Back in 1967, as a young teenager making the daily trek to Tuam Vocational School, known to everyone at the time as ‘The Tech’, Tom Gilmore first started listening to Irish country music legend Big Tom when he topped the Irish charts with his first hit Gentle Mother.
Little did Tom Gilmore realise at the time, that just over 50 years later, he would be the author of the book that would chart and chronicle the life of a man who left an indelible mark on the Irish music scene through close on six decades.
The seed for the book, Big Tom, The King of Irish Country, was sown over a year ago when Big Tom McBride was still alive, although in ailing health, when the O’Brien Press contacted Tom Gilmore about the possibility of such a project.
For one reason or another, it wasn’t followed up on at the time, but in early May, shortly after Big Tom had passed away, the call came again from Michael O’Brien, MD of O’Brien Press, with the request to write the book – 60,000 words required (it actually ended up at 63,000 words).
“I suppose that it was a bit daunting but it was a great honour too as over the years I had become great friends with Big Tom and his family. One of the things that made it possible for me on a practical level was the fact that I had retired so I could throw myself full-time into the job,” Tom Gilmore told the Connacht Tribune.
About eight of nine years previously, Tom Gilmore had done a two-hour radio special with Big Tom for Galway Bay FM and as luck would have it, in a trawl through the attic, he unearthed two ‘mini-discs’ with the contents of those interviews and that was a great start.
While Tom Gilmore might have listened to Gentle Mother on the radio back in ’67 he was still a couple of years too young for the dancehall scene but on a Saturday night in 1969 he eventually made it to the Sound of Music in Glenamaddy (under the stewardship of the late Joe O’Neill), and from there on he was ‘hooked’.
Back around 1973, Tom Gilmore along with Michael Lyster, now of RTE, started up the Music Scene column in the Tuam Herald, and as the few bob ‘started to be made’ the Morris Minor was bought and the regular weekend treks followed to carnivals and dancehalls around the county.
Around the mid-70s, Tom and five of his mates made the trip to Castleblayney to the Embassy Ballroom (since demolished and now the Glencarn Hotel) for a country music festival, featuring Big Tom of course – 40 years later the ‘same gang’ visited Big Tom at his Oram home in a sentimental re-enactment of more innocent times.
“As always we got a great welcome from Big Tom and his family. I went over the to piano and when Big Tom came into the room, he said to me that he could have given me a job years back.
“But it was always a lovely house to visit. He was a most decent man and he always made visitors feel most welcome – trips to Big Tom’s home in Oram were always very special,” Tom recalls.
Since Big Tom passed away last April and the book project was settled upon, Tom Gilmore had more trips to make up North, garnering anecdotes as well as bits and pieces of trivia from the singer’s family and friends, including Margo, ex-band members with the Mainliners band, his manager Kevin McCoey and Big Tom’s brother-in-law Paddy King.
“I suppose the first two to two-and-a-half months of the project were spent in gathering all the pieces of information that I needed to write the book. After that, it was a matter of deciding on the format and how the chapters would pan out, and then of course just keeping the head down and writing it,” said Tom Gilmore.
The end result is quite an exceptional product, beautifully produced and laid out by O’Brien Press, divided into 12 chapters dealing with Big Tom’s roots and early years; his Gaelic football career (he as an avid GAA man); emigration to London; family loves and tragedies; and of course his life and times as one of the country’s top entertainers.
At heart, Big Tom was a country boy who loved to sing, follow the GAA and drive his tractors, but primarily he was the man, who night after night, through late 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s and 90s, drew thousands and thousands of people to halls and marquees in all corners of Ireland.
Songs like Gentle Mother, I Love You Still, Lonesome at Your Table, Broken Marriage Vows, Four Country Roads, My Donegal Shore and the Going Out The Same Way You Came In, are just some of the many songs that will resonate with people across the nation.
His passing led to President Michael D. Higgins making the journey to Oram for the wake where he met with the McBride family and paid a touching personal tribute to the influence of Big Tom, not just in Irish musical circles but on Irish society.
Johnny McCauley was the man who penned many of his greatest hits, and as Tom Gilmore points out, many people mightn’t realise that Big Tom was probably the first Irish artist – back in the early 1980s – to go to Nashville and record a full original album, written by Johnny McCauley and called Blue Wings
Another little titbit about Big Tom is that one of the singers and bands that he loved was Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones (who in their time, believe it or not, have done a selection of country songs). Rumour has it, according to Tom Gilmore, that Mick Jagger got an autograph from Big Tom many years ago when the pair met!
