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Veteran politician and minister, Tom O’Donnell, has died


Colleagues: Former Fine Gael ministers Tom O’Donnell (left) and Patrick Cooney. Photo: Frank McGrath

Colleagues: Former Fine Gael ministers Tom O’Donnell (left) and Patrick Cooney. Photo: Frank McGrath

Colleagues: Former Fine Gael ministers Tom O’Donnell (left) and Patrick Cooney. Photo: Frank McGrath

Tom O’Donnell, one of the last survivors of the government led by Liam Cosgrave, had died.

Mr O’Donnell, a native of Limerick, was a major figure in Irish public life for 30 years, and was one of just two surviving links to a Fine Gael-Labour coalition led by Liam Cosgrave from 1973 to 1977. The last surviving member of Mr Cosgrave’s “government of all the talents” is Patrick Cooney of Westmeath who was Justice Minister.

Against the odds Tom O’Donnell overcame profound deafness and resultant speech difficulties to forge a highly successful career in politics.

Aged 94, he was a successful TD, Euro MEP, and minister, who continued with considerable voluntary community service long after his retirement from electoral politics in June 1989. A charming and generous man, he was popular among colleagues and rivals across all parties, and he brought a genuine concern about people and communities to his politics.


Tom O'Donnell

Tom O'Donnell

Tom O'Donnell

Tom O’Donnell came from east Limerick farming stock with a long tradition of involvement in politics. His paternal grandfather was a Land League activist who was jailed for a time, and his mother’s brother, Dick O’Connell, was an IRA leader in the War of Independence who later served as a Cumann na nGaedhal TD.

After school in Cappamore national school, CBS Charleville, Crescent College in Limerick city, and studies St Patrick’s College, Thurles, and UCD, he became a teacher working in Dublin. Then he returned to his parents’ home at Dromin, near Kilmallock, where he threw himself into local activism and politics.

He worked for the trail-blazing community organisation Muntir na Tíre and for a time edited their magazine, Landmark. In 1961 he was elected Fine Gael TD for Limerick East, holding that seat in eight subesequent general elections.

In February 1973 he was expected to be appointed to Liam Cosgrave’s cabinet - but the surprise was that he was made Gaeltacht minister. At age 46 he had to quickly re-learn Irish, a subject he had not studied since he was at secondary school.

He was extremely successful at re-mastering the language and soon became known as a dynamic minister who visited every corner of the Gaeltacht and the off-shore islands, and tried to push the departmental boundaries to further regional development. He was satirised as “Tom the Scholar” on Frank Hall’s topical television programme, “Hall’s Pictoral Weekly,” which accurately depicted him as bookish and thoughtful.

When Garret FitzGerald took over the Fine Gael leadership in 1977, Tom O’Donnell was among a group who fell out of favour. He successfully switched his attentions to the European Parliament where he made his mark over 10 years among the Christian Democrat group while also retaining a Dáil seat.

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In February 1987 he was among a group of 19 Fine TDs who lost their seats as the newly-formed Progressive Democrats swept the country. In June 1989, having contested seven elections in just 10 years, he admitted to burnout and retired from elected politics.

But he continued for several more decades working in local projects and he was given a special award for this by Limerick County Council in 2001 and by Limerick City Council in 2005. Mr O’Donnell is survived by his wife, Helen, and their son, Thomas.

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