Tomas O'Laoi (1905-2001) - A Major Figure

County Tipperary Supplement, The Examiner, March 6, 2001


There's a story told about Tom Lee from the sixties. It was the period of the NFA marches to Dublin, about the time that Charlie Haughey was Minister for Agriculture. A number of farmers were picketing in Kildare Street, Dublin when one of them noticed a man walking the footpath on the other side of the street. He shouted to the others: There's the man who beat us in 1928!'

The speaker was none other than John Joe Sheehy, the former Kerry footballer. The man he was pointing to was Tom Lee, then an inspector in the Department of Education. The match he was referring to was played in Tipperary Town on July 8, 1928, the last time a Tipperary senior football team defeated Kerry in a Munster championship game. Tom Lee, playing at centrefield, contributed significantly to Tipperary's victory on that day.

Born in Lisvernane in the Glen of Aherlow in 1905, Tom Lee was the second last of a family of nine. (The last, Monsignor Christopher Lee, Cashel is still alive and will be ninety years on March 26.) He went to Lisvernane National School, where his father, Chris Lee, was principal. Before him the grandfather, Tom Christ Lee, held the position and the young boy had taken his name from the grandfather.

After national school Tom spent five years as a boarder in Rockwell College, 1917-1922. His arrival there coincided with a dramatic change in the outlook of the college. Fr. Johnny Byrne became President of Rockwell in 1916. He was inbued with things Irish and under his guidance rugby and cricket gave way to football and hurling. No rugby was played between October 1917 and September 1925. Tom once related how an old rugby ball was placed on a tree stump with the inscription: 'We refuse to kick this.' The boys played gaelic football from September to Christmas and hurling from Christmas to summer. Rockwell won the Munster schools' senior football cup (Corn Ui Mhuiri) and the senior hurling cup (Harty Cup) in 1918.

Tom Lee, coming from the Glen of Aherlow, was firstly a footballer. But he showed his prowess in other areas as well. In his last year he captained the hurling and football teams but also the athletics team. The college didn't win in hurling or football but they sent a team of six athletes to Croke Park and brought back the College of Science trophy. This was the last year that athletics were organised by the G.A.A. and Tom's contribution to Rockwell's victory was a personal tally of four gold and two silver medals.

But if he excelled on the field of play, Tom Lee was also outstanding academically. After completing his secondary education he went on to U.C.C. on a scholarship, where he completed his B.A. and an M.A. in history. He was the first student to do his thesis through Irish. While in UCC he played football, winning Sigerson Cup medals in 1922, 1924 and 1925. He also played hurling, captaining the college team to victory in the Fitzgibbon Cup in 1925. In 1926 he played for St. Finbarr's and won a Cork senior hurling championship when the team sensationally defeated Blackrock in the final after scoring four goals in the last six minutes to turn a deficit of eleven points into a single point victory. He played with Cork also until he was persuaded by Johnny Leahy to declare for his native Tipperary.

Tipperary's victory over Kerry in the 1928 Munster semi-final was a bit of a sensation. Hopes weren't too bright beforehand. Tipperary football had been decimated by emigration for a number of years beforehand. In a preview of the game the Tipperary Star1 admitted that Kerry would be favourites but it detected a few hopeful signs in Tipp's chances. One was the addition of Tom McCarthy, a robust member of the Garda Siochana, who captained Dublin the previous year. Con Keane of Cashel, better know as a hurler, was also a good footballer. The preview continued: Further powerful aid to the Tipp side will be lent by the services of Tom Lee, that brilliant footballer from 'the Glen'. During his time in U.C.C. he played consistently good football and he has already done wonderful work in inter-county games for the old county. Tipperary can regard itself as being lucky to have him to-morrow.' Tipperary won by 1-7 to 2-3. A number of factors contributed to the victory. The selection committee had made a good choice. The team stuck to its task with determination for a gruelling sixty minutes. There was also the fact that Kerry had approached the game in a casual way and only woke up to the fact of having a fight on their hands in the second half. Finally there was the magnificent defence of the home backs who held out against desperate onslaughts from the visitors in the second half.

