Fr Tom Scully (on right) at the presentation of the 1998 Offaly Person of the Year Award to the late Seamus Carroll by Noel Tynan, Coolderry, sponsor of the Award. TT1561GS
IN terms of his overall life story, the many fine things achieved and the widespread legacy he leaves behind, the GAA actually played a somewhat brief, almost peripheral role for Fr Tom Scully. He may have remained a passionate GAA fan throughout a long life that was lived to the full but his hands on involvement was over almost in the blink of an eye.
Yet the GAA is the thing that Fr Tom Scully is remembered primarily for in his beloved native Offaly. He did one year as Offaly senior football manager, 1969 and while his contribution to what happened just two years later should not be overstated, it was nonetheless hugely influential and has been widely acknowledged by players from that golden era.
Under his watch, Offaly lost to Kerry in both the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship and National Football League finals – it was a bitter double whammy, a most distasteful pill to have to swallow but it was a very important stepping stone for that young team. The lessons they learnt in that year and in 1970 when they surrendered a huge half time lead as they lost to Meath in the Leinster final were to serve them very well as they won the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship for the first time in 1971 and retained it a year later.
Fr Tom Scully took over as Offaly manager during a time of great optimism and expectations for the county. It was a tremendous time for Offaly football – they had won their first Leinster senior football title in 1960 and reached the All-Ireland final for the first time in 1961, edged out by Down in a legendary decider in front of a record attendance in Croke Park.
After that there was a hiatus at senior level for a few years but tremendous work was taking place at underage level. They won the Leinster Minor Football Championship in 1960, 1962, 1964 and 1965 – and the coup-de-grace came in 1964 when they won the All-Ireland minor football title for the first and only time, defeating Cork in a drama packed decider.
As many of those young heroes were bedded in with stalwarts from 1960 and 1961, Offaly football supporters had great hope but there was plenty of disappointment along the way, tough defeats that helped to build character and instil the fortitude that helped them reach the promised land within a few years.
In 1967, Offaly were pipped by Meath in the Leinster final while their 1968 defeat by neighbours Laois in the Leinster semi-final was a hard blow to take – not only was it against great local rivals but it was also a fairly comprehensive 0-11 to 0-6 reverse. In 1969, the wheel began to turn as Offaly won Leinster with wins over Westmeath, Wexford and Kildare. Cavan were dispatched in a replayed All-Ireland semi-final but the final against Kerry proved a bridge too far as they lost by 0-10 to 0-7.
That was a tough, dour, uncompromising game of football and it did not leave many lasting memories for neutrals but for Offaly, they took the hard lessons on board. Without playing well, Offaly had their chances to win with a couple of particularly good goal openings and within two years they were the finished product, a team in their prime with the confidence to match.
In 1969, Offaly were still a team in transition – they had the famed 1960, 1961 full back line of Paddy McCormack, Greg Hughes and Johnny Egan. The 1964 All-Ireland minor champions were represented by Martin Furlong, Eugene Mulligan, Mick Ryan, Willie Bryan and Tony McTague while there was a smattering of players from the earlier minor teams. When Offaly won in 1971, Furlong, McCormack, Nick Clavin, Ryan, Bryan, McTague, Sean Cooney and Sean Evans were there from the team defeated in ‘69 while Larry Coughlan was a teak tougher corner back on the 1972 side that trounced Kerry in a replayed final.
There had been controversy before the final in 1969 when team captain, Pat Monaghan from Ballycumber was left off the team, and John Egan was the captain on the day – Monaghan had played at corner forward in the replay win over Cavan and his place went to Sean Kilroy of St Carthage’s for the final and that controversy was debated for many years afterwards and still crops up now and again.
While Fr Tom Scully went to South Africa on the missions at the end of that year, some Offaly people from that era believe that his services were not wanted by the County Board – he had a close relationship to many of the players and in addition to being a father type figure, he was also a close friend and confidant and some feel this may have been a factor.
Either way, the exact train of events are now confined to history and memories and Fr Tom was replaced by another priest, the Tullamore based Fr Tom Gillooley who guided them to the big successes in 1971 and 1972. There was a huge clerical involvement in Offaly GAA in those years – Fr Edward Vaughan was replaced by Fr John McWey, who was chair in 1971/1972 and after a brief one year term by Tullamore’s Alo Kelly, the then Mucklagh based and now Tullamore, Fr Sean Heaney came in and remained at the helm during a tremendous era for Offaly football and hurling into the mid 1980s.
Fr Tom Scully played a pivotal role in developing the 1971/’72 heroes not only into the footballers that they became but also the men that emerged as they matured and grew up. A very personable and jovial man, he had the great ability to converse and interact with people older than him – at the time, Fr Tom would not have been that much older than some of the elder statesmen on the squad: he did his Leaving Certificate in 1949 and was in his late 80s when he died.
While he spent far more of his life outside Offaly than inside it, his passion and commitment to his native county never left him. He remained in close contact with many of the players from the 1960s/1970s and while in ill health in recent years, he visited some of them when he could – memorably paying a visit to Paddy McCormack in Rhode after he celebrated his 80th birthday in the past couple of years.
Survived by his sisters Nance Hanlon, Mary Garry, Rose Cleary, Margaret Henry and Lily MacDonald, brothers Ned and Michael and extended families, a memorial Mass will be celebrated for the repose of his soul once the coronavirus restrictions are over and no doubt, there will be a big Offaly GAA contingent there to pay him tribute.