Paul Rouse: Belief central to Fr Tom Scully’s sermon to the Faithful

My granddad and nana are playing, so it has to be before 1983. My father and mother are playing. Bridie Murphy is playing. Our next-door neighbour, Tom Ravenhill, a serious card-player, is playing. Fr Tom Scully is playing.
Paul Rouse: Belief central to Fr Tom Scully’s sermon to the Faithful

The fire is burning hot in the hearth and there is a card game is full swing.

There is noise. Endless noise. Happy noise.

My granddad and nana are playing, so it has to be before 1983. My father and mother are playing. Bridie Murphy is playing. Our next-door neighbour, Tom Ravenhill, a serious card-player, is playing. Fr Tom Scully is playing.

And I, too, am sitting at the big table for the first time, the eighth hand, up out of the bed to be dealt a hand of cards. I’m sitting with my back to the fire, an 11-year old man (or maybe 10), and the cards falling on the table. My little brothers are all in bed, the only place for them.

It’s late into the evening. The game, of course, is 25 and it’s serious. But it’s only serious because it’s a chance to poke. And poke. And keep on poking until there’s a reaction.

Fr Tom is home from England and he’s at the centre of it all. Many people walk through our front door, but there is nobody like Fr Tom.

He is a mathematician, sharp and precise and clear. But that’s not it, or at least not all of it.

He has a charisma and an energy and a way of being positive that fills a room in a way that is utterly unique.

And his only interest in the card-game tonight is winding up my granddad — Dick ‘The Boiler’ Conroy. They have a long and wonderful friendship that is rooted in football, and Fr Tom knows exactly how to get The Boiler to blow.

He goads my granddad about how he didn’t rate such-and-such a footballer – and a year later that man was an All-Star. And is now acclaimed as one of the greats.

The bait swings through the air. The Boiler knows he’s being goaded. He knows he needs to ignore it. But he can’t. The steam is too much. The lid comes off. And the room convulses again.

It’s 1969 and Fr Tom Scully walks into the Offaly senior football dressing room.

Through the 1960s, he has trained Belcamp College in Dublin. And in these years, that boarding school for boys, also a juniorate for the Oblate Fathers, has won three Leinster schools football championships — taking down the old powers such as St Mel’s of Longford.

He has also trained any Offaly players living in the city, driving them in famously tough sessions.

And now he is back down in Tullamore, the man newly in charge of an inter-county team that is stuck in a rut. There are veteran players who were bitterly unlucky to lose to Down in the 1961 All-Ireland final — men like Paddy McCormack, Greg Hughes, and the team captain Johnny Egan.

And there are younger men such as Martin Furlong, Tony McTague, and Willie Bryan who had won the county its only All-Ireland minor football title.

But they are stuck. The optimism of the early 1960s has given way to a sort of torpor that hangs over the team.

When Fr Tom goes to the clubroom at O’Connor Park in Tullamore to meet the players for the first time, he is struck by how miserable the mood is. There are players who are talking about retirement and other players who are about to emigrate.

A county board official tells him that he is wasting his time.

But Fr Tom never wastes time. He sets about getting the players to train hard.

And train they do.

He just has a way with people and they want to play better for him. And he’s really astute on the field. He shifts the team around, tries new approaches, just as he had with Belcamp, and they prosper in the spring.

From nowhere, Offaly make a National Football League final for the first time in history. They are hammered by Kerry, 3-11 to 0-8, and that’s disappointing, but it’s no disaster. The upswing is there for all to see.

The spirit in the team is growing. And the bond with the players is tightening. He gives a few of the players, led by

Willie Bryan, the loan of his car to go to Athlone.

They drink pints and pints. They bring the car back to his house intact — and Fr Tom drops them back into town for more pints.

He lends the car more than once that summer.

The months roll on and Offaly cruise through the Leinster Championship — no team gets within five points of them. It is only the third time ever that Offaly have won the Leinster Championship.

