Behind every public figure there is a real person with his own personal joys, sorrows, successes and failures and one that rarely makes the pages of the media. Behind each and everyone of us there is another person who is often unknown to most of even his closest friends.
Tom Conaghan is well known to many as the man who brought an Under - 21 All Ireland title to the county and presently as a hard working Mayor of Donegal Town but Tom has a story to tell that really has nothing to do with either of these roles.
In a no holds barred chat with the Donegal Democrat, Tom speaks about his early days growing up in Donegal Town in the 50’s, some of the major challenges that faced him along the way and indeed some of the great joys in life that remain with him to this day.
“Donegal Town in the late 40’s was a very different place from the town we know today. I was a ‘townie’ born and reared on the Main Street which then comprised a vibrant community - everybody lived above their businesses.
“The family business which included undertaking, a hackney, a general store and even a small bit of farming out the back kept the whole family - mother and father, children and aunt and uncle. It was just a hive of activity; people coming in to make funeral arrangements would then do the bit of shopping, have a few drinks and then my uncle Frankie would bring them home in the hackney.
“In the shed out the back my father kept a few cattle and calves just where Aldi are locating at the moment but in spite of all the space there was very little room to kick a ball.
“With the hearses and hackneys that were always gleaming with polish we would have been killed if we were caught kicking balls around them - we always played on Miller’s Hill or up in the forest behind - that is when we weren’t robbing McNeeley’s orchard. Tragedy first visited Tom when he was only six years of age and in spite of his early years he can remember it vividly.
“I can still remember the morning clearly - ironically my father was just about to go out and do a funeral, dressed up in his best suit when he just suddenly dropped dead with a massive heart attack. This was a man that was never sick a day in his life, gone in the flash of a second.
“In retrospect it was probably a good way to go - no pain or suffering but it was a massive blow to my mother Bridie. My father was only 50 and had left a young woman with six young children behind.
“There was a closeness on the Main Street in those days; we all lived there and with the support of the community we all got through it - I suppose this is where I could see the importance of community spirit.”
Tom recalls his early school years in the now defunct Hugh Roe Boy’s school, which was then segregated between the girls between boys and girls.
“If we were even caught looking over the wall at the girls it could mean six of the best from Master McGovern. We didn’t have the same luxuries as the kids today - no canteens or nearby takeaways, just the sandwiches wrapped up in the sliced pan paper and drop of milk in an old mineral bottle.
“People take so much for granted nowadays but back then there were no televisions, phones, central heating - if you wanted a phone you had to get on the list and maybe use a little ‘pull’ with your TD.”
After National School, Tom spent some time in the local ‘Tech’ and later got a job as a driver with one of the town’s most colourful characters - the late Christy Gallagher, affectionately known as Christy ‘Egg’.
Conaghan continued, “Christy was involved in everything - from turkeys to stout, briquettes to eggs as well as being an active politician. The job just brought me everywhere - Dublin, Waterford, the bogs of Offaly and even Cork - that was a ten hour journey in those days.”
Tom was very much involved in athletics in those days with one of his best friends Mickey Cooney in the St. John Bosco Club.
“Mickey was a visionary, a man away ahead of his time and it is great to see one of his protegees, Eamonn Harvey bringing many of his dreams to fruitition with Tirconaill AC.
“I was also into the football, I played a bit with Four Masters and Clanna Gael and followed the county team everywhere and to this day I am convinced that there was an All Ireland in that team of the 70’s if not a few if only the discipline had been stronger. I think it was that lack of discipline back then that motivated me to get involved with the All Ireland winning under 21 team.”
It was through football and a few skirmishes in the Pavesi that Tom met his wife Celine who came from a great GAA family. The couple had three children and Tom took on a new job which allowed him to spend more time pursuing his interests, spending more time with his family and enjoying his other passion in life, farming with his mother’s family through the Gap in Glenfin.
Tom had also set up a sports shop on the town’s Main St. which he had earmarked for his son Kevin but fate had something else in mind as tragedy knocked on his door once again dealing the cruelest blow that a parent can suffer - the loss of an only son.
An emotional Conaghan recalled, “It was just two days before Christmas and ironically my two greatest friends Mickey Cooney and my son Kevin set off to Dublin to collect Mickey’s daughter for her Christmas break. They only made it as far as Kesh where that awful accident occurred.
“At only 14 years of age Kevin was buried on Christmas Day - many people have said to me that it was like a cloud of tears had burst over Donegal Town. It was a Christmas that as a family we will never forget - there are no words that will ever describe how we felt.
“Kevin was a big lad for his age, a great footballer - I suppose if he had have lived he would have been a Murphy-like figure, the target man up front. To this day we all think of Kevin and focus on the many good days we all shared together as a family.”
Today Tom focuses on farming while also making time to carry out his functions as Mayor of Donegal.
“I just love the farming - it is a full time job and never ends. From lambing, then to the hay and the silage, looking after the cattle and the crops and selling the lambs, it is just a never ending cycle.
“As for my role as Mayor of the Town I had always been involved with the community through the John Bosco Club. I always had the town at heart and I used to get frustrated at the lack of progress and the countless objections. It was like somebody had put up the gates around the town and thrown away the key. We were going nowhere.
“It was the headshops issue that eventually pulled the trigger - it was time to either shut up or get off the fence and I chose the latter.
“Over the last year we have achieved quite a bit and we still have quite a bit to do but with the help of all the volunteers and the community, hopefully we can make Donegal a better place to live.”