Tom Donohue - Offaly GAA's greatest import
By John Harrington
‘Tom Donohue’ is the answer to some tricky questions that have surely caused furrowed brows at table-quizzes down through the years.
Q: Who is the only man to win an All-Ireland senior hurling championship medal with Offaly to have also won an U-21 All-Ireland championship medal.
A: Tom Donohue
Q: Galway were beaten in the 1980 All-Ireland Hurling Final by Offaly, but what Galway native won a medal that day?
*A: *Tom Donohue
Q: Eugene Magee famously managed the Offaly footballers to the 1982 All-Ireland Football, but who trained the team?
*A: *Tom Donohue
The Kiltullagh man’s GAA career has certainly been a road less travelled, pretty much from as soon as he set out on it.
He wasn’t just a player on the Galway U-21 hurling team that won the county’s first ever All-Ireland in the grade in 1972, he trained the team too.
As one of the first batch of Irish students to go on to Strawberry Hill in London in 1969 on a PE teaching scholarship, he gained the sort of expertise that was thin on the ground in Ireland.
The joint-managers of that Galway U-21 team, Frank Fahey and Tommy Fahy, were shrewd enough to harness it by giving Donohue the responsibility of looking after the team’s physical training.
He played a big part on the field too, scoring a brace of goals that helped Galway beat a fancied Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final before they then bested Dublin in the Final, though he prefers to down-play his role in what was a land-mark success for Galway hurling.
“Ah, I think the only reason I was on the team was because I was doing the training,” says Donohue modestly.
“Winning that All-Ireland was a huge breakthrough for Galway hurling alright.
“We got to the League Final in '75 and the All-Ireland Final in '75 and they kicked on from there by winning the All-Ireland in ’80.
“A good lot of the lads from '72 were involved in '75 and '80. Andy Fenton, Frank Burke were on that U-21 team, as was PJ Molloy who came on as a sub in the ’72 Final and turned the game for us.”
Donohue eventually graduated onto the Galway senior team too, but after their ’78 Championship campaign ended with an All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kilkenny he was deemed surplus to requirements and dropped from the panel.
He watched his friends and former team-mates defeat Limerick in the 1980 All-Ireland Final from Hill 16, Galway’s first time to win the Liam MacCarthy Cup since 1923.
If you had told him then he’d be back in the stadium a year later playing against his native county in an All-Ireland Final he’d have called you crazy.
“Nothing could have been further than my mind,” says Donohue. “I was absolutely over the moon for Galway to win it. Absolutely thrilled. It was just a tremendous thing.
“Having been there two years previously and knowing every one of them, you'd have loved to have been part of it.
“And at that stage the last thing on my mind was playing inter-county hurling anymore. I was 29 years of age at that stage and my inter-county career was over as far as I was concerned.”
By then Donohue wasn’t even playing club hurling in Galway anymore.
He’d had a falling-out with his club Killimordaly, and for a couple of years focused his energy on playing rugby for Tullamore in Offaly, where he was now living and teaching in the Vocational school.
He’d also been training the up and coming Offaly football team after being recruited by manager Eugene McGee in 1979, but then in 1980 he was drawn back to his first love, hurling, when he was persuaded to join junior club Ballinamere.
He helped them win the Junior Championship and was then invited to join the Offaly training panel for the 1980/’81 season.
Donohue had been in the crowd when Offaly won their first ever Leinster Senior Championship in 1980 and he knew they were a team on the up, so he jumped at the opportunity.
Ironically, his former Galway team-mates had beaten Offaly in the 1980 All-Ireland semi-final, but Donohue was immediately made feel at home when he joined Dermot Healy’s panel.
“I had known a good lot of the lads from playing against them and they couldn't have been more accommodating and welcoming,” he says.
“The likes of Pat Fleury, Damien Martin, Joachim Kelly, these guys that I knew from playing against were really very welcoming.
“You could see that the set-up was on the right track. I had known there was potential there from playing against them. I never found it easy against them in the League or any challenge matches we played against them. I was always very impressed with them.
“Dermot Healy brought a very organised set-up to it and he changed the training to Tullamore, little things like that.
“It wasn't that there was anything spectacular done, but he just had a very calm approach and the players were very eager to pick it up.
“Obviously after the success of 1980 they were just mad-keen to carry this on further. You could see by them they were a fierce determined bunch and they were so talented too when you look through that team.”
Donohue had been a forward or midfielder throughout his career up until this point, but with Offaly he would reinvent himself as a defender.
