NORWICH, Conn. --
Musician Tom Callinan, a Marine Corps veteran, is celebrating 45 years in performing arts this month, but it was only two years ago that he thought his career might be coming to an end.
The spread of COVID-19 canceled a full slate of events he was set to play amid the St. Patrick's Day holiday — a busy time of year for the singer and songwriter who traces his family's roots to Ireland.
"I was really averse to virtual performing, I thought this was the end of my career back in 2020," said Callinan.
A break came when the veterans' hospital at Rocky Hill asked him to perform virtually for isolated residents, with staff carrying him around via tablets.
"In my mind, I am kicking and screaming, 'I don't want to do virtual,'" he recalled. "But this was meeting with people that I knew, they were happy and I felt great — well, I felt okay."
"Half a loaf is better than none but the half of loaf really sucked," he added.
There are still virtual performances on his schedule, but in recent months he has again performed at outdoor venues and events — like the Sept. 11, 2021, ceremony outside City Hall last year — and he continues to write songs rooted in the country's history of military service.
The Norwich, Conn., resident, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, became the first "Official State Troubadour" in Connecticut in 1991 and was selected to represent the state at a millennium event at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in 1999.
He began his full-time career as a musician in the late 1970s after working as a teacher at a local junior high school, but his pursuit for performing began in earnest on a trip to trace his family's ancestry in Ireland after he finished his service in the military during the Vietnam War.
"I was in Ireland, I had survived the Marine Corps," he said. "I met my family and took the bus from Ennis to Inagh — that is where my father's father came from."
There were two pubs and a church there, he recalled. Choosing one of the pubs, he met three of his cousins and ended up around the dinner table that evening with more of his relatives, who easily welcomed him into their home.
"One highlight was going out to the Aran Islands and it just so happened that I was on the ferry boat carrying [members] of the Irish Army Reserve," he said. "It was incredible because, having been in the Marine Corps, these guys were just drinking all the time!"
Callinan, who has been sober for 41 years, said that on the ferry the soldiers would buy him drinks and he would play a tune, "then they would buy me drinks and I would play a tune — pretty soon I was plastered!"
"These guys were great and very welcoming and encouraging to me and I thought, 'jeez, maybe I can come back, do something with it.'"
Upon his return, Callinan began taking graduate courses and teaching by day. He would pile into his maroon Chevy Vega on weekends, to drive to Hartford to play Irish music at Mad Murphy's with a folk band he joined called The Morgans.
Attending a graduate summer school for teachers at Wesleyan, he took classes in folk music and American History. He also trained on the guitar, changing from his specialty in woodwind experience.
That led to him being able to play and sing with The Morgans at bars in Hartford, and he also performed on their first album. He was never in it for the money, but he recalls getting $75 a night for that job.
Today, Callinan continues to perform in the Irish folk tradition. He also prides himself on his original songwriting, the ideas for his verse coming from an extensive knowledge of the country's military history. His father was a veteran of World War II, and his great-uncle died fighting at Chateau Thierry in France in 1918 during World War I.
"Something, Bink! goes off and I get into it," Callinan said, of his songwriting process, explaining how he takes pen to paper before putting his words on the computer and adapting a melody.
"Music is integral to the fighting spirit," he said. "You get people to work together when you have a beat and a cadence."
Not surprisingly, among his favorite crowds to perform for are those filled with fellow veterans and their families who come from different generations and all walks of life.
"I am writing one now for the upcoming monument dedication in April for the gold star families [in Berlin]," he noted.
"We are all there for each other, we are all on the same team," he said.