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Gene Larkin, Crossmaglen, Co. Armagh

Extracts, with the Society's permission, from an article in the 1991 Journal of The Creggan Local History Society

Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich"Fáilte romhat, tar isteach, - come in, it's great to see you". A smile as bright as a morning sun and every bit as warm. No words could describe his open and friendly nature. Honesty and an enjoyment of life consumed his entire being and he had that rare ability of infecting everyone he met with the same sense of well-being. He was a man whom one felt better for having met.

I don't remember exactly when I first met Fr. Tom but I heard a lot about him as a priest, historian and a lover of Irish culture, when I was still at school. My first real memories of him began in I953, when Armagh won the Ulster Senior and Minor Football Championships. As a youth playing on that minor team, it was a great comfort and confidence-booster to receive advice and support on every occasion we played from such a well-known Gael. The entire team would receive encouragement but there was always a special word for a Crossmaglen Rangers' player. Down through the years, other players - young and not so young - received the same enthusiastic support from Fr. Tom and I know that each and every one of them appreciated it as much as I did. Indeed, I believe that at club-level many a closely contested game was swung our way by his pre-match visit to the dressing-room and his words of encouragement. On days when defeat was our lot, he did not rush from the ground but stayed on to offer solace and encouragement......

.........Throughout his life, he supported the Armagh County teams at all grades, whenever they played and whatever the weather. One trip on a bicycle to Coalisland, in Co. Tyrone - a journey of 84 miles - on a day when Armagh scored only one point, and to be told by his father on his return that it was "a long way to go for a point", would have dampened the spirit of most people but he returned again and again.

He openly expressed his wish that Armagh would win the All-lreland during his lifetime. Alas, it was not to be.

While he supported the County teams with fervour, his first love was the Rangers. Despite the club's ups and downs, he supported them in good times and bad. During the fifties, when emigration devastated the area, he continued to encourage and support them and the successful years of the sixties that followed were as much an award for his loyalty as they were a credit to the club......

......It was during our many discussions that I came to understand one of his best known qualities - his ability to remember names, faces and details. He was an acknowledged public-speaker and communicator but my abiding memory of him will be as a listener and I believe that it was this aspect that accounted for his brilliant memory. He would sit, pipe in hand, head leaning slightly forward and listen to every word and detail expressed, without interruption or comment, and, at the end, he would raise points for further clarification. His questions would always include the exact words used when the point was made.

Many of these discussions carried late into the night but they were never hurried and, when serious business was finished, he would relax into his usual jovial self -the darkest clouds were always lightened. On occasions, the discussions would take place over an evening meal and it was not uncommon, when meeting at a game or function, for him to say, "Call in some evening for a meal and a chat", but, not wishing to impose on his generosity, the invitation was not taken up as often as it should have been. I only realised this after his death, when I watched an earlier T.V. interview with him, where he told how lonely it was to sit down to an evening meal alone. How little we really know of the people we think we know well.......

......At all G.AA. functions, regardless of where they were held or the magnificence of the occasion, he always got in a line or two about South Armagh and Crossmaglen. On the occasion of the official opening of the G.A.A. Centenary Year, in I984, in Ennis, it was a pleasure to hear him include in his address his usual reference to the Rangers, as an example of a great club, as he did again at the Centenary Conference, in Belfast, that same year.

The man who preached the homily at the funeral-Mass of President De Valera, who became the first Armagh-born Primate of All-Ireland from the I2th century, who escorted Pope John Paul II on his visit to Ireland, was happiest amongst his own people. One newspaper reporter, who knew him well, stated that the happiest and most relaxed pictures he had of the Cardinal were taken at the Rangers' Annual Dinners. The highlight of the Annual Dinner, which he always attended, was his yearly presentation of the Hall of Fame Award, when memories of past battles would be recounted in detail, as only he could. It was only fitting that in the club's Centenary Year of 1987 he should be the recipient of that prestigious award. Not only had he brought fame to the club throughout his lifetime but his loyalty was second to none.

Unfortunately for himself, he was too willing and no invitation, whatever the cause, was refused, if he could possibly attend. He was like an oasis in the desert but we all drank too deeply, drawing on his reserves until the very end. May God forgive us. I know that Fr. Tom would, without question. While his death was untimely and sudden and a great loss to all the people of Ireland, I feel it was fitting that, like his predecessor, St. Malachy, he died in France and that, although away from home, he was still amongst his own people and that, on his last journey to his resting-place in his beloved Armagh, he travelled through the part of the country of which he so often sang. He was a Boy from the County Armagh. I consider it an honour and a privilege to have lived in his time and, like thousands of others, to have known him as a friend. He was, as the editorial in the "London Irish Post" described him: "The last true Prince of Ulster".

Fíor mac na nGael. (True son of the Gael).

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam. (On the right hand of God be his soul).

One day, please God, we will all meet him again and hear him say: "Fáilte romhat, tar isteach, come in, it's great to see you".

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