A tribute to Tom Hunt: 'The most unusual thing was his ability to see potential in lads nobody else rated'

Children take the world as they find it. Tom Hunt died six weeks ago, on March 18.

A tribute to Tom Hunt: 'The most unusual thing was his ability to see potential in lads nobody else rated'

Thomas, his eldest son, delivered a moving eulogy at the funeral mass. He recalled walking around Kilkenny as a boy with his father. They would be stopped every couple of minutes by someone who wanted a chat. That boy thought the same happened to everyone’s father.

This response endured all through Tom Hunt’s life, unaltered in its purity. He was a singular teacher, someone absolutely committed to education in all its aspects. For him, sport offered a powerful form of education.

The commitment flowed from childhood and youth. Born on September 5, 1943, he was raised on a dairy farm at Lisronagh, outside Clonmel. His native GAA club was Moyle Rovers, later brought to renown by the gifts of Declan Browne as a footballer. Tom soldiered with the Rovers and made the Tipperary minor football panel.

Tom Hunt would speak of how the cleverest boy in his class at Lisronagh NS was the son of a labourer on his father’s farm. He was haunted by that boy not attending secondary school. The class distinctions of 1950s Ireland produced another commitment, fealty to social justice. The adult became a Labour Party activist and was President of the TUI 1981-82.

Tom considered his own background comfortable and privileged. Even so, his experiences in secondary school as a boarder in Wexford and in Cork were desperate. His time, especially in Cork, was so unpleasant that he left without a Leaving Certificate. Severe corporal punishment, along with casual brutality, was the order of the day. The impact of those years moulded his remarkable capacity for empathy and compassion.

Last autumn, Tom Hunt walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain. His family emphasise how much the pilgrim experience meant to him. Back home, he spoke openly of finding peace. He wrote to the Provincial of the relevant religious order, saying he forgave the brutalities of school. Tom was unaware at the time cancer, which would claim him after short and intense struggle in the New Year, had already established a silent but decisive hold. That young man in his late teens, angry and resentful, ended up in London, drifting, flicking through a series of casual jobs. An epiphany landed in his early 20s. By then he was employed in a glass factory, making jam jars. Shift work meant he arrived home to a cold bedsit on Christmas Day.

“Christmas dinner was literally beans on toast,” he would recount.

Meanwhile, he had met Daphne O’Carroll, who was in London to train as a nurse. Change was needed in every regard. He took the decision to return home and enrol in TCD as a mature student, where he read Economics and English. Then came a H-Dip, on foot of his desire to teach.

Sport remained a potent presence. While an undergraduate at Trinity, he founded their GAA club. He kept goal for the hurlers and kicked football at full-back. Belief in progress and opportunity had found a groove. Before coming in 1972 to Kilkenny Vocational School (now Ormonde College), he taught for a period in London, where he was much influenced by observing remedial work with students. The absence of such programmes in Kilkenny dismayed him and he trained as a remedial teacher. Unswerving concern for youngsters with difficulties lay behind all those chats when moving around Kilkenny with his children.

Daphne and Tom, who had married in November 1969, built a house at Scart, a townland outside Dungarvan, in the parish of Gowran. There they raised Órlagh, Thomas, Eoin, Darragh and Tadhg. Tom delighted in their nine grandchildren, beginning with Laoise in 2001. He was firmly involved with Gowran life and Young Irelands GAA Club.

Tom Hunt came in 1980 as Vice Principal to Ballyhale Vocational School (now Scoil Aireagail). He was a tall man of solid build, distinctive for his full beard, a powerful presence. Building on sound work by Jim Devereux, the school’s founding Principal, the newcomer set about initiatives.vvThere was drama via Slógadh, aided by the fluent Irish of his colleague Margaret Loughman. There was public speaking, year on year. Every kind of student responded to his belief in them. He gave up so much of his time (and never more than with the awkward squad, which included me).

Tom Hunt became Principal in 1990 and ensured new buildings were provided in 1997. Retirement fell in 2008. His legacy will never lose lustre. Sport, all the while: basketball, camogie, cross-country, Gaelic football, hurling, soccer, volleyball. Current Kilkenny hurlers Colin Fennelly, Michael Fennelly, Joey Holden and Paul Murphy are former pupils. Another one, John Dalton of Carrickshock, won five Senior All Irelands between 2006 and 2011.

“Tom was an unusual person,” Dalton recalls. “An absolute gentleman, first and foremost. But the most unusual thing was his ability to see potential in lads nobody else rated. He could make a good player, in any sport, out of lads who previously hadn’t shown at all.”

He continued: “Tom was the same with school. He took in people who were expelled from other places, and they never caused a bother in Ballyhale because they had such respect for him. Nobody was ever bigger or smaller than anyone else with Tom Hunt.”

Children take the world as they find it. Teenagers start to learn. Thousands of former students have indelible memories of one teacher. Those memories are individual, highly particular, and still all the same. The man was right in what he said and time, slanting into middle age, only ever made his counsel wiser.

He rounded up five of us into a cross-country team in my last year of school. There was little initial enthusiasm for the task but he cajoled and cajoled. We got going and trained at lunchtime.

Then we were competing in some final on a course at Grennan, beside Thomastown’s hurling pitch, right by the River Nore. We had one real runner, Eddie Devereux. The rest of us were instructed to stay together during the race. Off we went, not too bad. Eventually, a couple of lads wanted to take their chances and make off. “Hunt said we were to stick together,” someone said, cutting the argument. “So we should do that.”

Eventually we ran in behind Eddie, who had finished third, in a knot. By and by, this factor meant that the team, overall, placed first. There was the sort of jubilation that only genuine surprise can bring. Now we are turning the corner at the Norman Keep, full out for the last lap, coming down the incline at a pelt. There is a hard joy in our chests. Suddenly there he was, off to our right, the runners beyond earshot in the wind and Tom, knowing the story, waving his arms, lost in encouraging us on.

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