Tom Eustace - Biography

A MEMORY HE BROUGHT BACK FROM WARSAW

by Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, College des lrlandais, Paris, December 1989

July was warm in Poland. As the Moscow train shunted eastwards across the Vistula plain, meitheals of country people were still hand-raking hay in meadows stretching for miles on both sides of the railway line. Green patches of forest were rare; their appearance on the horizon seemed more of a conspiracy than part of the natural environment. Manpower on the land was still a major force in Poland and the gangs of workers were made up of people of all ages. Young children, old women in traditional black clothes, young men in singlets and girls with their hair held back with head scarves, all looked like passing miniatures in fields so immense that they bore only the mildest resemblance to the Curragh of Kildare. In other endless fields, workers were sitting down to eat their pack rations, their forks stuck down momentarily into the ground beside them. Criss-crossing this vista of meadows and gardens was a series of bicycle tracks and ambling country roads broken only by level crossings and railway men.

On the marble platform in Warsaw a young girl was selling flowers in through the windows of the carriages marked CCCP. Outside in the city somewhere Mazowiecki was probably still marking time with Walesa. The newspaper article had indicated that almost one third of the entire active population of Poland was unemployed. Then, for some unknown reason, the platform sign bearing the name Warsaw shunted the memory down a totally unrelated siding. From the dim recesses of the past, the Cork accent of Seán Óg Ó Tuama announced:

"Seán 'Ac Donnchadha will now sing Dark is the Colour of My True Love's Hair. This is an air that Willie Clancy brought back from Warsaw."

The scene was a master's concert in Kilmaley Hall in the winter of 1971—one of those pantheon gatherings organized by West Clare fiddler and flute player Peadar O'Loughlin. An authority on Irish choral and sean nós singing, Ó Tuama went on to explain to his captive audience that this air had a peculiar modal quality, while elsewhere in that darkened sea of faces another voice in a half-whisper said:

"By God! If Willie was there now, 't would tighten him to bring himself back."

In his own inimitable style, Tom Eustace had captured the essence of the moment and fixed it succinctly into the main news of the day—the plight of Catholic Poland and the radical strikes of its Gdansk shipyard workers in the 1970s. The roundtrip traveling by the human memory is a strange business, not least the way in which totally unrelated events and circumstances suddenly push our memories into gear and summon details from the depths of our unconscious minds.

Memories of Tom Eustace of Kilmaley, who died last May, will continue to wind themselves into the minds of those who knew and admired him. Throughout West Clare, Tom will be remembered as an outstanding set dancer, a humourist, and a fiddle player. For others in Kilmaley, he will be remembered, like his people before him, as a blacksmith. For the elderly who arrived at his post office on Friday mornings to collect their pensions, Tom was the rogue who brightened up their day and whose stories took precedence over a shop full of van men, carefully chosen hay-forks and housewives waiting to do battle for a bargain. Rushing was never a priority in Eustaces', no more than the impersonal banter of the supermarket that has now replaced many small family shops throughout the West of Ireland.

Tom Eustace was a blacksmith, a trade that demanded omni-competent skills in any rural community. Prior to the agrarian and industrial revolutions the blacksmith or gabha was the specialist provider of edged tools and often combined the role of farrier and wheelwright with a number of other ancillary skills. In the early sagas and Brehon law tracts the smith is depicted as a man of special standing whose proverbial tongue was to be feared as much as respected. The blacksmith's forge, normally placed at a crossroads near running water, was seldom locked and became a rallying point for idle men on wet days. The gabha was the first person to be invited to social functions and dances and, not being a producer of food, he was entitled to tribute of corn and first fruits. When an animal was slain the head was the prerequisite of the blacksmith. George Petrie, the nineteenth century antiquarian and music collector recalled a time when a blacksmith might have fifty to one hundred heads of cows and pigs pickled in his kitchen.

Tom inherited his trade from his father, although his mother, who was a fiddle and concertina player, also belonged to a noted blacksmith family referred to locally as the Smith MacMahons. Until extensive farm mechanisation ousted the horse from the land in the 1960s, Eustaces' forge in Kilmaley played a vital role in the life of its agricultural community. In the wake of the tractor, Tom's business became more diverse and he began to concentrate on welding and ironwork. He also continued to run a small family shop and post office close to the parish church and school in Kilmaley.