Cavan take them to a replay in the All-Ireland semi-final, but that replay is won and it’s back to a rematch with Kerry.

Offaly are much better now in September than they were back in the spring. Fr Tom thinks they will beat Kerry. More than that, he believes they will. Fully believes.

But, on the day, it doesn’t happen.

Offaly play poorly and lose a disappointing final: 0-10 to 0-7.

It is Fr Tom’s last real match as Offaly manager; by early 1970 he is sent to teach maths in Johannesburg.He hates the system, hates apartheid, gets out as quickly as he can.

It’s May 1988. The RTÉ cameras are in Camden Town and Fr Tom is talking to the reporter, Leo Enright. Fr Tom is now the Director of the Irish Centre in London, and a new wave of Irish emigrants has filled London’s streets.

Fr Tom is running services to help those people adjust to a new life, drawing them into a network where those who need it can be supported.

But he also has another plan. He has been in England for nearly two decades now and he has seen the way life has pulled at that wave of emigrants who had come to the city in the 1940s and 1950s.

He doesn’t just lament it, he confronts it.

So he sets up a day centre in the Irish Centre to cater for more than 150 older people, giving lunch and a place to chat and play cards and take classes.

Most of the people in the centre are Irish, but some are English or from across Europe. He wants them to mix together to understand each other, to understand the different cultures.

Many times, Fr Tom says that loneliness is a thing that knows no nationality.

And this is a way to beat down the loneliness.

It’s 2018. Fr Tom is back in the front -room where the cards were played nearly four decades previously. His sight is as good as gone.

And he’s talking about why Offaly lost to Kerry in 1969. The cut of that defeat is still felt. He’s not consumed by it — nothing as ridiculous as that. His life has carried too much to be defined or soured by a lost match.

They didn’t believe, he says. They didn’t believe.

Actually, no. Most of them believed. But a couple didn’t, and that’s why we lost.

But his whole body rises with his words, as he explains again why Offaly lost.

Most of all, he still can’t understand that any of his players could not believe. He’s up in the chair, alive, back running through the game, as if it can be changed, as if time’s arrow can be reversed.

There are no cards played, but the mind is as lucid as ever. He tells stories about London and Belcamp, about The Boiler and Nan. He laughs at the memory of The Boiler, a selector with him on the sideline in 1969, tormented beside the dugout in front of the Cusack Stand, arguing and arguing for a change to be made.

And that great, wild laugh fills the room.

But he doesn’t just talk and tell stories, he also listens. And he asks.

What is wrong with Offaly football. Why is it where it is? Why did you not beat Clare in the All-Ireland qualifiers?

Did they not believe, he asks? Did you not believe?

It’s a Tuesday morning in April 2020 and Darren Frehill is on Morning Ireland on RTÉ radio. Fr Tom Scully, who trained Offaly to reach the All-Ireland final in 1969, has died, he says.

Pat Nolan writes a fine tribute in the Irish Mirror.

In that tribute, one of Fr Tom’s players, Eugene Mulligan, laments the loss of his old trainer: “He was down at Mick O’Rourke’s funeral, he was down at Johnny Egan’s funeral, all the things that had happened, Fr Scully would be knocking around. He was definitely a players’ man and the sad thing about it is, he’s going to his grave and not one of us can be near it to pay him some bit of respect, which saddens me anyway and I know it saddens a lot of other fellas as well. We’d stand on our heads for him.”

County chairman Michael Duignan says on Twitter that he was a “brilliant man who helped so many people during his life, particularly Irish people who fell on hard times in London. A great ambassador for Offaly throughout his life and a very proud GAA man who was also a mighty chat and very easy company”. And all of that is true.

Fr Tom was less than a week in hospital, pulled down by the Covid-19 virus a month short of his 90th birthday. He was on the phone in the days before he went, endlessly positive, accepting of who he was and where he was.

Believing to the end.

Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin

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