Thomas McCarthy keeps the traditional flame alive

Thomas McCarthy
Thomas McCarthy’s new album is mostly drawn from his branch of the Irish Traveller community. Photo: Brian Despard

In these strange days we can all do with a little comfort. This is the title of Thomas McCarthy’s latest album and most welcome it is too. Thomas explained what this means to him. “If you were singing a song and my uncle John would be sitting there really enjoying the song. While you were halfway through the song you would hear him say ‘comfort’.

“That was his way of saying: ‘Well done, you’re bringing comfort, that was his word. He would say it with such sincerity, you know. What finer compliment could a singer be paid than to be told that you are bringing comfort?”

Thomas belongs to the Irish Traveller community and grew up steeped in music. He has become a regular on the London folk scene over the past few years and Comfort, his fourth album, was recorded as part of a project with Deafear Productions, run by Brian Despard.

“It was a brilliant project,” says Thomas, aimed at providing opportunities and training for disabled and disadvantaged people from a variety of backgrounds, including the Traveller community. To Thomas’s mind it wasn’t just an album that was made. “There were people who learned how to record as well. So it was good for people from those backgrounds who could actually do with being given a hand.”

Thomas recorded 20 songs which, with an accompanying booklet, are being distributed free to schools and libraries. He then chose 10 songs to issue as his own CD. Fortunately recording was completed before lockdown in March, but there have been some unavoidable delays in making the final product available. Inevitably, as for all performers, the lack of live gigs is having an impact on sales.

Most of the material comes from ­Thomas’s branch of the Irish Traveller community. “None of the songs have been recorded before,” Thomas says. “Most of them wouldn’t have been heard before. At least, I’ve never heard anyone singing them, going around to the festivals. I have a lot of songs like that.” The project was based in London so some old English songs were included. “We have loads of them.”

As with all his work there are strong family connections. The album cover features photos of his grandfather, his mother, Mary, and his aunt, his uncles John and Tom and an uncle by marriage, Tommy Ryan – all singers from whom he learned songs and who have influenced him.

Thomas has dedicated his previous albums to his mother. “I got most of them off her,” he explains, “but the album is dedicated to my Uncle John as well. He’s gone now a couple of years but he was such a big influence on me that I thought I have to dedicate it to him.

“Lovely to be able to have the opportunity to pay respect to him, you know.”

‘At first Thomas was anxious about going to festivals. “I thought: I hope there’s not going to be drinking and fighting”’

Thomas was born in Ireland but spent most of his youth growing up in west London, where he still lives. However, the family still travelled around England and back and forth to Ireland.

His mother had a bric-a-brac stall on the Portobello Road “so we were always back by Thursday night to get the booking”. ­Thomas grew up in a family in which music was valued. His mother would get all the children together and teach them the old songs. Mary enjoyed a wide range of music which ­Thomas describes as “eccentric – no, obscure”. She had a large record collection started as a young girl in Ireland.

Thomas’s grandfather had the first wireless in Birr, County Offaly, and Mary would stay up till all hours listening to American music stations, country music, early rock’n’roll and blues. When she had enough money saved she would send it to relatives in the US to get records for her. In west London she would knock on her Caribbean neighbours’ doors to ask about the music they were playing and then get the records for herself.

When Thomas worked with Ron Kavana on his first album, ​Round Top Wagon ​(2010), they realised that Ron had worked in the record shop where Thomas’s mother and brother, who continued the record-collecting habit, had often bought their music. He probably served them many times.

Mary kept her records in pristine condition and was able to transfer the recordings to cassette to preserve them. Thomas is now digitising the collection so that the records can remain in good shape.

Thomas only started singing outside the family about 12 years ago when someone pointed him in the direction of Sharp’s Folk Club. Since then he has become well known around London folk clubs and more widely at festivals, including Whitby and Sidmouth. At first he was anxious about going to festivals. “I thought: ‘I hope there’s not going to be drinking and fighting’ … but then when I went I thought: ‘Ah, no, they are the nicest people you could meet.’”

Thomas is genuinely interested in and always makes time for people. He is delighted when complete strangers want to talk to him about his singing. “We are so lucky that we like this kind of music because the majority of people are really good people.”

He is most grateful for the support and encouragement he has received, in particular from Peta Webb and Ken Hall at Musical Traditions. He is still amazed that he has recorded not just one but four albums. “I would be lost without Peta,” he adds.

To hear Thomas performing live is a great experience. He is an excellent storyteller, not just in the songs. There are always stories about his family and the history of the song. Thomas never misses the chance to share and celebrate the Irish Traveller experience and is never afraid to challenge the prejudice against the community which sadly still exists today.

