Tom Phelan is a biker, traditional musician and Jesuit brother. After his mother’s death last year he felt the best tribute he could pay her was to compose a song in her honour which is now getting airplay on radio and is available on iTunes. He recently gave an interview to Pat Coyle for Soulwaves (formerely Relgious Network News), about his unconventional life as a Jesuit.
Tom grew up in Ballyfermot, Dublin, surrounded by music and music makers lincluding Finbarr Furey and his family. He played the pipes and then the banjo and loved to sing in the Ronnie Drew/Dubliners tradition.
He first encounted the Jesuits as a trade unionist, attending lectures in the Workers’ College, now the National College of Industrial Relations. Impressed with the Jesuits he met there and the work they did, he eventually decided to join them.
“I gave up my bike, my beard and my banjo and thought I would be out again in three months”. That was over thirty years ago but it took nothing like that length of time for him to get up on his bike and start playing music again.
He was sent to Tullamore and whilst there he was asked to teach music to some local people, which he gladly did. By that stage he’d got another bike. When he returned to Dublin and to Gardiner St, he set up a music school for inner city children whose parents couldn’t afford traditional music tuition.
The children were provided with instruments and teachers and the ‘The Music Makers Club’ quickly became a real success story, to this day still serving over thirty young people who come from even further afield than the original north inner city area.
Yearly, for St Patrick’s Day, Tom heads off to Montserrat – “not the Ignatian place – the one in the Carribean!” he points out. Cromwell had a policy of sending prisoners there and there’s a black community of Irish descent on the island, who love the traditional music sessions that Tom and his friends perform for them.
His mother’s death in August of last year was a painful blow for him but he had many happy memories and a deep gratitude for all that she had done for him and his family. “I didn’t give a long homily at the mass and I wanted to really honour her in a special way so I sat down this year and just wrote the song for her.”
It’s called ‘A Mother’s Embrace’ and already the feedback on it has been very good from those who’ve downloaded it from iTunes or got it on CD. (To download, type in Tom Phelan).
In his ‘Soulwaves’ interview which will be broadcast on local radio religious programmes around the country,Tom also talks about his vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. He concludes somewhat impishly that when his biker friends are deciding whether or not to go out for a spin of a Sunday, he’s the one who’s ready and able whilst the married men have to ‘check’ first. ‘I often wonder who has the vow of obedience!”, he laughs. You can listen to a podcast of his interview here.