Tom Sullivan - A Galway Great

By Jack Mahon

Early Heroes

In Galway football folklore some men walk tall. From the early days legend carries more tales of ‘Knacker’ Walsh of Ballinasloe and Mick Donnellan of Dunmore than of any other players. Later on it was Brendan Nestor, John Dunne and inevitably it was Bobby Beggs. Beggs was a real folk hero. He doesn’t come to Galway often now but when he does he is given a regal welcome.

Tom Sullivan – Hero of the 40’s

After that era there was Tom Sullivan of Oughterard, lean and wiry, aloof almost, indestructible, unbeatable. He was my special hero in the 40’s when Galway had a lean time but we youngsters could always look to Tom Sullivan.

Of all the football folklores we have in Galway, Tom Sullivan strides the scene. Joe Duggan, Jimmy’s father, and a former All Ireland teammate of Tom’s once told me of Sullivan’s great football prowess. It seems after a serious injury to his right leg Tom switched to being a left-footed player. And what a left foot he had?

Galway v Cork 1945

His greatest display was in the All Ireland Semifinal Galway v Cork in 1945 when, for a time during the second half of that game it seemed as if he would beat Cork single handed. Ball after ball he caught at mid-field. His was a tour de force that is still remembered in Galway as one of the greatest personal exhibitions of midfield play ever seen in Croke Park.

Three years later in those epic Connacht Finals of 1948 (draw and replay) when a young Mayo team got the better of Galway after 150 minutes of football, Sullivan was still Galway’s numero uno though he was joined on that occasion by the man who was to become one of Ireland’s greatest ever footballers namely Sean Purcell.

Tom’s Football Skills

Tom Sullivan was the master of the one-handed catch and the left footed drop kick. And in the era of the sideline throw instead of the sideline kick he was the master of the art.

Tom’s Death Dec. 1979

So, Galway G.A.A. fans old and young were saddened recently to hear of the death of Galway’s football folk hero, Tom Sullivan.  Tom, whose brother Dinny (a marvelous corner back) and Charlie also played for Galway, died recently in New York. His memory will be perpetuated in the Galway he served so well.

Half time field intrusions

How often at half times in the games of the 40’s I went over to stand beside him watching everything my hero did – the sweat on the brow, the eating of an apple, the swig of the bottle of tea or orange, as the case may be. The thrill of being recognized at last as the boy who always came into to watch, say hello and just gaze on the man who was my football idol.

Meeting in New York 1957

We all grow up and unfortunately there never were any more Tom Sullivans for me. He immigrated to the US and it was my pleasure to meet him, man to man in New York’s Gaelic Park in 1957 when I was with the Galway team playing in New York in the St. Brendan’s Cup Final.

He was still a great Galway man, quiet and aloof as always but I cornered him and told him I was the boy who used to meet him at half time long years before. He remembered, smiled and went on his way.

Little wonder then that I shed a silent tear for Galway’s greatest football folk hero when I heard the news of Tom’s death last week. There is an expression here in Galway that best sums up Tom Sullivan. “He was a great piece of stuff.” We will not see his likes again.

Return to Glory Days!

Galway football is hopefully on the way back. Let us hope that there are some young boys in Galway moving out the field at half time viewing, idolizing their Tom Sullivans. But then I forgot, teams now go to the dressing rooms at half time. As we get more sophisticated we get more impersonal. I’ll never forget Tom Sullivan. Neither will Galway.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal.

Note:   Taken from Mary Conneely’s scrap book.

Additional Information

In the 1940’s Galway lost three all Ireland Finals in succession – 1940, ’41, ’42,  to Kerry, Kerry and Dublin in that order. This denied Tom Sullivan of the medal his talents deserved. Tom featured at the left-half back on the Galway side in the 1942 Final which lost to Dublin in Croke Park 1-10 to 1-8.
 Allowing for  Sullivan’s many fine exhibitions many still believe that his display in the 1945 semi-final against Cork was his finest hour. Those who were present as well as those listening on the radio still recall Micheal O  Heithir’s descrioptions of his great deeds in being ‘everywhere’.
He was also honoured on Connacht Railway Cup selections and played in the 1945 final when Connacht failed to Leinster by 2-5 to 0-6.
Though his winning record may not quite equal that of his brother Dinny, who won Railway Cup and All Ireland medals, it’s generally recalled that he was an outstanding footballer and one of Galway’s “Greats”.
Oughterard won a Galway senoior Championship in 1938 and all  four Sullivnan brothers , Dinny, Tom, Charlie and Edward played prominent roles in that wonderful victory for Oughterard Club.

This page was added on 28/01/2012.

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