On a more serious note, Tom Gilmore, is happy that the Big Tom book is complete – it was officially launched last Saturday at the Íontas Theatre in Castleblayney – and he hopes that it will be a lasting tribute to a man whose name is known across every nook and cranny throughout Ireland.
“It was a labour of love and a great honour to write this book about a wonderful singer who touched the hearts of people all over Ireland for over half a century. I always regarded him as a great friend, and like so many more people around Ireland, I will miss him a lot,” said Tom Gilmore.
■ Big Tom The King of Irish Country, written by Tom Gilmore, is a hardback published by The O’Brien Press available at all good bookshops retailing at €20.
Violent incident in Tuam leaves seven hospitalised
Gardaí are investigating after an incident in Tuam yesterday left seven people injured.
A violent altercation broke out between a large group at the cemetery in Tuam at about 4pm yesterday.
Around 30 Gardaí responded to the incident at the cemetery on the Athenry Road in Tuam, which broke out following two funerals in the area.
Gardaí supported by members from the wider North Western Region and the Regional Armed Support Unit had to physically intervene between parties and disperse those present.
Five males and two females were injured during the course of the incident and were taken to University Hospital Galway with non-life threatening injuries.
A 16-year-old boy was arrested at the scene, as he tried to flee in possession of a knife.
He was taken to Tuam Garda Station and has since been released. A file is being prepared for the Juvenile Liaison Officer.
Gardaí are appealing for any witnesses to this incident or for anyone with any information to contact Tuam Garda Station .
Anger over ANC ‘snip’
ANGRY farmers hit out during last week’s Galway IFA at the Dept. of Agriculture over what they described as their ‘heavy handed tactics’ in docking BEAM penalties from ANC payments made last week.
Although Agriculture Minister, Charlie McConalogue, has apologised for the actions taken by his Department officials, delegates who attended last Thursday’s night county IFA meeting in the Claregalway Hotel, hit out at what happened.
In some cases, according to Galway IFA Chairperson, Anne Mitchell, farmers who had already paid back the BEAM penalty also had the money deducted from their ANC (Areas of Natural Constraint) payments made last week.
Many farmers received ‘a shock in the post’ when their ANC payments were hit with the deductions of penalties from the BEAM scheme – earlier they had been warned of interest penalties if any balances weren’t repaid within 30 days.
At the core of the problem was the inclusion of a 5% stock numbers reduction in the BEAM scheme (Beef Exceptional Aid Measure) aimed at helping to compensate farmers for a drop-off in beef prices between September, 2018 and May, 2019.
For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.
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Siblings find each other – and their Connemara roots – after 80 years
By Erin Gibbons
A family separated for over 80 years was reunited at the end of an emotional journey in Connemara last weekend – thanks to DNA testing and the expert help of heritage researchers.
Pat McKeown, who lives in Staffordshire in the UK, is the daughter of Síle Gorham from Roisín Na Mainiach, Carna – but she was given up for adoption and reared for a time in a Belfast Mother and Baby Home.
Now, at the age of 81, she found her roots – returning to her mother’s native place for the first time last weekend, in the company of her long-lost brother Micheál.
It was an emotional end to a lifelong search for her roots that even led her to hire a private detective to try and locate her family and to discover her name.
All of this proved unsuccessful – and she had effectively given up her search when she was contacted unexpectedly by a man called Miceál McKeown, who turned out to be her brother.
Micheál – an artist and sculptor – and his daughter Orla had made the connection through DNA testing, after Miceál too had set out to discover more about his own roots.
That revealed that Síle Gorham had married Michael McKeown in 1939, and Síle went on to have three more children named Áine, Séan and Miceál.
Pat visited Connemara last weekend for the first time to learn about her mother Síle and the Connemara ancestry which she feels was robbed from her for her entire 81 years.
She was accompanied by Miceál, his wife Rosemary, daughter Orla and son-in-law Rueben Keogh.
Read the full story in this week’s Connacht Tribune, on sale in shops now – or you can download the digital edition from www.connachttribune.ie