WE were happier when we had no money. That’s according to Thomas McNamara, or ‘Tommy Mac’, as he is affectionately known by the people of Limerick.
The accordion player is synonymous with the cityscape and is a familiar face to passers-by. Normally perched on an ESB box off Cruises Street, Tommy also keeps busy shoppers entertained in the Milk Market at the weekends.
“When I was growing up, families had no money and we were happier because it was about simple things. I used to sell milk bottles to get the price of a ticket to the pictures,” said the 75-year-old. “But now ‘tis all money – schools, hospitals, the cars in the driveway,’tis all money,” he said.
Though born in Bedford Row, he grew up in Ballymorris, Co Clare before his parents moved the family of nine children to Pallaskenry. Tommy inherited his love of music from his father Michael who also played the accordion. As a ‘young fella’, he toured the country as part of the Dalchassin and Garyglass Ceili Bands before he “grew up” and enrolled in the army in 1953. He spent five years based at Sarsfield Barracks and was frequently posted to the border.
But the regimented ways of military life did not contain him and he took off for the bright lights of London at the beginning of the swinging sixties.
“Oh, they were magical times,“ said Tommy who worked as a painter for Lambeth Council. “It was all flower power and the Beatles and Hell’s Angels. London is a young person’s city, ‘tis not for the elderly.”
During his 14-year sojourn, Tommy “packed in the music” but after he returned to Limerick he bought a second-hand accordion for £100 from “a Donegal woman who lived in Ballinacurra Weston” and it all came flooding back to him.
“I just took a notion and started playing again, jigs and reels, waltz’s all types of music. I just love the sound.”
Tommy cites boredom as the main reason he started busking in Limerick.
“I was sitting around doing nothing so I went to the tax office and asked him if my playing would interfere with my pension, but because it fell “under the arts’” I was in the clear. I’ve Charles Haughey to thank for that,” he says with a smile.
Now busking for more than ten years, Tommy feels a lot has changed.
“I think people don’t talk any more, I mean really talk to each other. Life’s gone faster. I think we got too wrapped up in money and forgot about each other. Money upset everything.
“I suppose the fashions have changed an awful lot and the whole boy-meets-girl situation. ‘Twas a different kettle of fish in my day.”
Though he never married, Tommy has many friends and is continuously nodding and winking at passers-by, most of whom know him by name, while several people came up to shake his hand and get their photograph taken with him.
A devout Christian, Tommy rarely misses daily Mass at the Redemptorist Church on Henry Street and believes that faith “keeps you on the straight and narrow”.
Having lived three quarters of a century and seeing the city of Limerick and its people change and develop over time, Tommy recommends that we simply “get closer to each other”.
Now living on Wolfe Tone Street, the musician shows no sign of hanging up his accordion any time soon.
“I love being out and about in the atmosphere, meeting the people and chatting and playing. I will do this ‘til the very end,” he concluded.