Abbey Pub’s Tom Looney dead at 81 of COVID, transformed modest Chicago bar into a music mecca

Tom Looney turned a modest pub into a music mecca.

Mr. Looney, 81, died at a rehab facility Monday of complications related to COVID-19. The coronavirus damaged his lungs after he became sick in April, according to his family.

In the mid-1980s, he and his wife Breege were the landlords for the Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace St. After the bar’s owner became ill, they took over, expanding and upgrading the space.

Before long, new acts and established stars were making their way to the Abbey. Musicians found a family atmosphere.Mr. Looney and his son Patrick booked the performers, and the Looney kids would pick them up at the airport.

During the 30 years the Northwest Siders operated the Abbey, it hosted performances by stars as varied as Kris Kristofferson, Wilco, Brad Paisley, Florence + the Machine, Snow Patrol, Wiz Khalifa, The Ting Tings, Christy Moore, Arlo Guthrie, Bonnie Koloc and The Wolfe Tones.

Mr. Looney, an electrician who invested in real estate, also took on the role of president of the Irish American Heritage Center and helped acquire its building at 4626 N. Knox Ave. in the mid-1980s.Some people involved with the center were wary about buying the old Mayfair grade school. But Mr. Looney figured that Irish tradesmen would do the repairs it needed and that descendants of Irish immigrants would donate money to improve the site.

“Tom was the best leader and supporter one could ever have for any Irish cause, whether it be a benefit, music, dance, sports, immigration, culture,” accordionist Jimmy Keane said on Facebook. “I can’t imagine the IAHC being in existence without Tom pulling and pushing for it.”

“He always used to quote Daniel Burnham, ‘Make no little plans,’ ” his daughter Deirdre Looney Reardon said.

The Looneys, whose club was featured in 2011 on the TV show “Bar Rescue,” sold the building around 2015.

Mr. Keane grew up in the Irish village of Ballycashen in the town of Kilnaboy in County Clare. The youngest of seven children, he was just 11 months old when his mother died. People came together to support the family, but, by 10, he was a farmworker, and, “by the time he was 12, he was put in seven different houses,” his wife said.

She said that, at 15, he and a friend went to a bog and cut a big load of “turf” — peat used as fuel –“and took off to England,” landing in Manchester.

In 1960, he immigrated to the United States. Two years later, he was drafted into the Army.

While home visiting Chicago, he called a friend to ask if she’d like to go to a dance. The friend wasn’t home, but the phone was answered by an Irish immigrant who’d arrived in Chicago that very day: Bridget Ellen McGuire, whom he’d later nickname Breege.

He asked her out. She said yes. They had such a good time that he invited her on a date the next night, too. This time, she declined.

“She had only one dress, and she thought, ‘I couldn’t have him pick me up with the same dress two nights in a row,’ ” their daughter said.

“He started writing me all these lovely love letters,” his wife said. “He was the most respectful man I ever met.”

They were married in 1966.

As a father, “No matter what he was doing, he never missed a game” in which his children played, his daughter said.

Another daughter, Siobhan Carroll, said, “Even as an adult — I live out in California –he’d come out and go to all my [tennis and hockey] matches and all my kids’ matches.”

Mr. Looney liked boxing and especially hockey because its speed reminded him of the Irish sport of hurling. On one favorite trip, the Looneys took an RV to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, where they cheered on the Irish athletes.

“He could tie Ireland into everything,” said his son, linking his homeland to advances in science, marine navigation and the heritage of prominent people, including boxer Muhammad Ali and President Barack Obama. His children joked that, to him, it seemed that every U.S. president was Irish.

He loved poetry and singalongs and was “ever cheerful, kind, inquisitive, charming, with a hearty laugh, smile, firm handshake…and a loving tap on the back,” Keane said.

Mr. Looney is also survived by his son Thomas and eight grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

“I was so lucky to have these parents who actually liked each other,” Deirdre Reardon said. “Right before he died, he opened his eyes, looked at my mom and kissed her. He puckered his lips.”

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