Gene Larkin, Crossmaglen, Co. Armagh
"Fáilte romhat, tar isteach, - come in, it's great to see you". A smile as bright as a morning sun and every bit as warm. No words could describe his open and friendly nature. Honesty and an enjoyment of life consumed his entire being and he had that rare ability of infecting everyone he met with the same sense of well-being. He was a man whom one felt better for having met.
I don't remember exactly when I first met Fr. Tom but I heard a lot about him as a priest, historian and a lover of Irish culture, when I was still at school. My first real memories of him began in I953, when Armagh won the Ulster Senior and Minor Football Championships. As a youth playing on that minor team, it was a great comfort and confidence-booster to receive advice and support on every occasion we played from such a well-known Gael. The entire team would receive encouragement but there was always a special word for a Crossmaglen Rangers' player. Down through the years, other players - young and not so young - received the same enthusiastic support from Fr. Tom and I know that each and every one of them appreciated it as much as I did. Indeed, I believe that at club-level many a closely contested game was swung our way by his pre-match visit to the dressing-room and his words of encouragement. On days when defeat was our lot, he did not rush from the ground but stayed on to offer solace and encouragement.
He had played football for Cullyhanna and Crossmaglen Rangers for a number of years but he maintained that he was never a great player. The restriction placed upon him by his calling in life and ill-health in his youth certainly curtailed his playing days but it definitely did not dampen his enthusiasm for the game itself and the atmosphere that went with it. For him, the G.A.A. was not just a games' organisation. He embraced everything that it stood for - its language and its culture, as well as its games. As a young priest, he started a Camogie team in Clonfeacle and a regular feature in their yearly calendar were trips to other parts of Ireland, where young people could savour and enjoy Irish music and dancing and become more aware of a distinctly Irish way of life. His commitment to, and promotion of, the Irish language is well known and detailed elsewhere.
Throughout his life, he supported the Armagh County teams at all grades, whenever they played and whatever the weather. One trip on a bicycle to Coalisland, in Co. Tyrone - a journey of 84 miles - on a day when Armagh scored only one point, and to be told by his father on his return that it was "a long way to go for a point", would have dampened the spirit of most people but he returned again and again.
He openly expressed his wish that Armagh would win the All-lreland during his lifetime. Alas, it was not to be.
While he supported the County teams with fervour, his first love was the Rangers. Despite the club's ups and downs, he supported them in good times and bad. During the fifties, when emigration devastated the area, he continued to encourage and support them and the successful years of the sixties that followed were as much an award for his loyalty as they were a credit to the club.
In I959, when he officially opened St. Oliver Plunkett Park, Crossmaglen, he left an everlasting impression on all present, with his unashamed joy and pleasure at the provision of a home for the Rangers, who had moved like Nomads from field to field for over half a century to play their games. On that occasion, he traced the history of the club from its foundation in I887 up to that day and named all the fields that they had played in. Little did he realise then that in the years to come he would be called upon time and time again to defend the club's right to unobstructed use of the field. It was in that year that he was appointed Honorary President of the club, a position he held until his untimely death.
During the next thirty years, despite the pressures he was subjected to by his high office in the Catholic Church, he was always present when the club was in its greatest need and it is in this area that I will remember him most. While the sixties were glorious in their rewards, with six Senior County Championship wins, they also had their dark days. In I964, the club withdrew from all football and the inter-county players withdrew from the County team, following what the club considered as a serious injustice done to them in an Armagh County Semi-Final. The dispute carried on for months, despite the efforts of many influential people, including Bishop Arthurs, home on holiday from Africa, who chaired a meeting between the club and County Board in the Imperial Hotel, Newry. Quietly behind the scenes, Fr. Tom acted as intermediary with the late Fr. McKnight, a former County Chairman, and it was Fr. McKnight who led Crossmaglen Rangers back into football in Armagh. Fr. Tom's recounting of one heated meeting during that period between Very Rev. Canon McEvoy - a very determined club member - and Fr. McKnight, which took place at the rear of the Hogan Stand in Croke Park, after the All-Ireland Final of I964, was well worth a chapter in any book.
At the end of the sixties, when the Senior team was relegated to the Second Division of the League for the first time in their history, Fr. Tom invited the team and officials to Maynooth College, where he was then President, and treated them to one of his well-known Ceili Mhor. The team responded by winning promotion to Division One and contesting the Senior Championship Final, losing by just one point. In those years, he would always attend the club's Annual General Meeting and express his views in his usual forthright manner and, on the rare occasions when he was unable to attend, he would write to the club-secretary, explaining the reason for his non attendance, encouraging greater effort in the coming year and enclosing a large contribution with his club membership fee.
If the sixties had their dark days, then the next two decades held a continuous cloud over the club, with the occupation and desecration of St. Oliver Plunkett Park by the British army. When the Army first used the field and tension ran high in the area, Fr. Tom acted as Chairman for over three hours at the subsequent Annual General Meeting, in I972 and, as usual, succeeded in calming troubled waters. In the years that followed, he was continuously involved in the defence of the ground, never shirking the unpleasant and never hedging his bets. He was committed to the club and made no apology for it. I have no doubt that were it not for his continuous support throughout this unhappy period, Rangers would have no field today.
In I977, when the club published a booklet to highlight this serious injustice, he wrote the foreword to that booklet, in which he stated: "A few weeks ago, I was saddened when I visited St. Oliver Plunkett Park and saw the shambles to which it has now been reduced. What was once a fine park of inter-county standard, the property of the Gaelic Athletic Association, has been rendered almost unusable, except for games of secondary importance by the activities of the British Army". Later in that same article, he showed his complete understanding of the situation, when he stated: "The affair of St. Oliver Plunkett Park is also symbolic of something deeper. Crossmaglen's loyally to Gaelic Games, despite all the obstacles put in its way, is but one facet of its allegiance to the Irish Nation. It is an allegiance which its people share with the people of many other areas in the North of Ireland and no 'solution' of the Northern problem can hope to succeed which does not take account of this allegiance".
