President pays tribute to Big Tom McBride's 'warmth and compassion' as he unveils country legend's statue

Big Tom's son Thomas at the newly commissioned statue of Big Tom McBride which was unveiled as part of the Castleblayney Celebrates Big Tom Festival today. Pic: Philip Fitzpatrick

The President has paid tribute to Big Tom McBride after a statue of the late country and western singer was unveiled in Castleblaney, County Monaghan.

Big Tom died at the age of 81 in April and is widely known as "The King" of Irish country music.

The statue was revealed by President Michael D Higgins who spoke of the singer's "remarkable warmth, compassion and generosity of spirit" at the Castleblayney Celebrates Big Tom Festival today.

President Higgins, unveiling the sculpture which was commissioned prior to McBride's death, said: "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 a 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 they hadn’t seen the floorboard of a ballroom for years so filled with people were they.

President Higgins went on to say how much the country singer's music meant to those who emigrated.

President Higgins said: "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 a 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 statue 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."

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