Tommy McCarthy was born on 14th November 1929 in Shyan (Home of the Fairies) near Kilmihil in West Clare. When he was about nine years old he heard a group of Wren boys on St. Stephen’s Day play music when they came to his house. In a matter of a few days he managed to get an old wooden whistle and began to teach himself the tunes he had heard. A few years later he began to learn the concertina from a neighbour - Mick “Stack” Ryan. He recalls crossing the fields at night to visit his house to learn tunes along with Solus Lillis, a blacksmith who lived nearby. Kilmihil became noted for its concertina tradition and other fine players from the area include Sonny Murray, Bernard O’Sullivan, Tommy McMahon and Tom Carey. In 1950 Tommy travelled to Dublin where he acquired a set of uilleann pipes and had his first tuition from legendary piper and pipemaker Leo Rowsome. In 1952 he emigrated to London where he worked as carpenter.
Among the musicians he played with over the years in London were fiddlers Bobby Casey and Martin Byrnes, pipers Willie Clancy and Séamus Ennis, flute players Roger Sherlock and Paddy Taylor and accordion player Raymond Roland. In 1968 he attended the historic first meeting of Na Píobairí Uilleann (The Society of Uilleann Pipers) in Ireland and in 1980 he co-founded the London Pipers Club which is now an important focal point for U.K. pipers to learn and play. In 1972 he performed throughout the U.S.A. on the first Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (Association of Irish Musicians) tour with musicians such as Paddy Glackin, Seamus Connolly and Joe Burke and was invited back again in 1982 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of that tour. He has also performed in Brittany, Italy, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Australia.
Recording credits include contributions to albums by Kate Bush, John Anderson of Yes, Horslips and his whistle playing was featured on a song called “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the group Tight Fit which occupied the No. 1 spot in the U.K. pop charts for seven weeks in the mid 1980s. London theatre credits include music for a contemporary ballet “Sergeant Early’s Dream” by Rambert Ballet Company and “The Playboy of the Western World” which ran for two years at the National Theatre. Other work includes music for the films “Three Wishes for Jamie” and “Young Guns”. His friendship with Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains led to Tommy, along with his family, performing regularly with the Chieftains at their many London concerts. They can also be heard dancing a Clare set live on the Chieftains album “Bonaparte’s Retreat”!
Tommy has passed on his music in the West Clare style to each of his four children - Jacqueline (concertina), Marion (uilleann pipes), Bernadette (fiddle) and Tommy Jnr. (fiddle). They performed regularly as a family group throughout the U.K. and returned to Ireland several times each year - keeping in touch with musicians and friends there down through the years.
In 1991 Tommy returned to his native Co. Clare after spending 40 years in London and settled in Miltown Malbay - birth place of the great piper Willie Clancy. He taught concertina at the Summer School held each year in Willie’s honour and in 1996 Tommy played in three of the specialised music recitals at the school - uilleann pipes, concertina and tin whistle. He was a regular performer at music events all over the country and at pipers gatherings in particular. He also played with his three daughters and extended family who now live in Co. Clare and neighbouring Co. Galway. He performed in the U.S.A. each year with his son Tommy Jnr. who now lives there. He played with local musicians Junior Crehan, Eamon McGivney and together with former Chieftains member Michael Tubridy they have recorded two cassettes of music for the “Set Dances of Ireland” series - featuring music for Clare Sets. He also provided music for “Out of the Heavens in Showers” a play based on the life of Micho Russell which was performed throughout Clare and Galway in 1998 and 1999.
Tommy passed away on 23rd September 2000. A documentary film "Handing Down the Tunes" was made about Tommy's life by Ken Lynam and was premiered in Clare in 2007 and shown on TG4 television in 2011.