Having tried and failed to establish rugby in the Gaelic football heartland of north Galway since the 1920s, it must have seemed a tall order to expect anything different when another set of Tuam men embarked on the project in 1970.
Yet 50 years on, Tuam RFC is as much a part of the furniture in the town as next-door neighbours Tuam Stars GAA Club and there is pride in both what has been past and what lies ahead.
Rugby was first played in Tuam in 1925 and then on and off up to the late 1960s. The current iteration, with a team in the top flight of the Connacht Junior League, is now in a position to pat itself on the back, though the Covid-19 pandemic forced the postponement of a 50th anniversary black-tie dinner for the club which had been set for April 11.
Guests of honour were due to have been Tuam’s first club president Murt McCormack and captain, back-rower Tom “Hacker” Maher, now 80, who remembers arriving in the town believing his playing days were over.
“Our first official match was against Corinthians in the Sportsground. Murt McCormack appointed me captain,” Maher said. “I was one of only about three players who knew the rules, the rest were footballers. I’d played for Wexford Wanderers but I’d got married and moved to Tuam and was working as a vet and I thought rugby was behind me.
“But my wife encouraged me to go to the new rugby club. I went up there on a Thursday and met a few lads but Murt told me I was captain and that was it. I didn’t even know the other guys.
“It gathered momentum from there. We got to a Junior Cup final at the end of our first season but we were beaten 5-3 in the Sportsground by Ballinasloe.” The founding members ran a tight ship, Maher explained.
“Leslie Callow came to Tuam as a manager in the sugar factory and he’d been involved with Lansdowne and it was he who laid down what the colours should be, red and blue after Clontarf because our scrum-half, Martin O’Toole, was from there and everything else about the club, the way we would tog out, be on time for training and so forth.
“I look back on it now and we only had 15 or 16 players but we had to have a selectors’ meeting every Tuesday night. In fairness to Leslie, it’s stood the test of time and those standards have always been there. We’ve had a good committee going from that day forward.” An association with the Imperial Hotel, whose owner had provided the club with dressing rooms and showers, also served as an early recruiting tool.
“We always had a good old singsong in the Imperial Hotel on the square and people from the town came in to join in and that’s how we ended up with a lot of players from GAA backgrounds, from the craic in the hotel.” A first provincial trophy came in 1976 when McCormack captained the J2s to the Ard Na Cregg Cup and two years later Tuam reached their second Connacht Junior Cup final, when current treasurer Sean Carter captained the side to a 7-6 defeat to Creggs.
The club moved into current home Garraun Park in 1982 when the occasion was marked by a visit from Ciaran Fitzgerald and many of his Triple Crown-winning team.
Tuam remains a Gaelic football stronghold with St Jarlath’s College at its heart but rugby is now played there as well and the school has won a Connacht development league.
The club has around 200 members from minis up and the first team, captained by scrum-half Alan Tierney, finished third in its first season back in J1A having been promoted after an unbeaten 18-19 campaign.
“Hopefully we can build on it,” Tierney said. “Our second team got promoted from J2 to J1C this year and competed very well in that, finishing fourth in the league, so we’ve two J1 squads and big numbers training with a minimum of 22, 23 players and on big nights we could have 30-35, so that’s special.
“It’s a good way to start the next 50 years. I’d say the club is in the strongest position it’s been and the facilities are great now with the clubhouse and planning permission for an extension with a gym in it, two main pitches and a training pitch. The main pitch is probably one of the best in Connacht and we’ve unbelievable floodlights, which is all down to the committee, there’s massive work gone into the facilities and it’s a credit to them. It’s a great place to play.” Winning the Connacht Junior Cup remains the holy grail and Tierney captains a side coached by former player Barry Ruane, a recently-qualified IRFU Level 4 coach, whom the skipper described as “the glue that binds us all together”.
“The Junior Cup, that would be something and we’ve been in three semi-finals in the last four or five years. So that’s my main aim before I hang up my boots, to win that Junior Cup.” Maher though, has a more philosophical viewpoint.
“Whenever we have a few pints together, Murt will always say to me, ‘we should have won the Junior Cup, Hacker’, and I’ll reply, ‘it’s not that Murt, we’ve established rugby in Tuam, we’ve our own pavilion, our own pitches and lights and now the game is being played in both the Christian Brothers’ and St Jarlath’s and that’s some achievement.”