His big break came in the 1981 League Final when he came on as a sub at wing-back against Cork, and he did well enough to be handed a corner-back’s jersey for the subsequent Championship campaign.
Victory over Wexford in the Leinster Final earned Offaly passage straight through to the All-Ireland Final where, as fate would have it, Donohue’s native Galway would provide the opposition.
Not surprisingly, the prospect of a Galway man playing against his own county in an All-Ireland Final was one of the main talking points before the game.
Donohue was interviewed by RTE’s Mick Dunne on the bridge at Banagher over the River Shannon that connects Galway to Offaly, and back home in Kiltullagh his family couldn’t go far without having their loyalty questioned.
“My father used to go to the pub and all the lads would be asking him, who are you shouting for on Sunday?” recalls Donohue.
“His stock answer was, 'Well, if you had a son playing in an All-Ireland Final on Sunday, who would you be shouting for?' He was a great Galway supporter, but family came first.
“But it was a dilemma for a good few of them who were rabid Galway supporters, as you can well imagine.”
Offaly’s win over Galway in 1981 will always be remembered as one of the most dramatic All-Ireland Final triumphs.
They looked out of the game when they trailed at half-time by six points and then went seven behind early in the second-half.
But they summoned an almighty comeback late in the game that was completed when a Johnny Flaherty goal was followed by late points from Padraig Horan and Danny Owens for a 2-12 to 0-15 victory.
Donohue had been forced off in the second-half by a nasty facial cut, but that did nothing to diminish the experience.
“The finish was absolutely amazing,” he says. “I had been taken off at that stage, I got a fair old cut over my eye and was on the sideline.
“But it was mayhem, it was unbelievable. You could see the Offaly comeback erupting. To be on the sideline and to watch it and listen to the crowd roaring was just an unbelievable experience.
“It was surely one of the most spectacular finishes to an All-Ireland Final ever.
“Pat Delaney's first drive forward where he put the ball over the bar himself off the hurley and then the huge catch over PJ Molloy and another huge drive down the field before he passed it to Brendan Bermingham who gave it to Flaherty for the goal.
“It was just an incredible finish, it really was.”
He’d beaten his native county and some of his best friends in an All-Ireland Final, but there were no mixed feelings for Donohue.
Winning the Liam MacCarthy Cup had always been an ambition, so to achieve the feat having thought not long previously he’d never play the game again was hugely satisfying.
Not everyone in Galway though was as happy to see Donohue climb the steps of the Hogan Stand for his winner’s medal.
“At the time there would have been bad feeling,” he says. “I met people afterwards down in Galway a few times who weren't exactly complimentary to me afterwards.
“I was jibed and stuff like that, you'll get that, but the vast majority of people were delighted for me.
“But there's still a very strong feeling in Galway that that was the one that got away. They certainly talked more about that one that 1985 when Offaly beat them again or 1986 when they should have beaten Cork again.
“Even 1990 when they really left it behind them against Cork, that doesn't seem to have hurt as much as '81 did.”
Donohue’s place in Offaly GAA lore didn’t end with his involvement with the 1981 All-Ireland winning hurling team.
The following year he was team-trainer as Offaly won the All-Ireland Football Final in even more dramatic fashion when Seamus Darby’s late goal dashed Kerry’s drive for five-in-a-row Sam Maguire Cups.
Kerry's domination of the game up until that moment was founded on their superior fitness as much as supreme skill, so Donohue's role in getting the Offaly footballers physically strong and fast enough to challenge them was crucial.
What he achieved in those two heady years for Offaly GAA must surely make him one of the most successful imports in the history of Association.
“That was massive, absolutely fantastic,” says Donohue of Offaly’s triumph in ’82. “It was the most fantastic thing to be involved in.
“When you're playing on a team yourself it's a great to be involved from a personal point of view. But when you're involved in team there's a wonderful feeling of being involved with everyone there and doing your bit for so many.
“'82 has to be one of the greats.
“Offaly people still talk about the fortune they spent in those days with a gleam in their eye because they were in Croke Park every Sunday between the hurlers and the footballers. The memories of it are still aglow in their face when they say it.
“My son is 26 and when he and his friends get together they'd be talking about it and would give anything to have an era like that. Even one year to have something like that. They're just so deprived of success it's sad, really.
“They were the golden days, there's no doubt about it. I can certainly have no complaints when I look back.
“I was just very lucky to be in the right place at the right time and have a bit of luck go my way.”