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‘Good Evenin’ Listeners’ – Tommy O’Brien Remembered.

Thomas O’Brien , (1905–1988) R.T.E . “Your choice and mine“.

‘Good Evenin’ Listeners’ was the regular salutation by RTE radio broadcaster and journalist, Thomas O’Brien, (‘Tommy’) (1905 – 1988).

Tommy O’Brien was born on July 20th 1905, on Wolfe Tone Street, in Clonmel, South Co. Tipperary. He was one of 8 children (six sons and two daughters) of working class parents Martin and Bridget (née Moroney). Both parents hailed originally from Co. Waterford, both from farming families dispossessed following agrarian agitation, during the Irish land war, between 1879 and 1882.

Tommy was educated at Clonmel CBS and at Ring College, Co. Waterford, before leaving school at the tender age of 15 years. Active in Na Fianna Éireann, he served as a dispatch rider in the 3rd Tipperary Brigade, IRA, associating himself with personalities such as Dan Breen, Seán Treacy and Séamus Robinson.

Following the 1921 Anglo Irish Treaty, he began a career in journalism, as a reporter with the Clonmel Chronicle, occasionally supplementing his income as a court stenographer, before joining the Clonmel Nationalist, first as reporter, then as editor. He wrote theatre and music reviews; commentary on then current public issues; and wry observations of local town life, using the pen name ‘Scrutator’.

The then many touring companies visiting Clonmel, greatly assisted in developing his great love of grand opera. During the years 1925 and up until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, during annual holidays, he regularly attended the International, dressy and exclusive, London’s Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, listening to all the music and the many great performers of that era, organized by impresarios like the International conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, associated with the London Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic orchestras.

As a proficient billiards player, he won the Éire Championship in 1937, and was twice All-Ireland Champion in the years 1940 and 1941. He was also an enthusiastic hillwalker, possessing an exhaustive knowledge of the Comeragh mountains.

In 1951 he presented a short series of programmes on Radio Éireann entitled ‘Covent Garden Memories’, which proved an unexpected success, and which led to his resignigation from newspaper editorship; devoting himself to broadcasting and freelance journalism, the latter mostly on musical topics. His weekly programme, ‘Tommy O’Brien and his records’, would, in 1968, be expanded to ‘Your choice and mine’, and would continue until his final illness in 1987, thus becoming, back then, Ireland’s longest running radio programme.

Tommy O’Brien never married, but was regurarly known to be in the company by Ms Margaret (‘Mog’) Condon a native of Clonmel, latter an accomplished amateur painter, pianist, and soprano until her death in the mid 1960s.

Tommy O’Brien leaving home to catch the train in Thurles.

The now late Sunday Independent chief sub-editor, drama and music critic Mr Gus Smith; in his now rare book ‘Tommy O’Brien – ‘Good Evenin’ listeners’ [Madison Publishers, Dublin, 1987], describes Tommy O’Brien’s fortnightly trip from Clonmel to Thurles, to catch the morning train, as follows: –

“Exactly at 9:30am the taxi drew to a halt outside the main door. This was recording day for Tommy O’Brien. Every fortnight he travelled to RTE to record two programmes at a time. And every second Wednesday the ritual was the same: he was picked up by taxi at his bungalow and driven to Thurles where he would catch the Dublin train. “Get in!” I heard him exclaiming through the open car window. “Didn’t I tell you we be in time!”.

I climbed into the backseat and was immediately introduced to taximan George. Tommy looked well-groomed and fresh-faced and I suspected he has gone to bed earlier than usual. I raise the question of a lack of a direct rail service from Clonmel to Dublin and he agreed it was a damned nuisance.

As we drove through town he added, “I don’t like the new shops in Clonmel, I mean the supermarkets are impersonal and not as friendly as the old shops. Which reminds me I was in Sligo the other week giving a gramophone recital and I thought it a nicer looking town then Clonmel. My God, the Yeats’ country is magnificent!.”

He filled his pipe and lit it slowly. He laughed as he remarked, “Talking about Sligo, I met this lady, a real charmer and her knowledge of opera was as good as my own, and she had collected programmes from the DGOS season at the Gaiety Theatre dating back for years and years. Anyway I invited her to visit Clonmel to hear my records and I hope she can come. George here would drive us around the beauty spots in Tipperary in Waterford. I think she like that”.

Woman’s company has always pleased him. After his recitals usually surrounded by them looking for autographs. Once after recital in the Burlington Hotel in Dublin he was, he says, “bombarded by women. All kinds of women. Old women, middle age women and young women – they just couldn’t have enough of me! And do you know what kind of woman went for me and most ? Well, it was the nuns! Yes, the nuns love me. I don’t know what they see in me!”

