Belfast Telegraph

Stars among thousands to give a fitting send-off to music legend Big Tom

By Nicola Anderson

They knew every word of every song but there was only one they really wanted to hear - and when it came, the tears streamed down their faces in the memory of past golden times.

Gentle Mother. It was the song Big Tom and the Mainliners sang on their first outing on The Showband Show on Radio Eireann back in 1966. The song that made Ireland sit up and listen.

It was the song that a homesick Tom had taught to musical co-workers during his days in an ice-cream factory in England - writing to his sister back home to beg her to send him the verses that he didn't know.

Nobody knows who originally wrote its sentimental lyrics. But it's the song that has lodged forever in the hearts of those who loved Big Tom.

The most devoted of these fans were by now old friends, recognising each other's faces from his concerts down the years, having followed him down every highway and byway across the island and beyond.

"We'll never see each other again now," said Patricia Courtney from Julianstown, Co Meath, who followed him for 47 years since she was 17 years old. "I fell in love with him the first time I saw him," she said. "He made everyone feel special."

"We couldn't miss this," agreed fan Julie Healy, who travelled from Glenamaddy, Co Galway to be at yesterday's funeral, and who bore a large placard saying 'Farewell Big Tom from your fans from the Four Roads of Glenamaddy.' "There'll never be another Big Tom," she said.

But at his graveside in the gently sloping church yard at Oram, Co Monaghan, the loyal followers of the gentle giant of Irish country music were treated to a performance they will remember forever and which was surely up there with any of the greatest nights of the showbands at the Galtymore in Cricklewood.

There was Daniel O'Donnell and sister Margo, Susan McCann, Michael English and Robert Mizzell, along with the remaining band members of the Mainliners, all singing their hearts out in a heart-rending, toe-tapping and at times rip-roaring tribute to the King of Irish Country. Big Tom McBride would have thoroughly approved.

Poignantly, Margo sang alone 'A Love That Lasts Forever', the song she and Big Tom had recorded as a duet last year and which she considered to be one of their best works.

Upwards of 2,000 people attended the funeral at St Patrick's Church in Oram, which barely seats 200 people. Everyone else was content to stand outside in the glorious sunshine, spilling out onto the roadway or sitting informally on the grave-edgings, certain that those long passed away would have been hospitable on this most momentous of occasions.

Daniel O'Donnell said Big Tom was the King and he will always be the King. "He may be gone but he'll live on," he said.

"It's a huge loss here for the people," he continued, saying the main thing about Tom was that he had been one of the people wherever he went.

Being the quiet and humble man that he was, Big Tom, said Daniel, "didn't carry the title of King very well," adding that he had a connection with people that you couldn't explain.

Testament to that were the sheer numbers who had come to pay him tribute, he commented.

In a nod to the singer's great love for vintage tractors, aficionados had set up a gleaming display of old Massey Fergusons and Zetors on an adjacent hillside.

A lone piper played Abide With Me as the coffin arrived at the church, draped in the yellow and white of Oram's GAA club.

Locals told of Big Tom's prowess on the football field in his own day; as a mid-fielder he had been quickly given the nickname that had stuck. "It was long before the music came along," they explained.

Amongst those who turned out to pay their last respects was country music singer Philomena Begley, Margo, Susan McCann, Dickie Rock and Brian Coll, of the showband The Plattermen and The Buckaroos.

Mr Coll paid tribute to Big Tom, saying he had been the voice of the people of rural Ireland.

Other bands had tried to speak for them but it was Tom who 'really broke the ice', he said, explaining that this was because he was from the land himself.

He revealed how Tom had visited him in hospital 29 years ago when he had suffered a brain haemorrhage and had reassured him that he would recover, saying: "We will not be going on tour and not be meeting Brian Coll. That wouldn't be right."

When Tom died earlier this week, he had "20 phone calls" telling him about the sad news, including two from New York, he added.

Big Tom's children, Thomas, Dermot, Aisling and Siobhan, and his sister Madge, led the mourners.

President Michael D Higgins, who visited Tom's family the previous evening, was represented by his Aide de Camp, Commandant Brian Walsh, while Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was represented by his Aide de Camp Commandant Caroline Burke. Also present was Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heath Humphreys.

The mass was concelebrated by a host of priests, including Fr Brian Darcy.

Chief celebrant, Fr Leo Creelman, said it was a heartbreaking replay of events for the McBride family since "just less than 80 days ago, they were here in the same church for the funeral of Tom's devoted and beloved wife Rose".

"To lose one parent is heartbreaking but, Thomas, Dermot, Aisling and Siobhan, to lose both parents within a matter of months, we just can't begin to imagine the sense of grief, sadness or emptiness that you must feel at this time," he said.

When Rose died, a massive part of Tom went with her, said Fr Leo.

"He was lost, dazed and broken hearted," he told those present.

"Big Tom was the face and voice that everyone seen and heard but Rose was the engine behind his success. In the background she was the grounding mechanism, the compass and the refuge needed, to one of the most popular Irish country singing stars of our times."

He said that Tom and Rose had a partnership that worked, an example of where each spouse cared for the other more than themselves.

"He was a man big in stature, matched up with an even bigger heart," he said of the singer. "Despite all his success and fame, he always remained humble and down to earth and first and foremost a family man."

And while often described as a legend, a giant, an icon, a king, these were titles he had richly deserved and earned after decades of success in the country music scene, culminating with a lifetime achievement award at the Irish Country Music Awards in 2016, he continued.

Tom had made the world a richer and happier place, he said.

At the graveside, Big Tom's next door neighbour Jim O'Neill spoke warmly of the country star, saying his spirit, legacy and his music would live on. He had put Oram on the map, he commented.

Despite his recent ill health, Big Tom had braved the elements to act as Grand Marshall for the local St Patrick's Day parade, Mr O'Neill said.

The singer was laid to rest in the old country church yard alongside his beloved wife Rose, as his heartbroken music colleagues sang him out in true country style.

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