Friday 17 January 2020

Big Tom's Country 'n' Irish sound was the heartland music of the Gael


King of country music and former Oram GAA footballer Big Tom McBride whose funeral took place on Friday at Saint Patrick's Church in Oram, County Monaghan. Photo: Top Rank/PA
King of country music and former Oram GAA footballer Big Tom McBride whose funeral took place on Friday at Saint Patrick's Church in Oram, County Monaghan. Photo: Top Rank/PA

The Couch: Tommy Conlon

The club needed a parcel of land to develop a new football pitch, dressing rooms, a stand and a community centre. It was the late 1970s and funding of course would be a major issue. They'd identified a suitable plot for the project and approached the owner to discuss a possible purchase. The owner was local farmer, king of country music and former Oram GAA footballer, Tom McBride.

"And we went to him," recalls Oram PRO Tony Graham, "and Tom said, 'Take whatever yiz want, boys, we'll not worry about the money.'" Last Wednesday Big Tom lay in state in that same community centre as thousands of his fans converged from all over Ireland to pay their last respects to the god of their dance hall days.

It is nigh on impossible to pin down why, exactly, it was McBride who became the chosen one for the plain people of Ireland, at home and abroad. There were hundreds of country bands playing to the same market in the same era. But there was a binding chemistry between singer and audience that was mutually irresistible. Big Tom grew up on a small farm; he played Gaelic football for his parish; he sang sentimental songs; he was by all accounts a decent, humble man. And somewhere in all of this, the magic was bottled.

Oram is a tiny rural enclave outside the town of Castleblayney. In 1963, he captained them to the Monaghan county junior league and championship double. It was a once-in-a-generation achievement for the club. He was a high-fielding, big-boned and squared-shouldered midfielder. By 1966, his Sunday afternoons in the jersey were being replaced by Saturday nights in a showband suit.

Fifty years in showbusiness didn't diminish one whit his love for Gaelic football. He followed the fortunes of Oram and Monaghan until the end. But this lifelong immersion in the game didn't, as far as we know, provide any material for an old waltz or three. And yet thousands of his fans were surely GAA followers too. Indeed if any genre can claim to be the heartland music of the Gael, Country 'n' Irish might be first in line.

Naturally enough, subsequent generations of young Irish people ran a mile in the opposite direction. They wouldn't be found dead listening to 'Gentle Mother', 'If It's Lonesome at Your Table (You're welcome here at mine)', or even 'Tears on a Bridal Bouquet'. Country 'n' Irish was social death, not just for urban hipsters but even for nurses and national school teachers too.

And if you were an aspiring Irish rock or pop band, you looked to America or the UK for your influences. The whole object was to get as far away as possible from dreary, provincial Ireland. You sang about universal stuff, girls and break-ups and the like. And you certainly didn't write songs about something as banal as your teenage sporting life, even if it was a rite of passage in some form or other for huge swathes of the population. You were an artist, after all, not an insensitive and dunderheaded jock.

By the late 1960s Big Tom and The Mainliners were famously packing out massive London venues such as the Galtymore and the National. Thirty years later another Irish band was selling out another London venue - the Royal Albert Hall, no less. It was the Saw Doctors in 1998, and their audience was the next generation, the sons and daughters of many people who'd danced to Big Tom in their day. This was an emigrant generation too but they had grown up on rock and pop.

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Leo Moran, founding member and songwriter with the Docs, had found his first inspiration as a young teen in punk rock. "The Stranglers, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, I still have the vinyl LPs," he says. "I just thought it was great. It was aggressive and loud and you didn't have to go to the nuns to learn how to play piano for it."

Musically therefore he was coming from the opposite end of the spectrum to Country 'n' Irish. And yet it was here that provincial Irish life, GAA included, was recorded in song. 'Broke My Heart' isn't another lonesome ditty about a cheatin' lover. It's about the nippy corner-forward who didn't get the ball from a team-mate when he had a goal on. And it may also feature the only reference in popular music to "the parallelogram", as in the small or large parallelogram, where on this occasion our hero was left waiting for the pass that never came, and the goal that never was.

Another of their songs, 'The Green and Red of Mayo', has entered the canon of the Gael, as beloved now as any of the mawkish old county dirges that still get played in Croke Park.

While the Docs were in their pomp, another young Tuam native was growing up on the same twin passions for music and sport. Brian Kelly loves his punk and he loves his hurling. In 2010, he recorded with his then band, So Cow, a song called 'The Tony Keady Affair'. He was seven years old when said affair convulsed Galway GAA in 1989. "It's basically a song about memories really kicking in at that age, so it takes in the Hillsborough disaster, the Tony Keady affair and Mikhail Gorbachev being on television."

Kelly is currently with a band called Half Forward Line. One of their tracks has the bracing title 'Everyone Else Can F*** Off'. He is not expecting a call from Croke Park any time soon to do the half-time show.

It's all a long way from 'Four Country Roads' and 'The Sunset Years of Life'. Big Tom used to say to his midfield partners, "I'll go for the high ones, gosson, and you stay down for the low ones." Now if someone had put a tune to that, he'd surely have sung it.

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