved wife Rose.

There are musicians and performers, but Big Tom belonged in another category altogether - he was an institution.

For decades his many thousands of faithful followers showed their unstinting devotion to him; initially by their attendance in massive numbers at dances at which he played, then by purchasing his albums in unprecedented numbers, and, more recently, by enthusiastically supporting his occasional tours in the twilight of his stellar career.

It was in the Sixties and Seventies when the living was easy and dancing was a way of life that Big Tom put his own indelible stamp on the Irish entertainment industry.

At the peak of his career it was not unusual for The Mainliners to find themselves playing seven nights a week, particularly during the summer months when anything less than a four-figure crowd would have been deemed unthinkable.

And if Tom was Big in Ireland, then his popularity in England was totally unprecedented.

The thousands of Irish emigrants who lived there in the Sixties and early Seventies helped to convert places like the Galtymore in Cricklewood, the Hibernian Club in Fulham, the National Ballroom in Kilburn and the Gresham in Holloway Road into shrines to which they converged in their thousands to worship their idol.

He may have had an inherent fear of flying, but Big Tom never nurtured an ambition to conquer the world - he was happiest among his own folk playing his music, listening to their stories and, of course, avidly supporting the Monaghan football team. If music was in his soul, then football was in his blood, and along with his long-time manager Kevin McCooey he rarely missed a major match, and certainly not one in which Monaghan were playing.

Indeed, his diary was tailored to suit Monaghan's itinerary, if the truth be known.

Nor were the trappings of wealth manifest in his home or lifestyle. He remained firmly grounded throughout his career, accepted his success as a gift from God and devoted himself to his family: Rose, his two sons Tom jnr and Dermot, and daughters Siobhan and Aisling, while at the same time taking a genuine interest in all with whom he came into contact.

It was the late John McCormack, the man who launched Big Tom And The Mainliners, who perhaps had a vision of just how popular his artiste might get.

Rockcorry man McCormack was involved in undertaking a daily bakery run at the time but was suddenly confronted by the prospect of success which prompted his immortal line to me in the then Embassy Ballroom in Castleblayney: "There's dough in the bread, John, but no money. Dancing is where it's at."

From those modest beginnings Big Tom was to scale a peak that never would have been thought possible. Accolades flooded in, he continued to pour out the hits such as Sunshine Years Of Life, The Old Log Cabin, Broken Marriage Vows, The Old Rustic Bridge, Back To Castleblayney, Four Country Roads, and his more recent popular number Going Out The Same Way You Came In.

But in 1975 Tom parted from The Mainliners to front the newly-formed Travellers, with Crossmaglen man John Glenn stepping into the breach with The Mainliners.

While The Travellers continued to play the dancing circuit, they were not quite able to generate the magic that had become second nature to The Mainliners.

In time The Mainliners reformed, Big Tom returned to the helm of operations, and a flavour of the fervour that had accompanied their earlier success was revived.

The passing years saw big changes in the entertainment scene in Ireland but the loyalty of Big Tom's followers never wavered, which meant that on his more occasional short tours, big crowds were still the order of the day no matter where he performed.

However, he suffered a heart attack in 2006 that was to see him cut back on his personal appearances and take things a little easier at his picturesque Oram home, just outside Castleblayney on the road to Newtownhamilton. When the inaugural Irish Country Music Awards show was broadcast live by RTE in 2016, Big Tom was inducted into Ireland's Country Music Hall of Fame, a fitting honour given the huge influence he had exerted for so long in the Irish country dancing sphere.

It was at the Tullyglass House Hotel in Ballymena that he performed at one of his last dances here in Ulster a couple of years ago, and for a few hours the atmosphere of the Sixties was rekindled as followers from as far away as Cork and Kerry danced the night away in the heart of Co Antrim.

The hundreds of captivated fans assembled round the front of the stage in the hotel's vast ballroom was a throwback to other days - it was a night when everyone stepped back in time.

But all good things come to an end, and yesterday's passing of Big Tom not only closes a chapter in the history of Irish entertainment, but it marks the end of an era.

The marquees in which the dances were held have now been replaced by plush hotels; Country Music Weekends as opposed to one-night stands are the order of the day, and huge outdoor spectacular events are staged throughout the summer to help sate the current demand for music of this particular genre.

But the pulsating rhythm that Big Tom And The Mainliners provided - they were known as 'The band with the magic beat' - in venues up and down the country and across the water will remain firmly embedded in the memories of those who were privileged to be part of the entertainment scene that prevailed then.

We shall not see his like again.

Belfast Telegraph


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