‘The kids all learned the songs because I’d sit them down, the whole lot of them, and I drilled it into them’

There is always something new to learn.Thomas sings unaccompanied the way his mother taught him. In particular, he links the “warble”, a type of vibrato, to the pipes which were “definitely designed to copy the voice”.

“That is an old Irish style when we use the voice like that. I have had people ask: ‘Is that a Traveller style?’ No, it’s not. It’s an old Irish style.” Thomas’s singing includes ornamentation which has some similarities with the Gaelic language sean-nós style of singing.

“Till I started going out to the festivals,” says Thomas, “I’d heard of sean-nós but I didn’t know what it was. People would say: ‘Oh, sean-nós singing’ and I didn’t take a blind bit of notice. It just means ‘old style’, that’s what it means. So that’s the way they would have all sung, really.”

Thomas comments that there is a lot of ornamentation in sean-nós and it is a high standard of singing, but adds: “We all sing old songs, don’t we, so to me they’re all old style.”

In 2019 he was named traditional singer of the year in the TG4 Gradam Ceoil awards for traditional Irish music, making him the first Irish Traveller to win the award.

Out of the 10 songs on ​Comfort ​there are a couple that Thomas is especially pleased to have recorded. He chose Lord Lovett, learned from his mother. Although there are many versions of this song Thomas had never heard anyone else sing it. Since the recording he has heard other versions.

“When I’ve listened to other ones, the words of some of them, they didn’t make sense to me. The Lord Lovett my mother sang made total sense, the whole lot of the song, every verse made sense to me. The other songs, they all skipped verses.

Thomas performing at The Goose is Out! at the Ivy House. Photo: Nygel Packett

“Oh, I love the tune of it,” he continues, “when I compare the others that I’ve heard. It’s a great tune that they had as well.”

The second song he picked out is Moyasta Shore, a song with a great history. “It should really be called McGrath of Moyasta Shore,” says Thomas. “There’s an amazing story!”

It is based on a true account of a man who was evicted from his home in County Clare but fought back against “Balfour’s curs” – referring to Arthur Balfour, the chief secretary for Ireland (1887-1891). “I don’t know if you know about Arthur Balfour,” says Thomas. “He was an English man that did awful things over in Ireland. He was a bad man.”

Thomas learned this song from his grandfather and the family have a video recording of his Uncle John singing it. “It was a song he adored.”

Recently Thomas has learned more about this song. It seems that although others had the words they did not have a tune, which of course Thomas could supply. Someone got in touch to tell him: “McGrath’s grandson is living in County Clare just up the road from me.” “You’re joking me!” was Thomas’s response.

Frank Whelan is a piper, singer and ­musician in his own right so Thomas was “so delighted and so pleased” to send a copy of the song. “Imagine your grandfather in a song. To make the connection today with a relative is very rare.”

Thomas hopes that when he next goes over to Ireland he will get to meet the man. “That would be something else,” he says. “It’s a great song.”

Thomas has so much to say about song collecting that it would take another interview to do it justice. Needless to say he is not afraid to challenge assumptions made about the travelling community and the songs by academics and others who, to his way of thinking, do not know or understand enough about the tradition.

He is not a fan of song collectors who collect songs without really acknowledging the singers or getting to know the community. He gives the example of a collector in the early 20th century, RA Gatty, who collected songs in Yorkshire from a variety of people, all of whom were named except for “a Gypsy down a lane”.

Sadly he does not think things have changed much. However, at some point in the future, Thomas is hoping that there will be funding for a project with the Irish Traditional Music Archive to record songs in the Traveller community, providing a copy for the archives and CDs for the singer to share as they like.

Thomas says that the younger generation are now of the age at which they are all doing their own things. However, he feels some hope. “I have a niece who has a great voice and my own son, who is 22, likes all the modern music, but I hear him going around the house singing an old song.”

He describes hearing his son playing the records left by Thomas’s mother. “He might be playing Etta James and say: ‘That’s Nannie’s songs.’”

Thomas describes babysitting his nephews and nieces when they were little, “a houseful of kids”. He continues: “I never forced it on them when they were small but they all learned the songs because I’d sit them down, the whole lot of them, and I drilled it into them.” This is just the way Thomas learned from his mother.

“They loved it, the stories as well,” he says. “Even though they forgot a lot, they still know some of it.” Wisely, Thomas adds: “We have to give them their space.” Even so, he has hopes that “one day they will realise the value of the songs and say: ‘Come on then, I’ll learn more.’”

Comfort is available from folklondon.co.uk for UK buyers. For worldwide sales contact Peta Webb: petawebken@aol.com or 52 Cecile Park, London N8 9AS. To learn more about Thomas and buy his other CDs, visit thomasmccarthyfolk.com. This article appeared in Folk London 310, December-January 2020-21