Big Tom McBride pictured in Barry’s Hotel in Dublin in 1998. The singer, who died in 2018, was called the king of Irish country music by President Higgins. LEON FARRELL/ROLLINGNEWS.IE
President Michael D. Higgins hosted a concert on June 21 in celebration of Irish country music and in acknowledgment of the work being undertaken by various organizations in fostering, and developing, strong rural communities. The concert is part of a series of Garden Parties at Áras an Uachtaráin, organized by President and Sabina Higgins to celebrate particular people and organizations who work on themes that the president wished to highlight. The following is the address given by the president welcoming the guests to the concert.
You are all most welcome here this evening for this special Presidential Concert, here in the grounds of Áras an Uachtaráin.
Tá áthas an domhain orm agus ar Sabina go bhfuil sibh anseo linn ó fud fad na tíre: más rud é gur tháinig sibh mar baill grúpaí pobal, nó le cairde nó gaolta, tá súil againn go bhfuil sibh ag baint taitneamh as an ócáid.
[Sabina and I are so very pleased that you who have joined us from all across the country: whether you have come as members of community groups, or with a family member or a friend, our wish is that you are all having an enjoyable time.]
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This evening is a great celebration of the many different groups and organizations, and indeed individuals, who contribute so much to community life around the country. How better to celebrate than through the medium of music and in particular the great tradition of Irish country music which, inspired in many ways by American country music, has now become deeply ingrained into our Irish culture.
Last year, we sadly lost that great king of Irish country music that was Big Tom, and in September I had the great privilege of unveiling a statue in Castleblayney in his memory. Tom’s contribution to country music was immense. His performances embodied all that is best about the genre, and the love of place and people, of heart and home, that defines it and was so greatly evident in songs such as “Gentle Mother” and “God Must be a Cowboy,” or his moving rendering of Johnny McCauley’s “Back to Castleblayney.” Tom was a man who embodied the generous reach of Irish country music, its great ability to call out to Irish people across the world and recall to them the spirit of the place they will always remember as home. He will be greatly missed, but I am delighted we are joined here tonight by members of his family.
May I also, at this point, say how sorry I am that Philomena Begley is unable to join us tonight due to her recent serious illness. Philomena’s contribution to Irish country music has also been a profound one. If Big Tom was its King, Philomena is its Queen, her name always associated with iconic songs such as “Blanket on the Ground.” I wish Philomena a speedy recovery.
Today country music can be considered a musical genre here in Ireland, one that weaves together two rich heritages whose interaction has created something distinct and wonderful.
Indeed, like so many musical genres, country music has continued to map a changing world, re-imagining, rethinking and adapting to an ever evolving and increasingly globalized society. It reminds us of how important it is that our music continues to develop and transform, to connect communities and speak across different generations, remaining open to influence and enrichment by other cultures and artistic perspectives.
Country music has achieved a renewed popularity, enjoyed by those from all age groups and backgrounds and as beloved in major cities and large urban areas as in the rural landscapes in which it is rooted and where it originally grew and flourished.
Here in Ireland, country musicians are amongst our most talented and well-loved performers, and may I say how fortunate we are that so many gifted musicians and singers have agreed to perform here this evening. May I also say how fortunate we are that there are so many generous mentors within that genre, willing to act as mentors to a new generation of young entertainers who continue to evolve this great tradition, bringing to it new insights and new experiences, ensuring it will endure as an ongoing articulation of both our Irishness and our global citizenship. It is inspiring to witness the continued growth of the country music family, the many new artists now coming to the fore in this genre.
Today, in Ireland, approximately one thousand people are employed in the country music industry, making it a significant contributor to Ireland’s economic well-being. It is important, however that music, like all art forms is not viewed as merely a tool of commerce, but is recognized as having its own integrity and independence, and as an essential component of a democratic society that makes a profound contribution to that society and to our international reputation.
Country music has also, of course, provided such a vital connection to home for so many of those who, across the decades, were forced to seek their fortunes in the industrial cities of England and Scotland, and further afield in America. From Kilburn to Boston, from Merseyside to New Jersey, the Irish have gathered in community centers and dancehalls to reconnect with their culture and heritage and keep alive their memory of home. For many second-generation Irish, it is our music, our dance and our song that speaks to them of their inner Irishness and that creates such a profound link between them and the land of their forefathers.
Today, country music festivals are a significant part of Ireland’s cultural calendar, allowing us to celebrate the best of Irish culture, binding us as a people with a shared heritage and culture and connecting us to a large diaspora who have brought that heritage to many other parts of the globe and who have, in turn, reflected that culture back to us in new, fresh and exciting variations.
Anocht, tá muid ag ceiliúradh an muintearas agus an obair riachtanach a dhéanann daoine lena chinntiú go dtéann a gcuid pobal i bhfeabhas, agus go bhfuil siad inmharthana, agus ní féidir ceiliúradh níos fearr a dhéanamh ná traidisiún úd na hÉireann, oíche ceol agus amhránaíocht, a bheith againn, le cairde buan agus cairde nua.
[This evening, as we celebrate that spirit of community and the valuable work of all those who ensure that their communities will continue to grow and prosper, there can be no better way to do so than through the great Irish tradition of sharing an evening of music and song with friends old and new.]
Before I conclude, I would also like to thank our superb MC this evening Shay Byrne.
I spoke earlier of Big Tom and his great contribution to Irish country music. Part of that great heritage was his moving duet with his lifelong friend Margo. Who of us can forget that beautiful rendition of ‘A love that Lasted through the Years’, and I am so glad that Margo will be performing for us here this evening.
May I also thank all of our wonderful performers this evening: Robert Mizzell, Louise Morrissey, Jimmy Buckley, Pete St. John, Michael English and Mike Denver.
I also thank Dee Rogers, and his crew for the superb sound he has made possible in facilitating our performers and musicians.
Thank you to our friends in St John of God’s, the Gardaí and our Civil Defense colleagues, the tour guides and all who have worked so hard to make today such a joyful and happy occasion for us all
May I say a special thank you to my staff here at the Áras for your hard work and good humor – and special thanks to the OPW and our wonderful household team, not only for their wonderful treats, but for their kindness and ever cheerful disposition too; all things which contribute in no small part to making this garden party a very special event for you.
At this point I would like to make a special mention of our former colleague Denise Lynch, who sadly died in April. We are joined here today by her husband Aidan, her sisters Ann and Mary and her nieces Suzanne and Aoife, and they are most welcome.
Denise was not only a valuable colleague but a loyal and much-loved friend to so many here in Áras an Uachtaráin. The gap she has left is immeasurable and she is greatly missed.
In conclusion may I thank you all, once again, for joining Sabina and I for this very special President’s Concert.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.