The headline on the front page of this newspaper 27 years ago last week summed up the story succinctly. In block capitals, it read: “Big Tom is dead – but the legend is immortal”.
“Big Tom O’Reilly is dead. The giant of Cornafean and Cavan football of the 1930s and ‘40s died at his home in Rathgar, Dublin on Sunday last,” began the report.
Big Tom was the second-last member of the 1933 team to pass on to his eternal reward; the last surviving player from that side was his clubmate and cousin, Packie Phair from Killeshandra, who would pass away seven years later.
It seems like ancient history now to recall the groundbreaking teams of the 1930s but, at the time of Big Tom’s death, only 60 years had passed. To put that in perspective, 60 years have now passed since Cavan won the Ulster title in 1962, stopping Down’s bid for a fourth Ulster title and a third All-Ireland in succession, and many of the heroes of that team and the 1964 side are regular attendees at Cavan matches to this day and fit and well as ever. So it was all fresh in the memory for many supporters who had seen him play in the flesh.
George Cartwright’s fantastic biography of John Joe O’Reilly, ‘The Gallant John Joe’, covers the Cornafean legend’s life in exhaustive detail and naturally includes a lot of detail on his immediate and extended family. The thought struck me more than once when reading it that his brother Tom, too, lived a remarkable life, worthy of a book in its own right.
“Apart from his wonderful football exploits, the gentle giant from Cornafean was also a member of the 12th Dáil, a noted builder and property developer and a committed family man,” his obituary noted.
“But it was as a footballer that he will be best remembered.”
His obituary described him as “a man of tremendous character and great popularity” and, while it is customary to eulogise the dead, those words, it seems, were apt; in researching footballers of the era, it is strikingly obvious that Big Tom O’Reilly was held in the absolute highest regard by those who knew him.
Traits of a superstar
The notion of the GAA superstar is well established over recent decades. Big Tom was one of the first, not just in Cavan but nationwide. In the early years of the new free state, he became a household name and he resonated as such for a few decades.
He had all the attributes one associates with stardom; he was heroic on the field, personable off it, supreme in physical stature and very successful.
On the Saturday before the 1937 All-Ireland final, the Irish Press singled out Big Tom specifically in a piece penned under the name ‘Green Flag’.
“Cavan are caught in the grip of football final fever and every Breffni man or woman who can at all manage it will be in Croke Park tomorrow to cheer on Tom O’Reilly and his footballers from Cornafean, Daly’s Bridge, Gowna, Croghan, Drumkilly, Bailieborough and Cavan Town,” it read.
That Sunday, he played one of his greatest games as Cavan drew with Kerry on the big day. ‘Green Flag’ wrote: “For an all-round display of good football, the palm must go to the Cavan skipper as right through, Tom O’Reilly was in the thick of the struggle, covering himself with glory by brilliant fielding and kicking.”
At that time, Cornafean and surrounding areas must have felt like the centre of the footballing universe. Cavan were one of the pre-eminent teams in the country, dominating Ulster and regularly competing in All-Ireland finals at senior level. That year, Cavan also won the All-Ireland Minor Championship and they would retain it the next.
Along with Jim Smith, Big Tom was the face of this movement, a county from Ulster gate-crashing the elite grade, which had previously been dominated by Leinster and Munster teams.
A report on the 1929 league final, played in December, on these pages noted the rude health of football in Cornafean.
“Cornafean is a notorious football district lying in the centre of Killeshandra parish. All the young lads growing up there play the game and remain true to its tradition.”
For the Reds, Big Tom won nine Senior Championship medals, seven as captain. Interestingly, in the 1936 county final, he marked his own brother, Michael. Michael had transferred to Cavan Slashers after a dispute with a club official and lined out at centre half-forward.
Asked by George Cartwright about the awkwardness of having to mark a close relation in a big game, Tom commented: “It wasn’t awkward at all, you went for the ball, that was it. We often marked each other on Young’s hill practising.”
When he first came on to the Cavan team in 1933, he was given the nickname ‘Big Tom’ because of his physical stature and to distinguish himself from Tom O’Reilly, Mullahoran, who also on the team.
He turned 18 in August of 1933 and played midfield the following month as Cavan became the first county from Ulster to win the All-Ireland SFC title. He remained part of the Cavan squad for another 14 years, playing his last match in the 1947 Ulster final win over Antrim, coming on as a sub for the injured John Joe Cassidy. For the Polo Grounds final, he was on the bench.
In all, he played 53 championship matches, including 14 Ulster finals, a phenomenal record by any measure.
In 1950, a couple of years after he had retired from inter-county football, an Irish Press article noted that “young boys in this country grow up wanting to be Big Tom O’Reilly or Johnny Carey”. Dubliner Carey, of course, was then captain of Manchester United; that’s the esteem in which O’Reilly was held.
Like all folk heroes, he was held in almost mythical status. A snippet from these pages, unearthed by Cartwright, is indicative.
“On Monday last, a valuable horse, the property of Henry Martin, Marahill, got into difficulties when drinking at a lake near Killeshandra and swam out for nearly half a mile when he turned back but when 20 yards from the shore, he became stuck in the mud. Mr Tom O’Reilly, captain of the Cavan GAA team, divested himself of his clothing and waded out to his chin with a lasso, which he threw, catching the animal by the neck.
“Then, with assistance, he pulled the horse to safety to the shore, nothing the worse of the adventure.”
Elected to the Dáil
Towards the end of his football career, he tried his hand at politics and was elected to Dáil Eireann, serving a term as a TD from 1944 to 1948.
However, he didn’t seek re-election. After his passing, the usual tributes were paid in the Dáil and Roscommon deputy Tom Foxe then told the following tale.
“In the 1940s a very good friend of mine who was also a good footballer in Co Roscommon was asked to run for the 1948 election. He was not sure whether to accept.
“He met his friend, Big Tom, and asked what he thought of representing Cavan people in the Dáil and whether he would run again.
“Big Tom’s comment was that he would much prefer to go around the county with a bag over his shoulder collecting empty bottles than take on that number again.”
The closing lines of obituary in this newspaper summed up this once-in-a-lifetime figure, a man whose legacy has sometimes been over-shadowed by that of his extraordinary brother John Joe.
“He was a very big man in every way. Ability, physique, character and above all, humility and if I may borrow a quote from Julius Caesar, ‘this was a man’.”