As a set dancer and musician, Tom lived through a volatile period in the history of Irish traditional music, not least in Co. Clare. In the 1930s, traditional music and dancing was largely the preserve of a rural populace and enjoyed little or no standing in urban Ireland. The moral and state policing which accompanied the introduction of the Dance Hall Act in 1935 was sufficient in itself to demoralise the vast majority of country house dancers, not to talk of ubiquitous lovebirds with other late night ambitions. Similarly, the social inertia generated by the Economic War and the drainage of people off the land during the Emergency and post war periods shattered many aspects of traditional rural life. Despite this, young people like Tom Eustace in West Clare accepted the reality of their immediate environments and at the same time did not compromise their tastes for traditional entertainment. In the mid 1930s and 1940s, Tom Eustace had a considerable reputation as a set dancer and together with his brother Pakie was a formidable challenge in competitive set dancing. Likewise both brothers were very much sought after for house dances and soirées throughout West Clare.

In the period 1938-43, Tom played from time to time with the Fergus Céilí Band and he became a prominent member of the Fiach Roe Céilí Band when it formed during the Emergency. Other members of this band included Hughdie Doohan, John Joe Cullinan, Tom Power (fiddles), Paddy Murphy (concertina), Paddy Clune (piano), Jimmy Kennedy and Micky Hanrahan (both outstanding flute players) and later on, the young Peter O'Loughlin. The Fiach Roe Céilí Band played at house and hall dances all over Clare until its demise in the late 1950s. Likewise, the band distinguished itself, as did several of its individual members, at a number of Oireachtas na Gaeilge competitions in Dublin during the 1950s. Tony MacMahon and the late Tommy Potts of Dublin filled the ranks of this ensemble in 1956 for the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil held in Ennis.

With the passing of the Fiach Roe Céilí Band at the end of the decade, Tom Eustace joined the then legendary Kilfenora Céilí Band with its galaxy of musical personalities and All-Ireland title successes. By now the fleadh cheoil movement had focused new attention on the traditional music of rural Ireland and had given its populace a new sense of self-esteem and excitement. In Clare, céilí bands like the Tulla and the Kilfenora assumed cult-like personalities and attracted their own multitudes of followers who filled dance and competition halls to support their bands with the same enthusiasm given to hurling or football teams of the day.

In the 1960s, Tom Eustace played throughout the length and breadth of Ireland with the Kilfenora Céilí Band and is featured on several of their records. Apart altogether from the musical experience, Tom found himself working side by side with characters like Jimmy Leydon, Jimmy Ward and Paddy Mullins whose personalities blended a colossal store of music with an equally proverbial store of wit, humour and yarns.

For almost twenty years up until his death in May of this year, Tom Eustace played every Sunday night with Paddy Murphy, Peter O'Loughlin, Georgie Byrt, Michael Kelliher, and Tom Rynne at Willie MacNamara's pub in Inagh (which in recent times became Garvey's). Tom was always particularly interested in visitors - both natives and foreigners - to this session and a language barrier was seldom an issue when Tom came to introduce himself. He was always first to cede his place to a strange musician or dance with a promising set dancer. One's arrival was usually greeted with a roguish wink from behind the bow of the fiddle and one's departure was always pleasantly stalled by a litany of yarns, most of which could be pulled at will from Eustace's fertile imagination. While it may be impossible to refill his place as a rich personality and humourist, it will be equally impossible to forget the vibrancy with which he lived and played among us. Sitting there on a Moscow-bound train (while I had boarded two days earlier in Paris to attend a friend's wedding in the Soviet capital) Eustace's presence was still roguish enough to nudge one's muses down the back lanes of the past.

At Brest-Litovsk a well-built woman in dungarees was putting up mortar on the inner wall of a Soviet railway station. The other woman attending her could scarcely keep the plasterboard full. I wondered what Eustace would have thought of this. Maybe she had the makings of a tidy set dancer?

© Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin,
December 1989
College des lrlandais, Paris

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