ACCOMPLISHED MUSICIAN and band leader Tom Cussen grew up in the Broadford/Newcastle west area of Co Limerick – known locally as ‘the gateway to the south west of Ireland’ – in the early 1960s.
From an early age he was drawn towards traditional Irish music and was fortunate in that he lived in close proximity to the trad heartland just across the border in counties Clare, Kerry, and Cork.
“When I was growing up I used to go to hear the Tulla and the Kilfenora ceili bands playing,” Tom recalls. “Certainly there was a lot of music in the area but it was in very small confined cliques.
“While my own father and mother weren’t great musicians they certainly were always interested in music and were forever listening to the radio. You just had to shut up and listen quietly when the wireless was on! I suppose I sort of picked up their love of music by association and developed it much later.”
Tom had a brief stint as an outrider for a pirate radio station in the late 1960s and further developed his interest in jigs and reels.
“A friend of mine in Limerick used to broadcast every Sunday evening from three to five on medium wave,” he says “He used to play everything from old dance music to folk music to ballads and the interest was phenomenal. I’d go out maybe five or six miles in my little motorcycle to people I knew and listen to their radio to hear how good the reception was and report back.”
Tom moved to Galway soon after and began training as a biochemistry technician at UCG. There was an emerging traditional session scene in the pubs in the city. However he only participated in them from time to time
“At that time if you told your parents you wanted to be a professional musician they’d look at you as if you had two heads,” Tom says. “I was involved in the scene a little bit and played a few tunes but it was nothing serious. In ’68 I decided to go to London for further training and to kind of do my own thing.”
In the 1960s and 1970s thousands of Irish men and women from Galway, Mayo, Clare, Cork, Kerry and Limerick migrated to Britain. Many found gainful employment in building boom in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Coventry, and Birmingham.
There was a thriving music pub scene as the newly-arrived emigrants brought their music and culture with them across the Irish Sea.
“The men who were working on the buildings worked hard, played hard, and spent hard,” Tom says. “The pubs were buzzing and it was a tremendously successful time for Irish music. The big boom years of the scene in London were from around ’67 to ’75 and I was proud to be part of that.”
Tom frequented the London Irish ‘ghettos’ of Kilburn, Cricklewood, Camden Town, Shepherd’s Bush, and Hammersmith playing in venues such as The Galtymore and The Blarney Club developing his musical craft.
“I was working during the day and playing music in the evening time, actually I was making more money from the gigs than the job during the week!” he quips “I was based in the Holloway Road/Finsbury Park area of north west London and that’s where I really got in to the music. I’d play Friday night, Saturday evening and night, and Sunday morning, afternoon and night. I still had the work on top of that so it was a very busy time.”
It was during a series of Sunday morning sessions in the early 1970s in Kentish Town that Tom put together Shaskeen. They were to have a tremendous influence on a whole generation of Irish musicians over the next four decades.
“I used to play at this place called The Oxford and it had the reputation of being a bit of a cockney hang-out,” Tom says. “I went in the first morning and there was a few hardened characters around a couple of pints of ale and they had dogs tied to legs of the tables.
“Anyway we got a group together with Maureen Minogue on fiddle, Sean McDonagh on flute and myself on banjo. It was fairly quiet the first couple of Sundays but by the third week the barrier had lifted and there was a good few Paddies in.
“After a while the Sunday session was going so well that the owner of the pub asked us to bring in a full band on the Friday night and that’s when we put together Shaskeen”
As the reputation of the band grew they were joined by other notable musicians such as Benny O’Connor, Johnny Minogue, Charlie Harris, Kevin Rohan, Sean Conway, and Mike Fahy.
In 1971 Tom returned home to Galway and took up a position as a technician at UCG. Within a few short months though he had Shaskeen on stage again and over the years names such as Sean Keane, Sean Tyrrell, and Marc Roberts and many more would tour with the group.
“Something like 74 or 75 people have played with Shaskeen at one time or another down through the years,” Tom states. “Every person who took to the stage with us brought something new and made a telling contribution to the overall sound of the group.”
Shaskeen and special guests including Sean Tyrrell, Sean Conway, Marc Roberts, and the Kinlochard Ceilidh Band play Town Hall Theatre on Friday June 18 as part of Galway-Sterling Sessions 2010. For tickets phone the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 or see www.tht.ie