Big Tom's fans: ‘It’s the saddest day of our lives’
No obstacle was too difficult for Big Tom's loyal fans to traverse. One recalled a journey of four and a half hours on a Honda 50 to see him play in 1981. Another remarked on how a queue of two and a half hours into a dance hall for a Mainliners gig had been the usual thing.
They had no complaints. These minor inconveniences had been a small price to pay, they observed, as they lined up to pay their respects to the king of Irish country music.
The remains of singer, who passed away aged 81, were brought home to Oram village in Co Monaghan for a public reposal at the community centre, with the coffin placed beneath a giant mural of the man himself. "The best seat in the house," one local man declared.
With their father's guitar placed nearby, the singer's children, Thomas, Dermot, Aisling and Siobhan - who lost their mother, Rose, just 11 weeks previously - received the visitors who came to pay their respects and share happy memories.
Singer TR Dallas, who met Big Tom in 1967 while they were playing at a carnival in Moate, Co Westmeath, and went on to become a lifelong friend, said: "We're losing a gentleman. It (the showband era) was an unbelievable time. They'd travel everywhere to see him. Every song he picked was a hit. He'll never be replaced."
Fellow singer Margo O'Donnell said she was broken-hearted at the loss of both Tom and Rose, whom she described as "family". She had moved to Castleblayney 25 years ago "for the music" - since it was dubbed the Nashville of Ireland - and living close by, she had seen both regularly.
"I lost my friends 11 weeks apart - Rose died 11 weeks ago yesterday. Nothing is ever going to be the same again," she said.
So devastated was Margo that she revealed she was considering whether to continue with her career. But she also told how Tom had recently recorded one final album "for the fans" that was ready to be released.
"We had a lot of plans for this year," she said.
It had been Margo who had put forward the idea of a statue to Tom, which is currently being completed and will stand proudly at the heart of Castleblayney.
"Rose used to tell me, 'You'd need to hurry up Margo'," she said, adding that Rose had been very spiritual and may have known there was not much time left. "She used to say, 'You don't know what's going to happen'," she said.
Fan Maura McCormack, of Roscommon, said she had been following Big Tom since 1970 and used to travel all over Ireland to see him, recalling gigs in Tralee, Bundoran and Galway. "All the ballrooms," she said.
He, himself, however had been "modest and humble" and this was something that came across on stage, she said.
"He was a very, very quiet man -he wasn't a man for the spotlight," she explained, adding that her favourite song of his had been Gentle Mother.
"It's the saddest day of our lives," remarked Kathleen McKeown of Hackballscross, Co Louth.
Sisters Maureen Costello and Kathleen Sullivan, from Maynalty, Co Offaly, remembered going to see Big Tom and the Mainliners together when Kathleen was just 12. "We saw him everywhere - we'd queue two hours or two and a half hours to get in, but it was magical," said Maureen.
"He's where he wants to be with Rose," added Kathleen, remembering how she would be standing at the side of the stage during every gig. "A pity you can't get one of our broken hearts," said Maureen as the photographer asked for a picture of the pair.
Ben Dolan, brother of Joe Dolan, and who had been part of his backing band, the Drifters, remembered the first time he met Big Tom when they were on the Showband Show in 1964 or 1965.
"We had The Answer Is Everything and the Mainliners had Gentle Mother, and both of us clicked on the same day," he said. "We were on the fringe of the country business and that was his business - we were more pop-ish."
"But he can still draw them, in," he remarked of the crowds queueing to pay their respects.
"It's very sad," he said, adding that it had only been "a few weeks" since they had gathered to say farewell to Rose.
Fan Mick Morrissey, from Clonbullogue, Co Offaly, and wearing a Big Tom T-shirt, described a journey on his Honda 50 in 1981 to go from his home to see Big Tom play at the White House in Cootehill.
"It was four and a half hours, but it was worth it. I'd go anywhere to see Tom, in the snow or anything, it didn't matter," he said.
"I'll miss him, but his music will go on for ever - the very same as Johnny Cash."
Meanwhile, country singer Derek Ryan told how he had supported Big Tom at the age of just 12.
He said it had been "amazing" to be able to tell his friends that he had got to play on the Mainliners' drums.
"To my mind, he was the greatest of Irish country music - and now he's gone," he said.