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TOMMY O’NEILL – A PERSONAL TRIBUTE

posted 13 Nov 2011, 11:12 by tinrylandpro@hotmail.com   [ updated 13 Nov 2011, 11:13 ]

By Leo McGough

SYNCHRONICITY ordained that this Thursday afternoon I would be going into the research part of the Library on Carlow’s Tullow Street to get a print-out of the ‘Nationalist’ match report of the 1972 Carlow Senior Football Championship semi-final meeting of parish neighbours Tinryland and Palatine.

I was actually supposed to go in on Wednesday but a change of setting for the Kilkenny CBS v St Kieran’s Leinster Colleges Junior Hurling Championship final saw the hobo hop on board the train to the Marble City instead.

As I sat in the Kilkenny Railway Station awaiting the return train a text arrived that shocked, then, as the reality set in, saddened. Tommy O’Neill was dead.

The first reaction was denial; hadn’t a rumour gone around town the week before about a famous Carlow musician being dead? Happily that proved to be untrue.

Alas, not so with Tommy O’Neill, something I suspected once I noticed a missed call from Charlie Keegan whose wife Margaret is a first cousin of the man who has been Carlow County Secretary for a quarter of a century, an efficient, hard-working administrator whose commitment to Gaelic Games was all consuming.

If ever a man had his finger on the pulse of Carlow GAA activity it was Tommy O’Neill.

The last time I was talking to him was a couple of weeks ago, we met on Dublin Street, just outside the Courthouse Hotel and I enquired of him the official attendance at the Carlow SFC final the previous Sunday, reckoning it was one of the biggest I county final attendances I had ever seen.

Tommy confirmed that there were over 4,000 in Dr Cullen Park and when asked if that was the biggest of modern times he nodded in assent, saying he’d have to check it out but he thought so,

As we parted I thanked Tommy for speedily organising a Co Board cheque earlier that day for work on Dr Cullen Park match programmes having explained to Breda in the office that I was encountering cash flow problems ahead of a week-end trip to the Clare Co hurling final.

It was appropriate that Co final records and match programmes should feature in what was to be a farewell chat as the same topics were also central to Tommy O’Neill first coming to my attention all of 40 years ago,

As an excited eleven-year I was allowed tip over to Dr Cullen Park on my own for the 1971 Carlow Senior Hurling Championship final in which Ballinabranna’s St Fintan’s beat Borris.

The curtain-raiser that September Sunday brings us to the sychronicity of the opening paragraph as it was that very same Tinryland v Palatine SFC semi-final, a local derby which featured brother against brother as two of the Dowling’s from Ballinacarrig bridge were playing with Pal, another with Tinryland.

The fact that from our Brownes Hill home we often visited the millstone beside Dowling’s house as well as the fact that a soccer comic of the time (which I regularly purchased in Murphy’s of Staplestown Road) carried a story in which brothers played with rival teams ensured this football game made a major impression on me.

That Dr Cullen Park double-bill also saw my first Carlow deposit in a now vast match programme collection, a programme compiled by Jim O’Brien with the unique feature of the line-outs having townsland, age, weight and height appealing to my budding statistical brain.

And that double-bill of four decades ago provided two statistical coincidences: Donal ‘Ducksie’ Dunne scored 0-10 in the hurling game, the first man to bring his white flags tally to double figures in a county final.

When I eventually tipped into the Library on Thursday I learned that Tommy O’Neill scored the exact same tally in the football game, 0-10 while Tinryland’s clinching goal came after his penalty was saved and Brendan Hayden put away the rebound.

Incidentally the Pal goal was punched home by one of the aforementioned Dowling brothers, Ollie, who had his brother Jim alongside him in Pal green and red while brother Tom, who sadly passed away last January was on the victorious Tinryland side.

And it was because of the Pal’s goal-scorers interest in reading the ’71 semi-final match report that I found myself thinking of Tommy O’Neill’s unique free-taking style on the very day he passed away.

Tinryland went on to beat Kildavin in the ’71 final, their first SFC title in 21 long years and led to Tommy O'Neill not only playing with the couny team but captaining the red, yellow and green to a NFL victory over Wicklow in Croke Park, the last of only four senior Carlow victories on the 'field of dreams'.

Tinryland franked the form in 1972 by retaining their title, beating Eire Og in a high scoring final, Tommy O’Neill racking up a massive 1-8, a record haul for a Carlow SFC final. The accompanying photo was taken onhe day of his greatest hour.

