Tom Hickland - 1946-2020
I have been greatly saddened to learn of the death, from Covid-19, of my lifelong friend Tom Hickland. Tom grew up in Hawthorn Street just round the corner from me in west Belfast. We were in the same class at primary school, went to the same secondary school and both went on to Queens University.
My earliest memories of Tom’s musical involvement were hearing him practise in the front room of his house while my friends and I played football in the street outside. Then at St Malachy’s College, I have a clear memory of him playing classical violin on stage at the school concert. I have a particular recollection of a rendition of Elizabethan Serenade, accompanied by Fr Des Wilson on piano.
It was at Queens that I approached Tom with the idea of forming a folk group. He reminded me recently of the exact location where this discussion took place! Tom was keen, but as a banjo player - mainly due to the influence of the Dubliners and especially Barney McKenna. Initially he felt that the violin was too closely associated with his previous classical playing. A small point that will be understood by musicians - Tom had tuned his banjo to the conventional tenor banjo tuning norm, but then on discovering that Barney McKenna used fiddle tuning, it was like a eureka moment! Tom was also involved in a number of other musical enterprises including the Eddie Fagan Ceili Band, a dramatic production in the Lyric Theatre and recording with Eugene McEldowney. Tom was also a regular in Pats Bar which was the place to be for informal sessions in Belfast at that time.
The early Winnowers line up included, at different times, Ray Maguire, Maura Gaffney, Brian Fagan, Rhona Toner, Eugene McEldowney, Denis McCullough and myself. In the early days we were playing in various venues including a residency in the Imperial Hotel. Our repertoire was mainly Dubliners and Clancy Brothers songs, with a sprinkling of American folk. We were part of a boom period in Belfast with folk performers such as the Folk Union, City Folk, The McCuskers, Den Warwick, Sam Bracken and many more. We established many great friendships. Apart from his great talent as a musician Tom also had an invaluable asset as a member of a group – he had a car! Some of the stories around our car journeys don’t bear thinking about - even years later.
At a later stage, around the late 60s, we moved to a more traditional format, heavily influenced by the ‘Folk Revival’ and the visit to Belfast of several of the leading performers in this area – MacColl and Seeger, AL Lloyd, The Watersons, Young Tradition, Shirley Collins, Davy Stewart and a young Barbara Dickson etc. In fact, in his role as President of the Queen’s Folk Music Society, Tom played a prominent role in bringing some of these to the university.
Tom and I did a few gigs together at home and in England and Scotland. Then Denis McCullough, an excellent multi-instrumentalist, joined us to form the new Winnowers. Tom had now put aside the banjo and was playing fiddle and some mandolin. As a trio we did a few tours of English and Scottish folk clubs and while in London recorded an LP with folk guru Bill Leader, who ran the leading folk label Topic Records. By that stage I had collected ‘original’ songs in Monaghan which interested Bill. And there weren’t many traditional fiddle players on the scene at that time.
Ironically, this development led to Tom’s departure from the group. Bill Leader told us that it would be necessary to go full time and tour extensively to promote the record. Tom was the only one of us prepared to make that commitment and decided to seek a professional career in the music business. Ray Maguire stepped in to replace Tom for our next, and last tour.
Tom first joined a country band, California Brakemen, and then got together with Dick Gaughan and 5 Hand Reel was born. He enjoyed several successful years with this Celtic folk rock band, touring through Europe and making four landmark albums along the way. Tom was particularly delighted to be joined by fellow Belfast man Sam Bracken who had replaced Dick Gaughan. Other members were Barry Lyons, Bobby Eaglesham and Dave Tulloch.
I lost contact with Tom for a number of years when he moved to London and went back to his career as a teacher after his touring musician days had ended. In 1995 he suffered a severe blow with the premature death of his wife Marilyn.
In 2006, the Winnowers got together for a Belfast folk reunion and more recently Tom and I performed in the Sunflower Folk Club, headlining in 2017. I also visited him in London where we rehearsed some songs and tunes together. His interest in playing, which had been dormant for some years, had been re-ignited. Tom had started annual visits to Belfast where he loved to visit his old haunts – at least the ones still standing!
Tom was not one for texting or emailing but preferred phone calls. We had many long conversations, reminiscing about the wonderful adventures we had been through and filling the gaps in each other’s memories!
There is so much more I could write about Tom and his life, but I will conclude by saying that I feel privileged to have been his friend for so many years. Most of our recent conversations were filled with anecdotes relating to the situations we found ourselves in, people we had met and the laughs we had along the way.
Tom accomplished a lot in his life, had a lot of fun but also experienced his fair share of grief. Remembering the good times is a great source of consolation to me. My thoughts are with Sarah and Sean, his lovely daughter and son at this time. I hope that the many tributes you have seen are a source of comfort at this difficult time.