A Tribute to Tommy Kavanagh in Ballingarry

Family, friends, neighbours & Comrades of the late Tommy Kavanagh came along to the unveiling of the plaque on Sunday 13th September in Ballingarry Graveyard, Thurles, Co Tipperary. Carrick-on-Suir RFB pipe band led the parade down the Main Street and up the back lane to the high graves, where Tommy’s long time friend Prof. William Nolan delivered a moving oration, which was a lovely tribute to Tommy.

Family, friends, neighbours & Comrades of the late Tommy Kavanagh came along to the unveiling of the plaque on Sunday 13th September in Ballingarry Graveyard, Thurles, Co Tipperary. Carrick-on-Suir RFB pipe band led the parade down the Main Street and up the back lane to the high graves, where Tommy’s long time friend Prof. William Nolan delivered a moving oration, which was a lovely tribute to Tommy.

“For helping me in researching this tribute I am grateful to John Webster, Tommy’s step-brother, and Annie and Eileen Heaphy, neighbours and friends of Tommy. I have come today to pay a tribute to my friend Tommy Kavanagh. Here among the dead of Ballingarry I am not a stranger. My maternal grandparents, the Mahers of Earlshill rest here and others of my kin, including John Gleeson, Tommy’s friend and comrade, sleep the great sleep in old Ballingarry graveyard. Tommy Kavanagh’s allotted span was from 1937 to 2007 and he died just before his seventieth birthday. I got to know him through our common interest in the Young Irelanders and the events of 1848 in Slieveardagh barony and his commitment to Irish heritage in its widest definition. For us country boys on the northern rim of Slieveardagh’s hills, The Commons on its facing southern rim was an exotic place. One could go to the pictures on a Sunday night, see Tom Doheny and John Ryan take on the Delaney brothers from Kilkenny in the handball alley, and as we moved on in life attend the ball alley, again mainly as spectators , as the space became an open-air ballroom of romance. We knew that Boggan Healy, miner, great handballer and greater wit came from The Commons. We loved hearing of his encounter with the priest and Boggan’s retort when the priest told him ‘There’s not much between you and a fool’ and Boggan’s quick answer ‘Only the ditch father’. It had the tinge of anti-clericalism and we wondered how he was so brave as to answer a priest back in the 1950s. Then there was our hero John Joe Barry who we all wished to emulate. We were told that his athletic prowess was discovered when sent to The Commons to post a letter and missing the mail car he took off after it and passed it below Brimagin or Glengoole thus beginning a career that brought him greatness. We knew of Larry Wall-Fitzpatrick and a host of other musicians such as Roundy Lalor, who often played alongside my cousin Malachy Mulhall, and Pat Lyons, who had inherited his music from Common’s forbears. It was we knew a mining community distinct from farming and the feats of its miners, such as King Cleere, at Copper and Gurteen, were mentioned with respect. From here came the Smith O’Brien’s Pipers band and later the football team which brought county glory to Ballingarry in 1951.

It was this village of The Commons with no resident priest or landlord-the rector of Kilcooley though resided at Slieveardagh House for a time- that was Tommy’s inheritance and he embraced it in all its manifestations. He never left The Commons and it never left him. He was strange, as it might seem, a great committee man. I always think of Tommy as saying much before a meeting, little at it and much more after it! But the record is clear –he was on the Commons Handball Committee formed in 1954, the Gala Festival Committee which ran the dances in the ball-alley-Tommy manned the mineral bar and cloakroom-the local Drama Group (Dick Vaughan was a stalwart of this) which travelled around the damp halls to raise funds to build the alley. With his lifelong friends the Heaphys he founded the Larry Wall Fitzpatrick Commemoration Committee, which organised an annual festival of traditional music at The Commons and helped preserve and pass on the sets and tunes of generations gone.

