‘The song is nothing without the story’: Thomas McCarthy at TG4 Gradam Ceoil Awards This Sunday
This Sunday 17 February, the TG4 Gradam Ceoil traditional music awards will take place in Belfast and singer Thomas McCarthy will be awarded Amhránaí na Bliana/Singer of the Year.
From Birr in County Offaly, McCarthy will be the first Irish Traveller to receive the singer award. He credits his mother Mary McCarthy and his grandfather Johnny McCarthy with much of his repertoire, and is delighted that the Travelling community’s singing tradition is receiving this recognition. Speaking to The Journal of Music, he said:
I’m up in my hat about it. If I never did anything ever again I’d still be delighted. Not for myself, for my family. The older generation is being acknowledged. It’s absolutely wonderful.
McCarthy has been singing since he was a child, but didn’t get serious about it until 15 to 20 years ago. ‘I started collecting all the songs because I knew if anything happened to my mother they’d all be lost.’
He has since released three recordings, Round Top Wagon (2010), Herself and Myself (2014), and, with Gypsy singer Viv Gregg, Jauling the Green Tober (2017).
The Rambling Man
Singing in the Traveller community has always been strong, he says.
You’ll find a great singer in every Travelling family. The only difference is that some of them will sing modern songs, and some of them will sing country songs. There’s very few now who will sing the old songs.
Some of the older Traveller songs McCarthy sings make reference to prominent seventeenth-century Gaelic heroes such as O’Sullivan Beare and Hugh Dubh O’Neill and their origins are unknown. He also has a couple of songs with words from Gammon, the native Irish Traveller language, and Traveller song such as ‘Down That Road’, ‘The Old Knee Travelling Wagon’ and ‘The Rambling Man’, which he learned from his grandfather and which he will sing on Sunday night.
‘A Rambling Man’ is a Traveller song about an old man. They move him into a house and he can’t take that way of life at all, and he reminisces about when he was young. ’Tis a great old song.
McCarthy lives between London and Offaly, but when in Dublin he often sings in The Cobblestone bar. In London, he is a regular at folk clubs and has sung at the Musical Traditions club and at Cecil Sharp House.
While McCarthy was influenced by his mother, uncles and grandfather in his singing, he describes his style as his own – ‘My mother told me put your own stamp on your songs’. The key to his singing, however, is knowing the story behind each song – ‘That’s more important than the song. The song is nothing without the story.’
Along with McCarthy, the awards on Sunday will recognise flute-player Catherine McEvoy (Musician of the Year), accordion player Conor Connolly (Young Musician of the Year), Nicky and Anne McAuliffe (Lifetime Achievement), Brendan Mulkere (Outstanding Contribution) and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill (Musical Collaboration). The awards will be broadcast live from The Waterfront in Belfast on Sunday at 9.30pm.
To watch the awards, visit https://www.tg4.ie/en/live/home/