Despite his elevation to the See of Armagh and Primacy of All Ireland, he was always available for consultation and, to those in the front-line of the club's defence, his support, encouragement and advice gave courage and confidence in a battle for our right to exist. In all the years that I acted as Spokesman for the club on this issue, he had a tremendous influence on my approach to the problem and I am afraid that, like many others, I leaned too heavily on him. He didn't limit his involvement to encouraging club officials but repeatedly raised the issue at every opportunity available to him. Successive Taoisigh, Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland and even the Prime Minister of England were informed in no uncertain terms what he thought of the situation. He clearly identified the Army's occupation of the grounds and the harassment that went with it as not only unjust and counter-productive but a typical example of the unwillingness or inability of the British Authorities to understand the problems in Ireland. They were attacking the very heart of the community, who were dedicated to no more than the playing of our National games and pass-times and providing healthy recreation for the youth, where none was ever provided by the same authorities, yet they couldn't understand the bitterness and resentment it caused. He was quick to point out that the image of Crossmaglen and South Armagh portrayed by the media was far from the South Armagh he knew so well.
When the G.A.A. at National level decided, in I979, to appoint an All-Ireland Committee for St. Oliver Plunkett Park, the final decision on the personnel of that committee was made by Cardinal O'Fiaich, who gave his approval in the sacristy of St. Patrick's Church, Crossmaglen, after he had administered Confirmation to the children of the parish. While he had not at that stage met all of them and, despite the fact that they came from Cork, Waterford, Sligo, Liverpool and Tyrone, he knew a lot about each of them. That committee is still to the forefront in defence of the club and its grounds. He had judged them wisely.
It was during our many discussions that I came to understand one of his best known qualities - his ability to remember names, faces and details. He was an acknowledged public-speaker and communicator but my abiding memory of him will be as a listener and I believe that it was this aspect that accounted for his brilliant memory. He would sit, pipe in hand, head leaning slightly forward and listen to every word and detail expressed, without interruption or comment, and, at the end, he would raise points for further clarification. His questions would always include the exact words used when the point was made.
Many of these discussions carried late into the night but they were never hurried and, when serious business was finished, he would relax into his usual jovial self -the darkest clouds were always lightened. On occasions, the discussions would take place over an evening meal and it was not uncommon, when meeting at a game or function, for him to say, "Call in some evening for a meal and a chat", but, not wishing to impose on his generosity, the invitation was not taken up as often as it should have been. I only realised this after his death, when I watched an earlier T.V. interview with him, where he told how lonely it was to sit down to an evening meal alone. How little we really know of the people we think we know well.
It is said that a change in circumstances changes the person and that people elevated to high office, of whatever nature, are forced to change to fit their new surroundings. He was the exception to that rule. The day of his consecration as Cardinal in St. Peter's in Rome coincided with the first-round of the Armagh Senior Football Championship, when Rangers played Armagh Harps. On his return to the Irish College in Rome, when he came out on the balcony to address all who had travelled from lreland with him, he said: "I will start with the good news. The Rangers won this afternoon and are through to the second-round of the Championship".
Following the unfortunate death of his brother, Dr. Patrick, in 1983, he presented the O'Fiaich Cup - a replica of the Ardagh Chalice - in his memory to the Rangers, to be played for annually between four County teams, thus bringing County football back to Crossmaglen for the first time since I969. As far as possible, these matches were arranged when he could be present. Not only was he bringing County football back to St. Oliver Plunkett Park but he was showing publicly his total support for the club and grounds.
At all G.AA. functions, regardless of where they were held or the magnificence of the occasion, he always got in a line or two about South Armagh and Crossmaglen. On the occasion of the official opening of the G.A.A. Centenary Year, in I984, in Ennis, it was a pleasure to hear him include in his address his usual reference to the Rangers, as an example of a great club, as he did again at the Centenary Conference, in Belfast, that same year.
The man who preached the homily at the funeral-Mass of President De Valera, who became the first Armagh-born Primate of All-Ireland from the I2th century, who escorted Pope John Paul II on his visit to Ireland, was happiest amongst his own people. One newspaper reporter, who knew him well, stated that the happiest and most relaxed pictures he had of the Cardinal were taken at the Rangers' Annual Dinners. The highlight of the Annual Dinner, which he always attended, was his yearly presentation of the Hall of Fame Award, when memories of past battles would be recounted in detail, as only he could. It was only fitting that in the club's Centenary Year of 1987 he should be the recipient of that prestigious award. Not only had he brought fame to the club throughout his lifetime but his loyalty was second to none.
Unfortunately for himself, he was too willing and no invitation, whatever the cause, was refused, if he could possibly attend. He was like an oasis in the desert but we all drank too deeply, drawing on his reserves until the very end. May God forgive us. I know that Fr. Tom would, without question. While his death was untimely and sudden and a great loss to all the people of Ireland, I feel it was fitting that, like his predecessor, St. Malachy, he died in France and that, although away from home, he was still amongst his own people and that, on his last journey to his resting-place in his beloved Armagh, he travelled through the part of the country of which he so often sang. He was a Boy from the County Armagh. I consider it an honour and a privilege to have lived in his time and, like thousands of others, to have known him as a friend. He was, as the editorial in the "London Irish Post" described him: "The last true Prince of Ulster".
Fíor mac na nGael. (True son of the Gael).
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam. (On the right hand of God be his soul).
One day, please God, we will all meet him again and hear him say: "Fáilte romhat, tar isteach, come in, it's great to see you".