Father Tom Larkin was a Catholic Priest in East Galway from 1916 to 1949. This period saw the transition of Ireland from a British Imperial Kingdom to an Independent Republic State, free to reclaim her status, identity and place among the nations of the world. Father Tom was a patriot, a lover of Irish culture, music and sport in addition to being a caring priest who looked after and tended to his parishioners’ needs. He helped to nurture and foster Irish music and sport in the early years of the Irish state. Father Tom was an advocate of the Gaelic Revival movement’s aims and aspirations, ideals of men such as Eoin McNeill, Douglas Hyde, and Padraig Pearse, in re-establishing our Irish identity through our language, sports, music, dance, etc.
Father Tom was born in 1892 in the townland of Tomanynabraher in the civil Parish of Ballinakill, in the barony of Leitrim, Co Galway. The Census of 1901 reveals that he was the youngest child of Michael and Mary Larkin. His siblings were Winifred, Patrick, Michael, Agnes and Coleman (who died in infancy). His mother’s maiden name was Connaire and she hailed from the townland of Knockash in Kilnadeema. He attended Duniry National School and received his secondary education at St Joseph’s College, The Pines, Ballinasloe. The census of 1911 shows him aged 19 boarding at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. From the College he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree. Father Tom became a Deacon in 1915 and was ordained a Priest in St Michael’s Church, Ballinasloe, on New Year’s Day 1916.
His first posting as a Catholic Curate of Clonfert was to the parish of Tynagh. This was a period of political and social unrest. Irish Independence, Land Agitation and the First World War were some of the conflicts of this time. Like so many other clergy ordained from Maynooth he took an active part in supporting the Irish movement for Independence. Father Tom’s attendance at a Dublin Convention in May 1917 where ‘Demands for Complete Independence for Ireland’ were made was reported in the Butte Independent of 29 May 1917 . This meeting was presided over by Count Plunkett with over fifteen hundred delegates representing all the different parties including the Irish National League, Sinn Fein, Cumann na mBan and many other labour and trade bodies in attendance. Count Plunket, Arthur Griffith and William O Brien were just some of the speakers present. Later during the War of Independence, his involvement with the local Tynagh Irish Volunteers is recorded in a statement given to the Bureau of Military History. The informant reveals Father Tom’s role in the planning and carrying out of a manoeuvre whereby his motor car was commandeered by the volunteers to convey prisoners from Portumna to an unoccupied house at Pallas where a court was held. Richard Mulcahy, Minister for Defence and Chief of Staff alongside Com General M Brennan reviewed the battalion of men belonging to the Tynagh Co IRA on the 3rd of December 1921. This was a period of much upheaval and turmoil. Even attending a hurling match was fraught with fear and danger as highlighted by supporters who were held up by an English Dragoon at Curra Cross, Ballinakill. They were on route to the hurling field in Curra. Despite this setback, the game proceeded with Galway and Clare doing battle, refereed by Father Tom. Described in the Galway Express as a ‘splendid exhibition’, after which an open-air concert ensued.
Music, dance, and sport were Father Tom’s passions. As a keen sportsman, athlete and an avid GAA hurling enthusiast, he organised, coached and refereed the national game. Father Tom refereed at both club and county level. He was an active member with the East Galway Hurling Board, being President in 1920 and Chairman in 1934. He was also actively involved with the County Hurling Board. In October 1919, Father Tom was selected alongside the then Secretary, Mr S Jordan, to arrange ‘the fielding of a county team’ to challenge another hurling selection in a bid to find the best players for the following year’s championship. Locally, he coached and trained the Tynagh hurling team that went on to win five Senior Hurling Club titles in the 1920s. His team became the backbone of the first Galway team winning the 1923 All-Ireland Hurling Championship. It was captained by Mick Kenny from the Tynagh club.
The Galway team lined out in the colours of purple and amber on that famous day playing in Croke Park on September 14th 1924. Mick Kenny insisted that Father Tom be included in the photograph of the winning Galway hurling team. Father Tom had overseen his transfer in 1919 from Abbey-Duniry, wiring the Secretary of the County Board to have him registered with Tynagh. However, Mullagh objected to the transfer (Residency Rule), after Tynagh defeated them in the final of the East Galway Club hurling final of that year. Nevertheless, after many meetings both at local and County Board level, the case was dismissed in May 1920 on the grounds that the appeal had not been lodged on time. Mick Kenny’s hurling flourished with Tynagh and was rewarded with great acclaim and fame.
In May of 1923 Father Tom was appointed Catholic Curate of Eyrecourt. However, this post was cut short after a disagreement with the Parish Priest, Rev M Leahy, allegedly over Father Tom’s involvement with the GAA there. Later that year in September he was made Catholic Curate of Ballinakill, an appointment that would last nine years. Throughout his ministerial role he continued with his involvement in the GAA. He fostered hurling in Ballinakill arranging tournaments and refereeing hurling games. In August 1929 he put up a valuable set of medals for a competition between Senior Hurling teams in East Galway, held in Tynagh. Ballinakill defeated Mullagh in the final after a brilliant exhibition of hurling.
Father Tom’s greatest achievement was the nurturing and proliferation of Irish Ceili music. He played the fiddle and was adept on most other musical instruments. He was a gifted teacher of Irish Traditional music having a great understanding of melody, harmony and rhythm with a willingness and eagerness to pass this tradition on. He achieved this using his organisational skills. He brought it to the multitudes through the medium of the Ceili Band in dance halls, on radio and gramophone.
