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Philomena Begley: The Big Tom I knew

The Queen of Country writes exclusively for the Belfast Telegraph on fond memories of her late, great friend

True talent: Big Tom performs on stage in Dublin’s Cabra Grand in 1974
True talent: Big Tom performs on stage in Dublin’s Cabra Grand in 1974
Big Tom with close friend and fellow Irish star Daniel O’Donnell
Philomena Begley

The Sixties was an iconic decade for music across the island of Ireland as the showband scene swept the nation and brought with it a new wave of outdoor carnivals, country music and, most of all, dancing.

Back then, I was the fresh faced singer of the Old Cross Ceili Band, a name we later changed to The Country Flavour to fit with the changing times, and we toured the dance halls bringing new sounds to all sorts of towns and villages throughout every corner of the country.

In my home county of Tyrone, the Commercial Ballroom in Dungannon was a place of showbands, romance and dance, an iconic hall of dreams and it was the place for dance lovers to see and be seen.

It was at 'the Commercial' that I first discovered the delights of dancing to Big Tom and The Mainliners back in the swinging Sixties.

My husband Tom (Quinn) and I called in to the Commercial Ballroom one night on our way back from a gig, to meet up with some friends and listen to some music, and when we crossed the threshold I couldn't believe how the place was packed to the rafters with locals dancing to Big Tom's very unique and distinctive beat that made him stand out from the rest.

It really was jammed and it was evident that Big Tom and his band had something a little bit special.

Of course I had listened to his music and had followed his rise to fame before that night in Dungannon, but I will never forget the magic that he had when I first witnessed his great live show right before my own eyes.

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Since then, I've always said that if you can't dance to Big Tom, then you simply can't dance at all because he had a rhythm and beat that was so distinctive and so unique, it made even those with two left feet get up and move to the songs he sang.

After that night in the Commercial, and over the past 50 years and more, mine and Big Tom's paths crossed on many occasions, from performing at awards ceremonies, to chatting on TV shows, to dances at charity balls and more.

Tom was a true character in his own right and when he came into any room, he would light it up.

He'd be full of divilment and I'd always have great conversations with him no matter where I'd run into Tom.

Be it on or off the stage, we'd always have a laugh and we'd talk about those good old days when we toured the country, and marvel at how at our time of day, more than half a century later, we were still doing it and still loving every moment of it.

One of my fondest and funniest memories of Big Tom was after a dance one night in Bundoran.

Tom and his wife Rose invited a few friends and some family members who were there back to his room for a drink and, for the laugh, I took off my shoes and put them under Tom's bed, saying: "That's my claim to fame! I can always say my shoes were under Big Tom's bed!"

We all had a great laugh about that, but that was the type of us when we all got together. We just had a similar sense of humour and enjoyed letting our hair down after a busy night on stage.

Tom was a fine storyteller and could spin a yarn so well that he'd hold us all in the palm of his hand as he reminisced of days gone by, and I always enjoyed the craic with him as well as listening to his distinctive sounds when he took to the mic.

He always chose the right songs to sing, he had the right attitude, he had the best temperament and he had great family support plus a marvellous singing voice - but for me it was always about the beat.

No one could make you dance like Big Tom and the Mainliners. He was known as the King and it was easy to see why.

My favourite song of his has to be Gentle Mother with its meaningful and poignant lyrics, and I also used to enjoy singing If It's Lonesome at Your Table in my early days with my band.

Four Country Roads is of course a classic, and then there's Four Roads to Glenamaddy - all of his music prompts so many memories to spring up and takes me right back in my mind to the good old days.

Behind the scenes, Tom was very much a family man who loved his tractors, his farming and his rural roots which were firmly grounded at home in Castleblayney, Co Monaghan.

He never got caught up or carried away with the bright lights of showbusiness and enjoyed his downtime away from the spotlight just as much as he enjoyed being on the road.

I think that's where we perhaps had most in common in that we both loved family life away from the hustle and bustle of the music scene.

Don't get me wrong, we both fully enjoyed the social side of country music too but it was always nice to get back to reality and switch off.

I was devastated to hear of his dear wife Rose's passing in January this year and I can only imagine how broken-hearted he was without her.

I didn't realise how ill he was recently and the news came as a great shock to many of us who knew him.

My deepest sympathies go to his children Thomas, Dermot, Aisling and Siobhan, members of his extended family and all of his friends in his beloved Co Monaghan.

He was unique in every way, a real 'gentle giant' and his passing is a big loss to the country music scene in Ireland and to the many, many people all over the world who loved him so.

Philomena Begley: My Life, My Music, My Memories by Philomena Begley and Emma Heatherington, O'Brien Press, £17.99

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