Cork, I suggested always seemed to love his recitals. Propped up in the front seat of the car, he half-turned around as he replied, “I used to go to Cork too often you’ve got to be careful not to wear out your welcome”.
“Did you get many invitations for recitals?”
“I get invitations all the time. The other day Kilrush group wanted to send a taxi to Clonmel for me, but I had to tell them I was unable to make the trip. I’m not keen on the long travel and since I don’t normally stay overnight, it means coming back to Clonmel late to the morning”.
He suddenly raised his voice as he pointed in the direction of the left towards some fields.
“It was way in there that I used to bring the dispatches to Dan Breen. Many’s the time I cycled along this road and sometimes with my heart in my mouth because I would be carrying Breen’s revolver which I had got cleaned or repaired in Clonmel”.
The land looked good. A few miles on George said, “Over there on the left are Vincent O’Brien’s racing stables”. From the road I picked out the wooden fences in the field used for training his horses.
Tommy O’Brien said “I never met Vincent O’Brien; I hear though he’s a decent man”.
“He’s all that”, replied George, without taking his eyes off the road in front.

Tommy was in the mood for conversation. He said he didn’t normally give gramophone recitals in private houses, but 2 years ago he was asked as a special favour to give one in the home of Tony Ryan the founder of Guinness peat aviation.
“Seemingly, he had heard me many times on radio and considered a novel idea to invite me to the dinner party he was giving for his staff at Shannon. Barry O’Donovan, a member of the Clonmel Gramophone Society came along with me and helped me with the recording equipment. The house, outside Nenagh was like a mansion, full of books and paintings. We were treated to a beautiful dinner and film show, then I gave my recital. I was in excellent form and, from what I could see the gathering really enjoy the music and stories. Afterwards Tony Ryan thanked me for the show I had given. And I remember he added “The next place Tommy will be giving his recital is in New York”. This surprised me as I didn’t know what he meant. But earlier in the evening he had mentioned to Barry O’Donovan that he was planning a big dinner for GPA executives in New York and wanted me to be there. I was prepared to go, but unfortunately the dinner was cancelled for some reason or another. However, Tony Ryan says that if I care to go to America, he will arrange the flight at any time”.

I mentioned about the RTE documentary and how well it had been received for viewers.
“I brought John Williams everywhere”, he said enthusiastically. “Up the Comeragh mountains and to the rivers. We had great times together making the film. He got tremendous atmosphere into it and I think that is one of the reasons why people like it more every time they see it”.
“John said it was easy to direct you in the film because you are a natural actor!”.
Tommy chuckled, “I think he knew he had found a star discovery”.

The Rock of Cashel loomed ahead. Tommy, a keen historian, talked about Cashel of the Kings and said he had climbed the rock on numerous occasions. I reminded him of what a travel writer had once said – “I cannot think that anyone coming upon this first site of the Rock can be unmoved”. George slowed the car down as we drove through the town. It was in a sleepy mood.

For a while Tommy puffed his pipe in silence, then he began to reminisce about the old touring opera companies. They were useful for at least one thing, he mused, and that was they introduced people to the operas, otherwise in those days they would never have heard of them. He hoped that the showing of opera on television now would make it more popular with young people. When I told him that I fear for the future of opera, because of the lack of interest by so many young people, he waxed optimistic.

“People will always listen to exciting singers and opera is about singing and good voices. Like everything else it goes through phases, but at the present time I’m the Domingo and Sutherland can still pack the Opera houses. I’m optimistic”.

I checked my watch. It was nearly 10:30, as George drove us towards the rear of Thurles railway station. At the ticket office Tommy collected his ticket from Paddy Loughman and they exchanged some pleasant words together. For a while we paste up and down the platform. He was rather proud of the fact that he was recognised easily and some people went out of their way to greet him.
“I enjoy the fortnightly routine”, he admitted. “It makes up for the hours I spent getting the program together”.

Shortly after 10:30 the train pulled into the station and I heard him say “We go to the dining compartment”. I followed him into the carriage where he sat at a table for two.

Presently we were greeted by a tall wiry CIE waiter. “That’s Ned,” said Tommy. “He has my breakfast already cooked and will serve it soon”.
I could see he was looking forward to the journey.”

Tommy O’Brien sadly died, having suffered a series of strokes, in Melview nursing home, Clonmel, on February 24th 1988, and was buried in St. Patrick’s cemetery to the strains of Mozart’s violin sonata in B, latter his favourite piece of music.

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