It was in relation to 1848 that my contact with Tommy developed and grew. The Ballingarry Young Ireland 1848 Society was formed in 1988-Tommy probably thought it should have been called The Commons Young Ireland 1848 Society. Through a series of fortuitous conjunctions the Warhouse was taken into state care and the Widow McCormack’s house restored. The very able curator of the Warhouse National Monument today is by a happy coincidence Tommy’s step-brother John Webster. I believe Tommy’s political philosophy was derived from the Young Irelanders. He was inordinately proud of the fact that it was his native place and its population who struck a blow however so inconsequential in military terms that lit a flame that was raked and relit by subsequent generations. He would point with pride at the gathering in the upstairs of Sullivan’s publichouse in The Commons on 28 July 1848 and name them out. Farranrory’s Rising in referred to in the nation’s title deed –the Proclamation of 1916:’In every generation the the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and independence, six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms’.

Today when communities are living in self-imposed silence I like to remember my visits to Tommy’s hospitable house. The kettle was always simmering on the rayburn watched over by his vigilant mother, Jo. Annie and Eileen were called in and the tracing began. Tommy was a great talker and it was with Michael Kerwick, Dan Hayes, Paddy Doheny and Dick Vaughan, often across the road outside the church here, that they discussed Ireland through Ballingarry parish. Michael Kerwick was a kinsman of David Power Conygham from Crohane, who after fleeing to America after ’48 became a journalist and historian of the Irish Brigade and Sherman’s famous march to the sea that ended the American Civil War.

Tommy never drove or owned a car yet he was always travelling. He was a great man for commemorations and whenever George Plant, Sean Treacy, Dan Breen were to be remembered Tommy was there, often in the company of my cousin John Gleeson. He was from its beginning a great friend of the County Museum in Clonmel and he alerted it to one of the most important finds in the Slieveardagh area. One of Tommy’s friends was out with his metal detector in what is known locally as the ‘Church field’ in Killbraugh townland below the Commons and discovered a piece of metal. The finder brought it to Annie Heaphy and then they thought it was part of an old lamp. But Tommy brought it into the County Museum and after it was cleaned up it was discovered to be a piece of an eight –century bishop’s crozier. It is now in the Nation Museum and perhaps we might someday have it and the Doirenaflan Chalice brought back for exhibition in The Commons. Tommy would second that.

He was a kind and hospitable man always ending his phone calls to me ‘Now Willie if there is anything we can do let me know’. He was careful over the phone. If he had a bottle of poteen available he would say ‘Willie I have that book here for you’. Dan Hayes gave Tommy a brochure of the events of the centenary of 1848 in 1948 and Tommy passed it on to me. It is now a treasured possession. Tommy got permission from Mr Johnston, who had inherited Slieveardagh House and farm, for us to go in there and examine the remains of the books there. They were in poor condition and many had been borrowed and never returned by the former rector from Ponsonbys of Kilcooley. I remember been recorded for a television programme around the time of the 150th anniversary of 1848 Rising. We were discussing the approach of Sub-Inspector Trant and his force to The Commons on 29 July 1848. Tommy was off-camera and when I was saying how Trant came towards the village from Ballingarry, Tommy prompted ‘Towards the Whim Gate, the Whim Gate’. He knew every inch of the place and was an authority on the Mining Company of Ireland’s buildings, which remain the core of the village. Tommy encouraged me in my work and it was my big regret that he didn’t live to see my book on Young Ireland. This day will inspire me to finish it.

The monument today has been erected by Tommy’s friends, organised by Marcus Fogarty and Michael White, from a part of his life he kept very much to himself. I knew he did two weeks in Limerick jail for selling Easter lilies outside this church here and would have gone a second time only for his friends paying the fine unbeknownst to Tommy. I think he may have seen in the Good Friday Agreement the fruition of Young Ireland’s dream of the tricolour bringing Orange and Green together in however imperfect a union. But I suspect that in his heart he was an old Republican with the unrequited dream of an all Ireland Republic. Some here know much more than I do of Tommy’s role in what are called ‘The Troubles’ and it may be time to document it for the sake of history. But for me he will always remain my friend from The Commons”.