It was in a Leinster Club Championship match after one of those domestic triumphs of the early 70s that Tommy O’Neill was central to another early and long-standing childhood memory. Tommy’s unique free-taking style involved a virtual jabbing the ball off the ground with what appeared a minimum of backswing. He was deadly accurate but the ball often just cleared the crossbar.

It was one such ball creeping over the bar against the Railyard in the County Grounds that prompted the visiting Kilkenny goalkeeper to adopt a safety first technique and for fear of the ball locating the roof of the then wire-netting palmed the ball over the black spot.

However one of the Railyard defenders lining the goal took exception to the concession of the point and proceeded to land a punch on his own goalkeeper’s jaw!

A year or two later I first came across Tommy O’Neill’s organisational ability when he was the brains behind Cosets (the Sugar Factory Sports and Social Club) reviving the old Carlow Town Street League, running an U-14 football competition involving the usual suspects of the time – the Park, Rathnapish, Town Centre, the Country and Graiguecullen from ‘over the bridge’.

The games, which took place in October and November, were played every Saturday in the Cosets field with soup from the nearby Erin Foods a pick-me-up when the days play was over.

I was part of a Country team that failed to make the final but who had a part to play in the final which was staged in Dr Cullen Park as Tommy O’Neill asked Tommy Dwyer and myself to act as linesmen. Remember taking a short-cut through muddy fields from Talbot Terrace to the Deerpark, fields which later housed Lapple and Braun!

After the final which was won by Graiguecullen, the presentation of medals took place in St Fiacc’s Hall and Tommy O’Neill drove Tommy Dwyer and myself over to the function and on the way discussed the possible winner of the trophy for the best footballer on a team that didn’t reach the final.

Remember clearly Tommy O’Neill asking us for our opinion and the penny dropped as to why he had asked us to ‘do the line’ and given us a lift to St Fiacc’s Hall when Tommy Dwyer was announced as the winner.

The two Tommy’s were destined to win SFC medals together in 1979 and 1981 and I have no doubt that the older Tommy’s early nurturing of the younger Tommy’s talents played a significant part in the future Railway Cup footballer and Compromise Rules international opting to don the famed blue and white hoops of Tinryland.

Had reason to bring up that Cosets juvenile football street league with Tommy O’Neill just last year and got the impression he got great satisfaction from the fact that I remembered it and his part in its organisation.

Organisation and attention to detail were to serve Tommy extremely well in subsequent years, first serving as Secretary with Tinryland, then with the Co Board, in his 25th year as Runai, a quarter of a century during which the work-load became so big that there was no alternative but to make it a full time post.

This year Tommy was very supportive of Setanta Ceatharlach in our start up year, lending our officers invaluable advice as well as the tools of our trade, hurls, helmets and sliotars not to mention 'opening doors' and indeed on the day he died he was due to meet with our Chairman Pat Ahern and Vice-Chair Noel O'Neill.

The amount of man-hours Tommy O’Neill gave to Carlow GAA was over and above the call of duty and to finish on a humorous note I was twice the cause of the Secretary working ‘over-time’?

The first occasion was when I was working as schools coach for the Co Board maybe a decade and a half ago, the Monday morning visit occasionally a source of inconsistent time-keeping, I citing ‘transport difficulties’ as an excuse at one coaches meeting. That excuse went out the window the following Monday when Tommy insisted on picking me up and delivering me to the school in question while also making contingency plans for future weeks!

Then on the October Bank Holiday Monday of last year St Mullins were playing Glenealy in the Leinster Club Hurling Championship and as the ‘Carlow People’ were looking for an instant report at the final whistle I got the key of the old press box off Tommy so as I could e-mail as soon as possible after the final whistle.

Things rested so, as the seanachai would say, until, report signed, sealed and delivered, I locked the pressbox door and headed for home …

Only the County Grounds was deserted, every door and gate firmly locked; it was drizzling rain, getting dark but I reckoned I could get out by the Groundsman’s cottage only to be met by a tall barbed wire fence! Might have chanced climbing it only I was sporting a brand new outfit for a function later that evening.

Nothing for it only to ring Groundman Seamus Moore even though I knew he was in Dun Laoighre for the Bank Holiday week-end! Seamus rang Tommy O’Neill – who gave his mobile number to very few and certainly not to a pressman! – and Tommy returned to the Grounds to set the ‘Brownes Hill One’ free!

It will be extremely strange from now on to visit Dr Cullen Park and not have a brief chat, share a joke with Tommy O’Neill, a man almost as much part of the furniture as the goalposts.

Farewell Tommy, thank you for all your genuine work for Carlow GAA, you will be badly missed ...

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