By Damian Dolan
An “inspirational character” is how Sean McDermotts stalwart Noel McLean remembers Fr Tom Scully OMI.
His death on 7 April at St James’ Hospital in Dublin due to complications related to the coronavirus drew tributes from far and wide.
A native of Aharney, near Tullamore, he would have turned 90 on 16 May.
Quite simply, Fr Scully left an indelible mark wherever he went – not least on one small corner of Birmingham, Sean McDermotts.
Having so nearly worked his magic to deliver Offaly a first-ever All Ireland in 1969, Fr Scully proved to be the missing piece in the aspiring Warwickshire club’s jigsaw, in its quest for provincial glory.
Founded in 1957, Macs worked its way up from junior to claim a first Warwickshire senior football title in 1970.
Not only had the “up and coming” team in the county finally arrived, it was to be the beginning of a sustained period of dominance for the club.
Fr Scully, who had already served a year as Lancashire County Board secretary, would help it to take the next step.
After unsuccessful assaults on the provincial championship in 1970 and 1971 – the latter when they lost out in the final to London’s Sean Treacys by 2-10 to 0-10 – Fr Scully’s arrival was the “extra bit” the team was looking for.
“He gave us a layer of confidence,” Noel told the Irish World. “He arrived with a great reputation; if you lead a team in Ireland you have to have qualities.
“He made a huge contribution to Sean McDermotts.”
With Fr Scully as coach, as well as vice chairperson, McDermotts finally achieved provincial success in 1972 – beating London’s Parnells in the final.
It was the first time since the introduction of the provincial competition in 1964, that the cup had left London.
— Philip Francis Nolan PC (@philipfnolan) April 10, 2020
By 1973, Fr Scully was chairperson and Macs were riding the crest of a wave.
They went on to make it back-to-back provincial titles, beating St Dympnas of Hertfordshire in that year’s decider.
“People looked up to him and respected him for what he’d already achieved, and we weren’t disappointed. He was always doing something new at training,” recalls Noel.
In 1975 Fr Scully reverted back to being vice chairperson with Noel taking over as trainer – the club won its third provincial title that year, defeating The Kingdom in the final.
Noel would later serve as chairperson – a position he occupied for 25 years.
In May 1997, an Irish World interview with Fr Scully, written by Larry Cooney, spoke of his “special aura and charisma” and “gifted leadership qualities”.
A man of “conviction” who carried himself with an “assertive swagger”, but possessing the ability to treat “all people as equals”.
Larry was well-placed to comment – Fr Scully had taught him mathematics in the late ‘60s. They’d remained friends ever since.
Leinster GAA Chairperson and former Chairperson of Offaly Association (Dublin), Pat Teehan, described Fr Scully above all else as a “warm human being”.
“Whenever you met him he oozed positivity, with his broad smile, warm handshake and optimistic outlook on life,” he said.
Fr Scully served the (Dublin) Offaly Association as Vice-President in 1967 and President in 1968.
Offaly chairperson Michael Duignan spoke of a “brilliant man” who “helped so many people during his life, particularly Irish people who fell on hard times in London”.
Fr Scully went on to be an influential figure within London’s Irish community between 1986 and 1991 in his role as Director of the London Irish Centre in Camden.
Fr Scully was “known for his compassion and care for people”, said the centre’s CEO Ellen Ryan.
He was responsible for the opening of the centre’s original day centre (capable of catering for 150 elderly people), which remains to this day a “thriving part of our ingoing work”.
“I am sure that he would be very proud of the way the essence of that compassion and care has been utilised to respond to the current public health crisis and the way in which we have held the needs of those who are in the most need close. We will always do this,” added Ellen.
In May 1988, RTÉ came to the centre to interview him upon the opening of the day centre.
Renowned as an innovative trainer and a motivator, Fr Scully was appointed Offaly senior coach in the autumn of 1968.
He immediately introduced a short handpassing style of play based on his ‘Three Gs’ concept – (i) Get the ball (ii) Give it (pass) and (iii) Go and make space to receive a pass.
In May 1969, he guided Offaly to a first-ever league final. Kerry beat them by 12 points, but something was stirring in the Faithful.
It was also in 1969 – during Offaly’s run to the Leinster final – that Fr Scully had his first taste of life in Britain, when he was posted as a supply priest to London to assist Fr Doran in Quex Road, Kilburn.
Offaly defeated Westmeath, Wexford and Kildare in winning Leinster. It was the county’s third provincial title, and their first since 1961.
Fr Tom Scully has sadly passed to his eternal reward. His many achievements in life included coaching the Offaly Senior Football team which won the Leinster final and reached the All Ireland final in 1969. R.I.P. https://t.co/qSuUs6EiiR
— Official Offaly GAA (@Offaly_GAA) April 7, 2020
Fr Scully was back in time for Offaly’s All Ireland semi-final with Cavan – a game that needed a replay.
The final offered a rematch with Kerry, who would again prevail, but this time the margin was only three points. Kingdom captain and goalkeeper Johnny Culloty produced a couple of crucial saves.
In December 1969, Fr Scully began a one-year teaching appointment at St Benedict’s College Johannesburg, and so was not involved in Offaly’s first All Ireland triumph of 1971, and their successful defence the following year.
But for many – not least 1971 Footballer of the Year Eugene Mulligan – it was Fr Scully who laid the “foundations” for those victories under Fr Tom Gilhooley.
Upon completing his second level education at Belcamp College, Dublin, in 1948, Fr Scully entered the Oblate Novitiate. He was ordained in September 1955.
Assigned to Belcamp, he taught mathematics for the next 13 years, up to 1969. He was also Games Master.
It was here he developed his “innovative game tactics” and “motivational coaching” in both football and hurling.
In 1965 and 1968 he guided Belcamp to senior All Ireland football finals – turning the college into a football nursery. It brought him to the attention of the Offaly County Board.
When Kilkenny hurling star Frank Cummins – a former Belcamp hurler/footballer – was inducted into the GAA Hall of Fame at Croke Park, a couple of years ago, he invited Fr Scully to join him for the event. Frank described Fr Scully as a “great motivator”.
— Michael Cleary (@MichaelCleary14) April 7, 2020
Another former Belcamp student said that as a coach, Fr Scully was “far ahead of his time” – encouraging them to play with “style” and developing tactics “that have been copied many times since”.
He returned to England in the autumn of 1970, working as an Irish Emigrant Chaplain in Moss Side, Manchester.
His stay lasted only a year, but in that time he served Lancashire GAA as secretary and was “instrumental” in acquiring the facility at Hough End, which is still used to this day.
He left in 1971 to become director at Catholic Housing Aid in Birmingham – a role he fulfilled for four years. That led him to Sean McDermotts.
His next appointment was as pastor at St Peter’s Parish, Leigh-on-Sea, Southend, in 1976, where he remained until 1981.
He returned to Ireland between 1981 to 1986 as Parish Priest at Our Lady of the Wayside, Bluebell, Dublin.
After his time with the London Irish Centre, Fr Scully returned to St Peter’s (1991-1997).
On 24 May 1997, The Offaly Association in London paid a formal tribute to him at a special function at the Irish Centre in Camden.
After a short appointment to St John Ogilvie Parish in Edinburgh, in 1989/90 he was recipient of the Offaly Person of the Year award for his contribution to the Irish in Britain.
He returned to Ireland in 1999 and Inchicore, where he continued to live in retirement.
In line with Government and HSE advice regarding public gatherings, a small private funeral will be held for Fr Scully. A Memorial Service will take place at a later date.