The Club are in a receipt of a wonderful article on the life and times of Tom Russell from his son Frank. As you all know our grounds are named after Tom Russell who had a huge impact on the area as an educator and was seminal in the development of St. Brigid’s GAA club.
Tom Russell NT, a life of service ( 1904 – 1963) by Frank Russell
The lyrics of the popular ballad say “It’s a long way from Clare to here”. My father, Tom Russell, began his life’s journey from his birthplace in the village of Liscannor in North West Clare, to his final destination in the then village of Blanchardstown, in Co Dublin. His was a lifetime devoted to teaching, the GAA, music, drama and, of course, his family. It’s difficult to believe nowadays that Blanchardstown was a small country village until its massive urban development began from the mid 1970’s onwards. Before that, the village was mostly known for being the location of the James Connolly Memorial Hospital, one of many TB hospitals built in the State in the 1950’s. Merlin Park Hospital in Galway was clearly built using the same architectural design. Otherwise, the village consisted of St Brigid’s Catholic Church with its famous Flemish spire, a small Garda station, three pubs, two doctors, a forge, a petrol garage and the Primary School. My father was the Principal teacher there. It’s fair to say that, until his arrival in the early 30’s, there were few facilities or outlets for young people other than St Brigids GAA Club, which had the use of one pitch behind the Church for its games. It was known locally as “The Priest’s Field”. Fast forward to 1979 (the year of Pope John Paul’s visit to Ireland) and the official opening of the new St Brigid’s GAA sports grounds on the Navan Road by the President of Ireland, Patrick Hillery. He announced that the magnificent grounds would henceforth be known as “Tom Russell Park”. The occasion was a well-earned and worthy tribute to the man from Liscannor. But, how did this come about?
My father was born in 1904, his parents Michael and Susan (nee Nagle) were teachers in the Primary School beside St Brigid’s Church in Liscannor. Nowadays, the school is long gone and the Community Hall is located on its site. Michael came from Doonagore, near Doolin, and Susan was from nearby Kilshanny. They are both buried in St Brigid’s Well cemetery. As a teenager, my father witnessed the burning of Lahinch and Ennistymon by the Black and Tans, following the Rineen Ambush. The villagers could see the smoke and flames from Liscannor but, as he later related to us, the Parish Priest, Father Ruane, said that it was a miracle that the Tans turned back at the Laninch Golf Club and their village was left unscathed. Secondary schooling was in St Flannan’s College in Ennis and, in 1923, he began his teacher training studies in St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra, from which he graduated in 1925. His first teaching appointment was in the National School in Peterswell, in South Galway, where he played on the local hurling team. After some years, my father moved to a position in Westland Row National School in Dublin’s inner city and also joined the Peadar Mackins GAA club. In no time he was on the Chairman of that club and an ardent supporter of the successful Primary Schools League.
By 1934 he moved to the National School in Blanchardstown and was made Principal the following year. Separately, he also became Secretary of the Primary Schools League. He joined the local St Brigid’s Club and became Chairman there many times over the next two decades, when he wasn’t Chairman of the Dublin Junior or Senior Boards. The Dublin Junior team won two All Ireland titles in 1939 and 1948 (a teenager played in the forwards that day, Kevin Heffernan, and he got a “well played” from my father). At this stage, my father was Chairman of the Dublin Senior Board, from 1947 to 1958. Famously, the Dublin hurling team won the Leinster Championship Final in 1952 and 1954 and the enormous silver Cup was displayed in the front window of our house on the Main Street for months after each win. The Cup was so big that I could sit in it as a child and wave to passers by! In 1955 my father made his first ever trip abroad and that was to New York with the victorious National League Champions, Dublin. The team and officials flew in an Aerlínte Eireann Super Constellation aircraft from Dublin to Shannon (refuelling) and then on to Gander (refuelling), Canada, and finally on to New York. The trip took over 18 hours flying and the team togged out next day in Gaelic Park for the first of their two matches. Those were the days…
In parallel to all these GAA activities, my father was the organist and choirmaster in St Brigid’s Church. Pub socializing was not widespread in the 40s and 50s, so my father founded the St Brigid’s Choral Society (Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were popular) and the St Brigid’s Amateur Dramatic Society. In this way, he produced musicals and plays in the Scouts Hall in Porterstown, using the hidden talents of the young footballers and the girls from the choir. He couldn’t go wrong, the rehearsals were very popular in the local Connolly Hall, as were the budding romances. Attendance at the actual shows on winter nights was a given for villagers in those pre television days.
While my father’s interest in music favoured classical and Church composers, his subsequently more famous younger first cousins, Micho, Pakie and Gussie Russell in Doolin were to become nationally and internationally (in Micho’s case) famous Irish traditional musicians. It is truly remarkable that all this musical talent originated in a small farm holding in Doonagore, the birthplace of my grandfather and his brothers.
In 1963, as his health declined, the Dublin Senior team won the All Ireland Football Final in Croke Park and the victorious team’s first visit was to my father’s school with the Sam Maguire Cup. It was carried in by Paddy Downey, the Dublin midfielder and St Brigid’s Club member. It was a poignant occasion for everybody and a wonderful gesture of solidarity by Dublin players and officials alike. One week later, in early October, my father died unexpectedly. The man whose name was synonymous with Blanchardstown and Dublin GAA for over three decades was no more.
His funeral was the biggest ever seen in the Parish, the celebrant was the newly ordained Fr Tom, OFM, my brother and his second son. This was Fr Tom’s first funeral Mass. His eldest son, Fr Micheál, OFM, was unable to travel back from Johannesburg in time for the funeral. Travel time didn’t allow it in the 60’s. As was the village custom at the time, the school children and hundreds of mourners walked behind the funeral cortege to Mulhuddart Cemetery, stopping only by our house on the Main Street for a last goodbye. The next day I counted the Mass Cards and letters sent from all over the country and beyond, there were over 300.
So, it did not come as a surprise to our family when, sixteen years after our father’s death, the then Chairman and Committee of St Brigid’s GAA Club (nowadays one of the biggest Clubs in Dublin) voted unanimously to name their splendid new sports grounds on the Navan Road in honour of the quiet Clareman who was the father of a proud family and a great humanitarian, in every sense of the word.
Frank Russell is author of the 2021 book entitled “Air, Sea and Land Memories——a pilot revisits”. It’s available at Hayesprint Ltd, Ennistymon and The Ennis Bookshop.