IF YOU grew up Irish in Britain it is hard to explain to others the role of music in that life.
Not just that, but the social life that went with it.
It meant that growing up, in say eighties Britain, that you could be listening to punk, two tone and indie.
This was important. This music was telling other people who you were.
Outside of Irish families, what they didn’t understand, didn’t hear, was that you were also listening to Irish showband music. Irish country and western.
It was the Sex Pistols but it was also Big Tom and The Mainliners.
It was as natural to know the words to Four Country Roads as it was to know the words to Pretty Vacant.
So it is that the recent death of Big Tom sends an echo for anyone who grew up Irish in Britain.
I remember bringing my now wife to meet my family in Birmingham for the first time. I’d gone away to study and I’d brought home a few mates during that time too.
I would always say the same thing to these English people. I would always say, you won’t ever have seen anything like this.
This is an England you don’t even know exists. This is an England of Irish pubs and Irish social clubs that you will never have been in. This is a place where young and old are socialising together. This is a place of Irish music that you will have never heard.
And they hadn’t. I always loved that. That we had a corner of England, some clubs and pubs on a backstreet, that the English didn’t even know existed.
I think they were jealous. Jealous of how alive we were. And, God, they had never seen anything like those social clubs either.
I remember bringing home one English friend who was a punk. He had the Mohican and the attitude and everything. I brought him to our local Irish club and he was petrified. He was used to the mayhem and the violence of a punk gig but he’d never seen the likes of this.
This was a rawness he was only reaching for. Mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and the drink flowing and all of the energy of the emigrant and the emigrant’s hard life.
And Big Tom playing in the background. I remember thinking whenever I came back what a reservoir of culture we had that they didn’t.
I remember we had this LP at home called Sad Songs Irish Style. It was one of the best records I’ve ever heard. On the front cover was a beautiful dark haired woman crying as she read a letter.
The songs, With Pen in Hand and Long Black Limousine by Frankie McBride, A Letter Edged in Black by Michael O’Callaghan, Little Bunch of Violets by Bridie Gallagher, Gentle Mother by Big Tom and The Mainliners.
My sister, Eileen, used to cry whenever Five Little Fingers came on. I Ain’t Crying Mister by Brian Coll was, I think, my own favourite, but, my God, it was a tough call.
If there is therapy in glorious melancholy these songs should be on the NHS.
The poignancy of Big Tom’s death for the likes of us is that the world in Britain that he was so much a part of has changed.
The big Irish communities have changed. The emigrants he sang to have changed. Those of us who were part of it, part of the heyday of Irish social clubs, Irish communal life in Britain, well, perhaps only know do we realise what we were part of.
At the time, those clubs packed to the door, the drink and the dancing, Big Tom singing, well, it was so vibrant it seemed like it might go on forever.
We never envisaged it ending, did we?
I’ve no doubt that long before we were listening to all of that that the sophisticates of Cork and Dublin had long since commenced sneering at the likes of Big Tom.
But I’ve no doubt too that they had no idea what kind of lives we were living.
On Big Tom’s death one writer said ‘Big Tom’s songs and music were a lifeline for a dispossessed people, forced out of their own country, which could not even provide them with the basic human right of a job.’
Yeah, he’s got that right. It’s true. I was there.