Tuesday 24 October 2017

A catalyst for major change in Gaelic games

Muiris de Bhuilbh recalls the incredible life of his father, Tom Woulfe, who died on Thursday in his 100th year

Tom Woulfe campaigned to remove the Rule 27 ban on playing or attending ‘foreign’ games
Tom Woulfe campaigned to remove the Rule 27 ban on playing or attending ‘foreign’ games

Muiris de Bhuilbh

That mighty oak, patriarch of a still-expanding forest, has at last come crashing down.

Tom Woulfe, a founding father of the modern GAA, and of An Bord Uchtála/The Adoption Board, has died, in the Mater Hospital, after a relatively short illness, just shy of the President's cheque. One of his carers there marvelled that he had been born before the Easter Rising.

He was born on a farm in Béal, north of Ballybunion, Co Kerry. A keen student, he once cared for banbhs (piglets) overnight on the promise of not going to school the next day.

From age 10, his first love was football, and he went on to represent 'The Sem' in Killarney, and later their arch rivals 'Christians' in Tralee, for several years in Munster schools' football, winning medals with both.

In 1934, he joined the Civil Service, helping to found the Civil Service GFC, with its grounds in Islandbridge, and interdepartmental leagues, the latter of which have not stood the test of time. He then met the second love of his life, Cáit, with whom he had six children, five living, and all still in Ireland.

The 'bigamous' relationship survived - Tom being Dublin football manager in 1943 and '44.

He was appointed as private secretary to the Minister for Justice, where he handled clemency pleas for death sentences, including the recently pardoned Harry Gleeson, summarising them for the Cabinet. He often spoke of his unease about the case.

He was later involved at the founding of the Adoption Board, batting off suggestions that older couples 'would make grand parents', with the riposte, 'Ah yes, but it's parents we want'. He enjoyed telling a prospective adopting couple, themselves adopted, that they first met at the baptismal font in Westland Row church.

In the late 1950s, he started his Opus Magnus, a campaign to remove the now infamous Rule 27 ban on playing or even attending 'foreign games', which was eventually removed from the GAA's rule book in 1971.

There were many sincere people who felt the end was nigh if this rule were relaxed. He ran an incredible campaign, penning letters to the papers for associates to sign, and then, unknown to the same associates, penning letters under pseudonyms, attacking the first letter, justifying a riposte letter, and keeping the controversy alive.

He could not attend two Leinster Schools' rugby finals, that his son was playing in, because of this rule.

As was said about the UK Labour Party's tortuous 'Clause 4' debates, 'if it's that fundamental to the organisation, why isn't it Clause 1'? The past is indeed a foreign country.

In 1972, his beloved Cáit died, after decades of ill health. She was medically uninsurable, but to allay her fears about costs, he got the VHI to send him 'confirmation' of payments to his bank account. He rarely took his leave entitlement, so as to be able to take time off, were she suddenly ill.

In 1981, he retired from the Civil Service, celebrating by cycling across Ireland, on an old 'stand up' bike.

He remained a man of letters, playing a minor role in the removal of other GAA bans, on the RUC, and British Army membership, attending the first Garda/RUC Gaelic match at The Garda Club in Westmanstown in 2005 - enough of a role to receive West Brit hate mails, and death threats, however.

On removal of that last ban, he again retired - this time from his real job - and settled into his role as patriarch, leaving his 'fortress' on Victoria Road, which he bought in 1953, to visit his children throughout the island, Britain, as well as his native Kerry.

He continued to enjoy good health until he broke his hip in a fall in 2012. He was able to take a hip replacement (he was only 96), perhaps payback for a lifetime's cycling. He blamed himself for the fall, as he was watching a 'foreign game', when he turned to answer the phone.

He continued to live at home and enjoyed a 99th birthday celebration, complete with ice cream cones and chocolate flakes (a '99', appropriately.

In January, the other hip went, and while recovering in Clontarf, he took a turn, and ran out of road.

Go home Tom, Cáit is there, saying 'Tom, you're very late, AGAIN'.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

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