'Big Tom didn't realise how popular he was' - huge crowds pay respects
No obstacle was too difficult for Big Tom's loyal fans to traverse. One fan recalled a journey of four-and-a-half hours on a Honda 50 to see him play in 1981. Another woman 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 his fans lined up, once again, to pay their emotional respects to the 'King' of Irish country music, who had brought them such joy for so long.
The remains of legendary singer Big Tom McBride, who passed away at the age of 81, were brought home to his beloved native village of Oram, 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. His guitar placed nearby, along with several happy family photographs, while the singer's children, Thomas, Dermot, Aisling and Siobhan - who lost their mother, Rose, just 11 weeks before - received the visitors who came to pay their respects and to share many happy reminiscences of the 'King'.
Singer TR Dallas, who first met Big Tom (right) in 1967 while they were both playing at the carnival in Moate, Co Westmeath, and went on to become a lifelong friend, said: "We're losing a gentleman."
"It was an unbelievable time," he said of the showband era, recalling the crowds of thousands who would come to see Big Tom at dance halls around the country.
"They'd travel everywhere to see him," he said, describing him as a unique singer with his own sound and adding: "Every song he picked was a hit."
"He'll never be replaced," he said, adding that Big Tom did not realise "how powerful and how popular he was."
"He was a rare character," Dallas said, while also paying tribute to the singer's wife, Rose, describing her as a "pure lady".
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 them both regularly, she said.
"I lost my friends 11 weeks apart - Rose died 11 weeks ago yesterday," she said, saying that she didn't know what she would do without them.
"Nothing is ever going to be the same again - at least not for me," she said, revealing that she was even considering whether she would continue with her own music career.
However, she revealed that Big Tom had recently recorded one final album "for the fans" and that it was "in the can" and ready to be released, along with a DVD.
"We had a lot of plans for this year," she said.
It had been Margo who had first put forward the idea of a statue to Tom, which is currently being completed and will stand proudly at the heart of Castleblayney.
"But 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 Co 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, describing the atmosphere as "huge".
He, 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 said, 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 Moynalty, Co Meath, 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.
"But 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," quipped Maureen as the photographer asked for a picture of the pair.
Ben Dolan, brother of the legendary Joe Dolan, and who had been part of his backing band, The Drifters, remembered the first time he had met Big Tom when they were on 'The Showband Show' back 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," he remarked of the crowds queueing to pay their respects.
"It's very sad," he said, adding it had only been 'a few weeks' that they had gathered to say farewell to Rose.
Number one fan Mick Morrissey, from Clonbollogue, Co Offaly, in 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 forever, the very same as Johnny Cash."
Meanwhile, country singer Derek Ryan told how he had supported Big Tom at the age of just 12 and 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.