However, it was a kind of pyrrhic victory. Although the game could not be described as dirty, Tipperary had four injured players. Two of them, Jim Davey and Tom McCarthy, never played again. Tipperary went into the final against Cork at Dungarvan on August 5 a bit over-confident. But they didn't perform on the day, showed none of the fighting qualities they displayed against Kerry and were well-beaten by 4-3 to 0-2.

Tom Lee recalled the game in an interview some years ago: 'I have very unhappy memories of that match. I was very tired (having stayed in Ring on Saturday night and walked with Micheal O Cionnghaola across the Coinigear on Sunday morning.) Also, an unbelievable thing happened during the match, a few minutes before the end. I was about forty yards from our goal. The ball had been kicked in high from midfield and, as it passed over my head, I heard a whistling sound from it. Dick Heffernan, our full-back ran towards it, caught it, only to find it flatten in his hands, with the air still whistling out of it. It fell to the ground and did not hop. Dick picked it up again and held it up in one hand, shouting at the referee that the ball was punctured. He, of course didn't know what was going on and didn't blow his whistle. A Cork forward ran in and fisted the deflated ball to the net. We remonstrated but to no avail. The flag was put us and the goal stood. We lost the match.'

Lee's prowess as a footballer was recognised the following year when he was picked on the Munster Railway Cup team. He had to play in the half-forward line because Kerry wanted their own centrefield. He kept passing the ball but the Kerry forwards didn't make much use of it and Munster were beaten. He continued to play for Tipperary for a number of years.

Meanwhile, Tom Lee, having completed his studies in Cork decided to go to St. Patrick's Teacher Training College in Dublin to train as a primary teacher. His father was intending to retire in 1930 and desired Tom to take his place. Because of his degrees he had to spend only one year in St. Pat's. He returned in 1928 as assistant to his father in Lisvemane and, when the father retired in 1930, was appointed to succeed him by the Parish Priest. However, the Department of Education wouldn't sanction it because he hadn't the required five years experience for the job. But, the P.P. persisted and he eventually got departmental approval.

But, he didn't remain long in the position. In 1932 he was requested by St. Patrick's to take up the position of Professor of History and Geography in the college as the authorities were introducing the study of subjects through Irish and Tom was admirably qualified. He remained there for a number of years before he was appointed a departmental inspector, based in Cork, in which job he remained until he retired. And, even after that he took up another job in oral Irish in U.C.C.!

When he returned to St. Patrick's in 1932 he played football with the college team, Erin's Hope, and they won a Dublin county championship in that year. What is significant about this victory is that it was only the second time the team had won the championship. The first time was in 1887, the first year it was played. There was an interesting family connection with that team. Tom Lee's father, Chris, was a founder of that team, was responsible for its name and had played in the championship!

Tom Lee was a major figure. As well as a scholar and academic, he had a great love of the Irish language and an intense devotion to it. He was strongly devoted to the Catholic Church and emphasised that devotion in his life. He had a love of Gaelic culture and games and promoted them through his playing and support of them. He was quite a musician, an accomplished flute player and he moved easily from the traditional to the classical. He sang a song well and composed ballads and poems. He was also the outdoor type and enjoyed many an hour catching trout or shooting game. He was an all-round man in the mould of a Renaissance figure.

Tom Lee was laid to rest in St. Oliver's Cemetery, Model Farm Road, near Ballincollig on February 23, 2001. The Tipperary county board was represented by chairman, Con Hogan. His contribution to Tipperary football was recognised by the presence of Michael Frawley, chairman of the football board, Michael Power, treasurer, Hugh Kennedy, past chairman, Pat Moroney, county coaching officer, Tom and declan Ryan, Clonoulty, and Dick Cummins, Fethard. They came to say goodbye to a major figure and to the last surviving member of the team that conquered Kerry in the 1928 Munster senior football championship.