By Jim Fogarty.
Tommy O’Connell was Kilkenny’s top scorer with 3-0 in the drawn All-Ireland senior hurling final of 1959. He finished as 3rd highest scorer nationally in that year in games encompassing inter-county league and championship. He played in four successive Kilkenny county senior finals with the Fenians from 1969 to 1972, winning 2 county senior medals in 1970 and 1972. Among his cohorts on those Fenians teams were P.J.Ryan, father of the man-of –match in this years All-Ireland final, Shem Delaney, father of current star J.J., Nickey Orr, Pat Henderson, Pat Delaney and Johnny Moriarty from Gortnahoe.
How did Tommy, who was born in London, develop his interest in and love for Gaelic Games? When his family moved to Crosspatrick, Tommy recalls being brought on his father’s bicycle to matches in Thurles. His earliest hurling memories are of watching in awestruck wonder the skills of the “Rubber Man” Tommy Doyle. He is a great admirer of Jim Langton of Kilkenny, whom he first saw in action against Laois in Portlaoise in 1948, a championship game, which Kilkenny lost. Tommy first participated in hurling during tea-breaks when working on the bog. Boys of all ages from 6 to 60 pucked the sliotar through foots of turf and over bogholes.
On commencing in Johnstown Tech, Tommy hurled with the school in the St. Kieran’s League. They had many great battles with Freshford, who included among their ranks, Pa Dillon and Sean Buckley, and also with neighbouring Laois teams. On moving to Kilkenny City Tech., Tommy played u-16 and minor hurling with Kilkenny. In the 1957 All-Ireland minor hurling championship, Tommy scored 3-3 in one game, but was not selected for the first fifteen in the All-Ireland final. The minor final of that year was against Tipp, and Tommy recalls that all the chat in the build-up was about Jimmy Doyle’s quest for his 3rd All-Ireland minor medal. Tipp won by 4-7 to 3-7 and indeed the two Doyle brothers, Jimmy and Paddy starred. Tommy came on as a sub for Andy Comerford, the uncle of Andy of the current era, the All-Ireland senior winning captain of 2002. When Tommy was introduced as a sub, he marked Michael Murphy, later the captain of the Tipp senior All-Ireland champions in 1964.
Tommy hurled senior with the Eire Og club in Kilkenny city from 1958 to 1968, but without success. He made his senior inter-county debut with Kilkenny in 1958 in a league match against Dublin in O’Toole Park in 1958. In 1959, Tommy really made his mark at inter-county level in both league and championship. In that year’s championship he scored 3-3 against Laois, 1-2 against Dublin in the Leinster Final, and then top-scored with 3-0 against Waterford, in the drawn All-Ireland final which ended Waterford 1-17 Kilkenny 5-5. His marker in the draw and replay was Joe Harney.
The Kilkenny People preview of the drawn game stated that “ Tommy O’Connell’s task against Joe Harney, who distinguished himself against Cork , is not easy and that the Eire Og man will earn his scores”. Mick Dunne in his Irish Press match report on the day after the drawn final referred to Kilkenny’s great rally with valuable points and amazing goals and wrote “those goals came from the youngest player afield—-19 year old Tommy O’Connell, who managed 3 goals against Joe Harney, a back who hadn’t been beaten for a goal by the great Christy Ring himself in the Munster final”.
Waterford won the replay by 3-12 to 1-10. The Waterford backs had learnt well from the drawn game and Tommy and the other Kilkenny forwards were crowded out. Lets not forget that Tommy at 19 weighed only 9-7. I have heard Kilkenny supporters say that Tommy was “ roughed out of it”. The man himself will not accept that and describes the Waterford team as “hard but fair”. In fact he has great admiration for that Waterford team incorporating such brilliant hurlers as Seamus Power, Philly Grimes, Frankie Walsh, Tom Cheasty, Larry Guinan, etc. He believes that the Waterford team of that era deserved to win more All-Irelands.
In or about that time Tommy recalls travelling to a League Game in Loughiel, Co. Antrim by train. On their return journey as they approached the Border from the Northern side , the train was stopped and boarded by “B Specials” who proceeded to search and interrogate the Kilkenny team. A member of said team, Jim Hennessy of Tullaroan, was taken off the train and detained. This led to the intervention of the Minister for External Affairs on the following day. He procured Jim’s release. Hennessy made light of his experience and later told his colleagues that he had been treated royally ( no pun intended). Seemingly he was mistaken for a man with the same surname, who was active in the I.R.A. Tommy always roomed with Ollie Walsh. One can only guess at the pranks they participated in.
Tommy played on the Kilkenny team in 1960, but they were beaten in the Leinster final by the Wexford team who went on to win the All-Ireland. He wasn’t picked for Kilkenny in 1961 or 1962, perhaps due to Eire Ogs poor form, although he was a sub on the winning NHL side of 1961-62, as indeed he was in 1965-66. He played on Jim English of Wexford in the Leinster championship of 1963 but shortly afterwards he was struck down with appendicitis. He did receive a Leinster medal that year. He also won a Leinster championship medal in 1966, having replaced Tom Walsh in the semi-final against Offaly and scoring a goal.
Tommy’s favourite Kilkenny players include Jim Langton and of the current era J.J. Delaney. Outside of Kilkenny, players he admires include Tommy and Jimmy Doyle. TC as he is affectionately known has made friends throughout the whole of the island and is extremely popular. One is always assured of a good humoured reception when you meet Tommy with the twinkling eyes and hearty laugh.. His power of recall is amazing and he is extremely generous with people who come to chat with him. His thoughtfulness and respect for others is obvious. Hurling in Tommy’s era was a cause for friendship. Nowadays he is known to play a good game of golf and he particularly enjoys meeting former and current hurling acquaintances. Tommy, may you continue for many more years to “drive it straight down the middle”.