Well-known and respected Larne businessman and musician

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Thomas (Tom) McKeen, was one of the best-known businessmen in Larne during his working life, running a successful butcher’s shop in the town from 1953 until his retirement when he was well into his seventies.

Thomas (Tom) McKeen, was one of the best-known businessmen in Larne during his working life, running a successful butcher’s shop in the town from 1953 until his retirement when he was well into his seventies.

A native of Gleno outside the town, he was the son of Tom and Agnes McKeen (nee McGookin), and was born on April 4, 1930.

Brought up on the home farm at Ballywillan Road in the Gleno valley, he grew up with his younger brother Bobby in a close-knit family and attended Gleno Public Elementary School before progressing to Larne Grammar School.

His closest friends were his brother Bobby, Billy McMurtry, Sam Erskine and Alex Laing all of whom grew up enjoying music, dancing, cars and motor bikes.

The love of music in particular would be something which Tom would be associated with in the years ahead.

On leaving school he started his butchery career in Belfast as well as helping out on the family farm. Originally having worked at Tom Graham’s butchers on Main Street, his father set his eldest son up in a butcher’s business at Dunluce Street in 1953, a listed and much photographed premises over the years.

He continued in business in the street until his retirement and his butcher’s shop was one of the distinctive business landmarks in the town.

He met and married June Quigley and the couple would have two children, Ian and Shirley. Originally living at Magheramorne they moved into Larne in 1967, purchasing a bungalow at Lansdowne Crescent in the town.

Mr. McKeen had many hobbies and interests, including antiques and gardening, in the past he also demonstrated his talents by gathering and decorating blackthorn sticks. His main and abiding interest was music.

He was involved with various groups over the years, and in the late 1960s he helped to form the Grousebeaters band and continued to perform with them into his eighties. He appeared on many stages in the local area and beyond and also featured on television and radio programmes as well as being involved in many local heritage events and being one of those closely identified with the Ulster Scots musical tradition in the area.

His musical career started at the Plaza Ballroom in Larne, which was held inside the town’s Victoria Orange Hall, and there were many other venues including Kilwaughter House Hotel and the Coaches at Greenisland over the years.

He performed with others including Dan Hewitt, Bobby Beggs, Herbie Holden and Sam Erskine at charity events for Age Concern, Larne Lions, Chest Heart and Stoke Association and various groups for the disabled. Tom McKeen’s signature tune in such performances was his own warbling version of Danny Boy.

He had a ready sense of humour and once described himself in a media interview as “a long distance accordion player”, who was most appreciated the further away he played. It was not unknown for Tom to get up on a table to liven things up during performances.

Often the butt of good-natured jokes from his friends and fellow musicians, he not only performed songs but also had at least one written about him and entitled Tam’s Steak, which he was very proud of. It highlights a time when entertainment was very much home grown and is based on the false premise that he once sold a piece of steak so tough it was tested and found to have other uses:

“After six long months o’ testin’ it the news it came around

That an “indestructible material” had at last been found

And Tam is rubbin’ his hands wie glee, there’s a fortune to be made

He’s giving up the butchering and going into the footwear trade.

And he’s going tae sole Larne’s football boots, wae a piece o’ this same steak

And he swears tae all above them, they’ll never again be bate

Now it’s in the Guinness Book o’ Records, as the strangest thing ere seen

That wee bit o’ rawhide steak I bought frae Tam McKeen”

Behind the sense of humour was a man who went the extra mile for others – sometimes this was quite literal as his butcher’s van often operated more as a taxi than a delivery van.

There was also a soup kitchen at the back of his shop for those who needed some food and had fallen on hard times.

In an interview in the Larne Times in 1989, Tom recalled the days when meat prices were very different, and mince steak and lamb were selling at 3/6 per pound.

He recalled that eating habits had changed from when he first had gone into business; meat at that time would have been consumed once a week and maybe a hen, if people lived on farms, at the weekend.

But in his time in business he had seen a situation where meat was much more common on the dinner tables.

Tom McKeen was well into his 70s when he handed over to his son Ian, with Hugh Hodge, who had been with Tom since he was a youth, effectively fulfilling the role of shop manager at the Dunluce Street business.

In the early years of his retirement he found a new outlet for his work ethic in a small farm at Blackhill near Gleno which he had inherited from his uncle William. He spent many enjoyable hours there enjoying the rich countryside of the Gleno Valley which had so appealed to him as a boy.

His grandson Gareth Mitchell, in a tribute at the funeral, recalled how Tom McKeen passed on his great love of nature and the countryside to his grandchildren.

“He had a lot of knowledge about the old fashioned ways of the country. I soon knew the names of almost every native bird, we gathered and dried seaweed to make Dulse in the summer and we picked blackberries in the late summer and shook hazel trees for nuts in the nut braes around Gleno in the autumn,” he reflected.

In his later years Tom’s health deteriorated and he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. He fought against it bravely but it was to take away his power of speech and ability to write as well as seriously affect his mobility.

In April 2015 he suffered a grievous blow with the loss of his beloved wife June and he remained in the family home with the support of his family and daily visits from carers. His last few years were spent at Gillaroo Nursing Home in Larne, where he was deeply contented, enjoying the company of staff, most of whom had been customers when he ran his shop at 22 Dunluce Street.

In addition to his other interests, Mr. McKeen was a member of the Orange Institution, Royal Black Preceptory and the Freemasons. But he also had friends and was respected by people from all backgrounds.

His funeral service was held at First Larne Presbyterian Church, and was conducted by Rev. Dr. Colin McClure. Interment took place at Larne cemetery. Donations in lieu of flowers were encouraged to the Salvation Army c/o E. W. Ramsey & Son, Upper Main Street, Larne.

The words of his grand-daughter Rhea which were read out at the service summed up her feelings at his passing: “What a man, what a life. He enjoyed the simple things, music, singing, dancing and spuds! He was kind and loyal and very well respected by all that knew him. Always soldiering on never complaining even to the end. His sense of humour never left him and even until recent times we still got a smirk and a laugh. You don’t know how much we will all miss you. You can rest now and we hope you are up there dancing and singing away.”

Predeceased by his wife June, he is survived by his daughter Shirley and husband Thomas, son Ian and daughter-in-law Denise, grandchildren Gareth and his wife Kirsten, Rhea, Sara and Adam and great-grandchildren Daisy and Tom.