One of the heroes of the London hurling team which stunned Galway in 1973, Tom Connolly’s achievements will stand the test of time
By Damian Dolan
If they ever introduce a London GAA Hall of Fame, there’d be a strong case for Tom Connolly’s name to be among the first to be inducted.
From Abbeyknockmoy in Galway, Tom – the father of Republic of Ireland soccer international David – was part of the London team which famously defeated Galway in the 1973 All Ireland quarter-final.
One of the games’ greatest shocks saw London beat Galway, 4-7 to 3-5, at Ballinasloe on 29 July.
Despite losing out to eventual champions Limerick in the semi-final by 1-15 to 0-7, it was Tom who was named man of the match at Cusack Park. A game played over 80 minutes.
Sadly, Tom passed away last week at his home in Farnham Common in Buckinghamshire. He was 75.
Captain of that London team, Gerry Rea, led the tributes to one of London’s most decorated and successful hurlers.
“Limerick had no answer to him that day – Tom was brilliant,” said Rea. “They had their whole half back line on him, but they couldn’t stop him.”
He added: “You’d have Tom in any team – he was a good strong player and a true Brian Boru man.”
Tom was a mainstay, along with his late brother Martin, of that famed Brian Boru team. Two other brothers Brendan and Billy, also hurled for the club.
A “dedicated and passionate” member of Brian Boru, Tom won 11 senior hurling titles with the club between 1962 and 1982.
It was just the tip. He also amassed six senior hurling leagues, five Collins Cups, and eight provincial championships of Britain, amongst other titles, cups and leagues.
Those eight All-Britain titles included the inaugural hurling championship in 1964 – Boru’s beating St Chads of Warwickshire in the decider at New Eltham.
Twice he did the ‘senior double’ in London – hurling and football – in 1971 and 1979, with Brian Boru and Parnells.
His achievements will surely never be matched.
Tom came to London in 1960 when he was 15 – one of the first things he did was head to Wembley for the annual festival of Gaelic games.
He watched his native Galway in action against Down in the football, followed by a hurling exhibition, before returning to his digs in Kilburn.
He made contact with the Brian Boru club, after seeing contact details for the club’s secretary in the programme.
It was with the bigger ball, though, that Tom made his debut at New Eltham in 1961. He helped Brian Boru’s footballers win an intermediate title. The same year, he also played a part in the club’s intermediate hurling league success.
By the time he was 17 he’d established himself in the Brian Boru first-team.
He “invariably gained man of the match status during the halcyon years of 1962, 1963 and 1964 when Brian Boru won three senior titles in a row following [a] lack of success in this particular grade over the previous six years.”
By 1963 he was also playing for London and was in the side which won a Junior All-Ireland – beating Antrim in the final at Casement Park by 4-7 to 3-6. Tom lined out at right half back.
In 1965 he was on the Exiles team which lost to Cork in the All-Ireland intermediate final.
Tom was forced to leave the field with a face injury just before half-time after causing the Cork defence “no little trouble in the opening 20 minutes”.
He then helped London clinch back-to-back intermediate All Irelands in 1967 (versus Cork by four points at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick) and in 1968 when Dublin were their opponents at Croke Park.
In the late ‘60s he was also part of the London team which played Wicklow at Wembley.
Living in Willesden Junction at the time, he’d later recall just driving up to the ground and parking his car right outside of the stadium.
His father came over from Galway especially for the game and in a 2015 interview Tom spoke of how he “cut out a sod with a pen-knife, somehow got it home and planted it in the garden in Abbeyknockmoy”.
In 2010, he returned to Wembley to watch his son David win the Football League Trophy with Southampton.
Seated in the Royal Box that afternoon, Tom’s thoughts no doubt drifted back to that day 50 years earlier, when he watched his first GAA game there.
It was after the second of those intermediate titles that Congress voted in favour of London’s request to move up to senior.
London treasurer Johnny Moriarty had pleaded with Congress to “give us a trial for a year or two and then throw us out again”.
“Croke Park told us in 1967 that if we won the intermediate again they’d let us up to senior, and we did (in 1968). We hammered Dublin in Croke Park by 24 points,” Tom told the Irish World in 2018.
“For one of those Intermediate All Irelands there was 13 Boru men on the panel, and I think 11 played. That’s how strong the Brian Boru were.
“They were a great club and all they were interested in was training hard.”
In 1969, London made their return to the All Ireland senior hurling championship – after an absence stretching back to 1913. Kilkenny were the opponents.
When Tom’s free from fully 60 yards sailed straight into the net midway through the second half, the gap was just five points. But Kilkenny finished strongly to progress to the final.
Defeat to Cork followed in 1970, and Kilkenny inflicted a 2-23 to 2-8 defeat at Croke Park in 1971.
But London had stayed with the Cats in the first half – it was 1-7 a piece at the break – with Tom one of several London players who “had hurled as good as any of the Kilkenny side”.
Cork racked up a chastening tally of 7-20 in 1972, with Tom contributing 1-1 to London’s score of 1-12.
