Speech at the unveiling of a statue in honour of Big Tom McBride
Castleblaney, County Monaghan, Sunday, 23rd September 2018
A bhaill de theaghlach McBride,
A Theachta Dálaí,
A dhaoine uaisle,
A cháirde gael,
Is mór an phléisiúir a bheith in bhur dteannta anseo i gCearnóg an Mhargaidh i gcroílár Bhaile na Lorgan chun ómós a thabhairt do laochra mór Mhuineachán agus fear uasal Éireannach, Big Tom McBride.
That all of you have taken time to come here today is a wonderful testament by his own people to the popularity of Big Tom in his native place and here in Castleblaney. That love for Big Tom, his music and the man he was is something that you know best but of course share, not only with people across our island of Ireland, not only in Irish communities across the world, but with many other peoples from different cultures.
For those of you who knew him, that love for Big Tom that appreciation of his big heart emerged through friendship or meetings with him on the street, in the shops, or in the pubs here in Castleblaney. All who knew Big Tom have spoken and still speak of his remarkable warmth, compassion and generosity of spirit, a man who, despite having great popularity and achieved celebrity status, was humble about his great accomplishments.
This statue will celebrate Big Tom’s sense of place. Anyone who has heard a recording of Big Tom sing the lyrics of Johnny McCauley’s magnificent ‘Back to Castleblayney’ knows that Big Tom, had a great affection in his heart for the people of this town. It is said that Tom received the appellation ‘Big Tom’ while as a young footballer for the Oram Sarsfields, a club to which he committed his time and effort throughout his life. I should be ecumenical, of course, and recognise both the many members of the Sarsfields and the (Castleblayney) Faughs in attendance today – I wouldn’t want people to think that I was favouring anybody.
The long association of Big Tom with the Sarsfields is but one sign of the manner in which he was rooted like a rock in the soil of this land, rooted in his family, with his beloved wife Rose, and rooted in this community.
That love of place and people, of hearth and home – I think that it was those qualities, so evident in Tom’s music and personality, that people across the world responded to. Those qualities were evident to the nation when in those early years they watched Tom sing ‘Gentle Mother’ on RTÉ in 1966. From that moment, only six years after Tom first performed to a crowd of 60 in a small barn in Oram, Tom and his band at the time, the Mainliners, truly took off, packing ballrooms in all 32 counties. For a generation, attending a Mainliners concert was formative experience – indeed, so many romances blossomed in those ballrooms it could be said that the generations that followed owe Big Tom a debt of gratitude! Big Tom and the Mainliners were so popular it was said that hadn’t seen the floorboard of a ballroom for years so filled with people were they.
The music of Big Tom perhaps meant something even more to those who were forced, as he was as a young man, to seek their fortune in the industrial cities of England and Scotland, to labour in big houses and hostelries or on the railways and construction sites. From Kilburn to Merseyside, Irish people in England flocked to hear songs which evoked bittersweet memories of their homes their people in Ireland – songs which, despite their sadness, were a source of light and hope for those who needed to sustain the memory of Ireland. The fact that dancing during Lent was limited at home meant that the Bands took the boat to England during those weeks.
There is a now famous story of Tom and the Mainliners being protected from crowds of adoring fans by police on horseback outside the Galtymore dance hall – now sadly closed - in Cricklewood in North London. It tells you of the heights of fame the Mainliners reached in Ireland and Britain.
Tom’s fame was not confined to the Irish community – from his recording studio here in Castleblaney he extended his reach to Nashville and beyond with his own record label, Denver Records, selling over 1 million records by 1980. He found success not only with the Mainliners but with the Travellers, the band he formed in 1978, which of course included his son Thomas on the drums. May I say how wonderful it is that we are joined by Thomas today, and by Big Tom’s other children, Dermot, Aisling and Siobhán today, and all of their children too.
It is so appropriate that Big Tom will be honoured here in Castleblaney, monumentalised in bronze amongst the people who knew him best, and who loved him. May I commend and thank the sculptor, Mark Richards, for crafting what will be magnificent addition to this town.
Let it stand here in Castleblaney as a reminder of all that is best in our republic – our love of home, our capacity for solidarity, and our commitment to one another for friendship and for remembering what is best. Let this statute stand as an inspiration to practice those qualities embodied in the person of Big Tom. Above all, let it stand as a tribute to the remarkable life and legacy of Big Tom McBride.
Go n-éirí go geal libh go léir.