It was in Ballinakill that he brought his talent to fruition. This Parish in East Galway had a long tradition of Irish music. This was possibly influenced by the different settlers to the area in previous times who brought with them their own styles of Irish music particularly the “Ultachs” (the name given to the Catholic community who fled persecution from the late 1790s onwards and settled on the poorer lands of the Parish). A demonstration of the wealth of talent in Irish music, song and dance was given in a concert in the Parish in 1923 with seven performers on the fiddle, five on the flute and two on the Irish bagpipes with Irish dancers in their Gaelic costumes dancing to jigs and hornpipes.
Father Tom saw the opportunity here to fine tune and organise the musicians locally. They were called the Ballinakill Traditional Players later to be known as the Ballinakill Ceili Band, the first group of musicians credited as a ceili band in Ireland. The days of the house dances and dancing at the crossroads were coming to an end and with dance halls gaining popularity, suitable dance music was needed. Jazz dance music was popular but was viewed by clergy and state with antipathy and trepidation for fear of corrupting the morals of the Irish. The Irish Ceili Band music was thought to be more appropriate. Father Tom’s band was one of the first to fulfil this role in the dance halls. The band consisted of two flute players, Stephen Moloney and Tommy Whelan, two fiddle players, Tommy Whyte and Jerry Moloney and piano player Anna Rafferty.
Gearoid O hAllmhurain, a leading authority on Irish Music, in his book A Short History of Irish Music explains how Father Tom got them to practise common versions of tunes and selected settings which suited their combination of instruments. He also transcribed their repertoire so that the piano player could read the melody line and arrange her own bass chords. Practice and creativity paid off.
In 1928 they took part in the Athlone feis, where their music was much admired and appreciated by all including the then director of 2RN Seamus Clandilion. The following year 1929, they began their first broadcast on radio from 2RN, as Radio Eireann was then known. This was followed by recordings by Parlophone in 1930 becoming the first ceili band to release 78 rpm recordings. Record sales were so successful that the following year the band was invited to London where more recordings were made. The band’s fame grew with more broadcasts, recordings and special appearances making them internationally known. They were guests of honour of the Lord Mayor of Dublin Alfie Byrne in 1934 after a broadcast on radio. His wife was a cousin of the Heagney family of Carrowcrin. She spent part of her childhood there and was a fellow scholar of Father Tom in Duniry National School.
In 1932 Father Tom was made Catholic Curate of Portumna. He re-organised the local Brass and Reed Band and was praised for the high proficiency the band had achieved in a report in the Connacht Tribune. Father Tom took part in promoting the National pastimes in Portumna with the younger generations holding sports days and hurling matches while also supporting the local badminton and golf club. This was a time of great excitement in the parish with the erection of a new Church in Gortanumera under the watchful eye of Parish Priest Rev Monsignor Joyce. This was completely funded through various fundraising events. Mass was celebrated for the first time here on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, 16th June 1935 with Father Tom as celebrant.
In 1938 Father Tom was assigned Parish Priest of Ballinakill. This coincided with the ending of the Economic War that had lasted for most of the 1930s and had crippled the farming and industrial economy of Ireland. In reaction to this a branch of the Farmers Organisation was formed in Ballinakill with Father Tom as President in April 1939. He advised the farmers to organise and seek a fair deal from the Government.
His next venture was the building and upgrading of the primary schools in the parish along with extensive renovations and improvements to St Joseph’s Church, Ballinakill. Father Tom saw that the state of the schools was not suitable because of the cramped cold and damp conditions that existed in them. He oversaw the building of three schools Ballinakill, Drim and Moyglass and the refurbishment of the other two, Derrybrien and Wastelands.
He also set about renovating the Church and its grounds. The Church was built by Father Laurence Egan on land given by the local landlords, the Burkes of Marble Hill in 1846. Father Tom’s upgrade in 1940 cost £1036. Later in 1942 he completed the landscaping with the addition of the decorative wrought iron gates and dressed limestone piers that once adorned the entrance avenue to Marblehill estate re-siting them in front of the Church.
Sadly, Father Tom died on Thursday the 18th of August 1949 aged 58 years after failing health in the previous six months. He was buried in the grounds of Ballinakill Church. In 1955, a memorial in his honour was erected by the people of Ballinakill next to his grave. It was the scene of Calvary and it was blessed by Bishop Most Rev Dr Philbin.
Later, in 1968, his name was again honoured alongside his namesake and possible relation Thomas Larkin from Gurteeny, Woodford who died in a Kilkenny Jail, a martyr for Irish tenant rights during the Land League days, in the naming of the amalgamated hurling clubs of Ballynakill and Woodford. This new GAA club was called Tommy Larkins. Coincidentally, Father Tom refereed the Senior Hurling County Club final of 1918 where Woodford after seeing off the Ballynakill challenge in the Senior East County Club final triumphed over Gort.
Father Tom’s achievements were remarkable for the times that prevailed given the social, political and economic unrest that existed. The strict disciplinarian rules of both church and state that he had to contend with and overcome in administering his duties both as a priest and a concerned citizen. He dealt amicably with the social upheavals and challenges of the day while finding time to pursue his passions, in promoting, nurturing and fostering Irish music, dance and sport in the first half of the twentieth century. His legacy lives on.