When I first met Tom McCarthy last year, he’d come to Lancaster straight from an equality conference, where he’d been speaking about Irish travellers. It was a clear reflection of Tom’s commitment to reach out and promote greater understanding of his community, all too often depicted in the wider world by stereotypes and shallow interpretations based on overwhelmingly negative assumptions. With his quiet, unassuming manner and proactive desire to share the best of his culture, I can’t imagine a better ambassador for Irish travellers than Tom McCarthy.
Ever since Tom exploded onto the folk scene in 2008, he has shared such a priceless store of songs and stories with those of us who have previously only had the barest glimpses into Tom’s world. It certainly felt like a special privilege to me, listening to him sing in the Gregson Centre in Lancaster last year. His performances are understated and intimate, like a chat with a friend. It feels like being invited to a fireside, like going back in time. It doesn’t matter how big the audience is, it’s as if, for a short, magical time, there’s just Tom, and you, and the timeless stories woven by his music.
Tom talks of the way he learned his songs; from his mother, from his grandfather, from others of his family who have passed them down through generation to generation, singing them at family gatherings and especially at his grandfather’s house in Co. Offaly, which he remembers as being a hub of his family’s music. His vocal style is very traditional sounding, to my ears, the phrasing similar to sean nos or ‘old style’ singing in Irish. Tom stressed however, when I met him, that his vocal style is a distinct tradition in its own right, and that travellers generally do not speak Irish. There may be some influence from other traditional styles of Irish music, but the distinct repertoire and delivery makes the traveller singing tradition stand alone.
It’s no wonder that there has been a mad scrabble to collect and document Tom’s repertoire in the past couple of years, by such luminary organizations as Cecil Sharp House. These are unique songs, not previously heard outside the traveller culture, and certainly never recorded (until now). Tom embodies the oral tradition in its truest sense, and that is a precious and rare thing in this digital day and age.
Tom will be back in Lancaster on Friday 6th July, performing at The Gregson Centre once more. This time he will be sharing a stage with The Doyle Family Band, a traveller family who play traditional Irish tunes. Another rich and distinctive traveller tradition, that of uilleann piping, will be well represented by Simon Doyle, as well as younger members of the Doyle family. It’s a night not to be missed – I highly recommend, if you are in reach of Lancaster, that you come along, because you will experience something very special indeed.
Tom McCarthy & The Doyle Family Band
Moor Lane, Lancaster, LA1 3PY
Friday 6th July, 8.30 pm
Tickets: £8.00 (£6.00 concessions)
available from the Gregson bar or on the door