But in 1973, under the stewardship of Paddy Ryan and having honed themselves on the pitch at Wormwood Scrubs, London vindicated Croke Park’s decision to elevate them to senior with that legendary victory over Galway.
Tom also served Brian Boru as chairperson – he was appointed in 1979 following the passing of Paddy Ryan. His secretary was Seán Reid, who recently passed away.
“When I took over from Paddy, Seán was secretary, and the club went on to win three championships between 1979 and 1982,” recalled Tom, when speaking to the Irish World just last month.
In 1982 he claimed another double – a junior football championship with Brian Boru, to add to his eleventh and final senior London hurling winners medal.
By the time Tom retired from playing in 1986, his exploits in the game read like a ‘Who’s Who’.
In 2010, he was named in a London hurling legends team – picked by a special committee to select the best hurlers to have lined out for the Exiles between 1960 and 2010. Tom was there at centre forward – his brother Martin at centre half back.
“A London hurling Legend’
Ambrose Gordon – a St Gabriel’s man since 1963 – was part of the London team which won back-to-back All-Irelands in ’67 and ’68, and was a close friend of Tom’s.
“I was Gabriel’s and he was Brian’s and there was a fantastic rivalry, but we always socialised together. I had so much respect for Tom – he was a great man,” said Gordon.
“Tom was a London hurling legend; the Connollys were the backbone for the Brian Borus for 25 years. His will to win was unbelievable.”
Gordon was on the bench that day in 1973 when, in front of 19,000, London beat Galway to pull off one of the shocks of all time.
“It was the greatest victory I’ve ever seen – London were just amazing,” said Gordon.
“Tom was centre forward and he was one of the leaders. His team talks in the dressing room would lift the walls.”
He added: “In 1972 he marked Gerald McCarthy of Cork, and McCarthy poleaxed him across the head because Tom was getting the better of him. Tom just bandaged his head and off he went again. He was some man.”
For all his accomplishments on the hurling and football field, nothing gave Tom as much pleasure as seeing David selected to play for the Republic of Ireland.
David scored nine goals in 41 caps for Ireland and played at the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan.
“I have wonderful memories of playing the game, but I was just as excited when my son (David) became a professional footballer and made the Ireland team,” said Tom.
One of his proudest moments was David’s hat-hat-trick against Liechtenstein in 1997 in Dublin. Tom was there that night.
David is the youngest of three children born to Tom and his late wife Margaret. The others being Caroline and Samantha.
In his poem ‘The men of the famed Black and Amber’, Paddy Ryan paid a glowing tribute to Tom: ‘Long life to the great Tom Connolly too, I pray that he’ll never grow old. His name will be linked here with hurling, when tales of the great games are told’.
Tom “remains part of London folklore” wrote former London GAA secretary Jerry Daly in a Brian Boru anniversary book.
He said: “Ask anybody associated with London hurling as to who they would rate as one of the outstanding players spanning a period from the early sixties until the present day and the overwhelming reply would be Tom Connolly.”
‘He’d put his head where most people wouldn’t put their foot’
Tommie Donohue, a former teammate of Tom’s at Brian Boru and Parnells was amongst those to pay tribute. What marked the Galway native out for Donohue was his “will to win”.
“He’d put his head where most people wouldn’t put their foot,” said Donohue.
“He was brilliant; once he got that ball there was no stopping him. You couldn’t mark him; he was just so strong and powerful. He was like a mini tank.”
He added: “If you ask me, was he a great? His record stands. He’d have to go down as one of the greats – he had no fear.”
Suffering from a bad ankle injury, just a week before a football county final with Parnells, Donohue was despatched to see a doctor in Harley Street, who was accustomed to treating elite athletes.
When he discovered that Donohue played hurling, he asked ‘do you know Tom Connolly?’ Donohue answered in the affirmative.
It transpired that he’d treated Tom for a cartilage injury a few years before, and had been taken aback by his physical fitness.
“He said Tom had the fittest and most powerful body he’d ever seen,” said Donohue. “He was super fit; when he togged out, he had these powerful arms. He was a pure machine.”
Tipperary man Johnny Barrett, who was on the London team that beat Galway in 1973, remembered Tom as a “strong tough hurler”.
“When he put on the jersey, with whatever team, he was always very determined to win, no matter what game it was,” said Barrett, who joined Brian Boru in 1961.
“He took no prisoners; it was ball man and all.”
He added: “It was always exciting to be in the dressing room when he got fired up – and when he got fired up there was no stopping him.”
Former Parnells chairman Joe Regan called Tom one of London’s greatest-ever hurlers and footballers, and a fantastic servant of the Parnells club.
Adrian Woulfe joined the Brian Borus in 1985, and recalled how Tom would pick him up to go training.
“I had great respect for him; when he spoke you listened. When Tom Connolly wanted something done, he’d go and do it,” said Woulfe.
“He was a fantastic clubman and it was an honour to have known him.”