Tributes paid to one of London GAA’s greatest-ever Gaels
By Damian Dolan
London’s GAA community has been paying tribute to one of its most dedicated and popular servants, Tommy Harrell, who passed away last Friday after a long battle with illness. He was 76.
A well-known and liked figure in London GAA circles, he served the London county board as chairperson (2007 to 2012) and secretary for 15 years.
President of Fr Murphy’s hurling club, he served the club both on the pitch and off it for nearly six decades, and was a familiar and constant presence on the sideline wherever they were playing.
Tommy is remembered fondly by all who knew him for his devotion and commitment to the GAA in London, particularly underage development, and for his cheery manner, beaming smile and cheeky twinkle in his eye.
The outpouring of tributes from the GAA community across London, Britain and beyond, is testament to the respect and affection in which he was held.
Paying his own tribute on Facebook, Tommy’s son, Martin Harrell, said his father’s “bright outlook and a love for hurling and GAA” had helped him defy the odds after he was given two years to live, ten years ago.
Paying tribute on behalf of himself and his sisters Sinead and Orla, Martin added: “Our dad was kind and generous and whose life was devoted to the love of his family. We are so proud of our wonderful dad; we are blessed and privileged that he was our dad and Grandad to Oisin and Riona.
“He meant so much to us all and we will miss him so much. Dad achieved so much during his service in the GAA and his achievements are legendary.
“We will be forever proud of him for his determination and dedication to everything he touched. We are sure he will be missed by many.
“On behalf of our family we’ve been extremely touched by the response received since the news broke.”
Chairperson of Fr Murphy’s Jim Howlin said: “He was a great GAA man for club and county. He’ll be a big loss to the London county board and to the Fr Murphy’s, and will be sadly missed.
“He was such a big part of the club.
“He was a one-off; you won’t get many more like Tommy. His dedication to hurling at club and county level will not be repeated in London.”
London county board chairperson John Lacey, said: “As chairperson of London GAA it is sad to discuss the passing of Tommy Harrell after a long illness, borne throughout with great strength.
“A proud Wexford and Fr Murphy’s man he was one of London GAA’s great servants as a hurler, referee and administrator.
It is with great sadness that London GAA report the passing of former chairperson Tommy Harrell. The Wexford and Fr Murphys man was recently re-elected as Oifgeach na Gaeilge at the first County Convention he missed since 1960.
RIP Tommy. Ar dheis Dé do raibh a anam. pic.twitter.com/7XSYdfdznk
— Official London GAA (@LONDAINGAA) December 15, 2018
“At our recent London Convention, which Tommy was unable to attend, – the first one he’d missed since 1960 – I asked that in his absence that he kept his role as Oifigeach na Gaeilge. This was unanimously accepted by delegates.
“Tommy served as an officer of London GAA in the positions of Oifigeach na Gaeilge, chairperson of the youth committee and chairperson and secretary of the county committee.
“It was in his role with the London senior hurling team that Tommy excelled, serving as selector and manager. In 2013 when London lacked a manager, Tommy stood out and commenced training and gathered a management team around him and completed a successful year.
“Most recently, as liaison officer with the county team, he knew all the right arrangements, all the opposition officers and how best London should be prepared.
“His lifetime service to London GAA will long be remembered. Our deepest condolences to all of the Harrell family, especially Sinead, Orla and Martin.”
Tommy was assistant secretary of the London board during Pat Griffin’s tenure as secretary (1980-1991). Pat paid tribute to Tommy’s “passion for hurling”. He said: “He was very dedicated to the game and he was involved in promoting it right up to the end. His life revolved around the GAA – it was 24/7 with Tommy.
“He restarted the Fr Murphy’s underage with his son Martin…he was the guiding light. And now he’s passed the baton on to Martin, who is equally keen on the promotion of hurling.
“Tommy was a wonderful Gael and a pleasure to know.”
Paddy Cowan, publisher of the Irish World, served alongside Tommy on the London county board and knew him for 50 years. He said: “It’s a very sad loss to the GAA in London – Tommy was a real GAA man. We agreed and disagreed on numerous occasions over things, but we always had a very respectful relationship. He’ll be sadly missed.”
A native of Ballykelly in New Ross, Co Wexford, his home club was St Patrick’s in Horeswood. He came to London in the summer of 1960 after completing the Leaving Cert, ‘just for a look’ at London.
The following year he was part of the Fr Murphy’s team which won the senior league, in the days when those who pulled on the ‘purple and gold’ jersey had to be from Wexford.
He went on to serve the club as secretary for 29 years, the “comradeship” of the club kept him coming back for more.
Speaking to the Irish World earlier this year, to mark the club’s 60thAnniversary, Tommy said: “From 1958 to 1999 we never won a senior championship, but we always kept trying. The enjoyment of the game was the important thing.”
Murphy’s and Harrell came close to winning a senior title in 1962, only to lose to a last-minute goal when the ball “hopped over the goalkeeper’s shoulder to give them the win by a point.” Harrell described the defeat as “heart-breaking”.
When his beloved club finally won its first senior title in 2000 it was a particularly proud day for Tommy.
“It was nice for me personally to see my son Martin playing,” Tommy recalled. “He was only 18 at the time, and to see him win a senior hurling championship medal for the club I’d been secretary of for 29 years was a very proud moment.
“We kept on battling and it was a proud moment to see the club finally get to the top after 42 years.”
Tommy had a keen interest in developing the game at underage and set up Fr Murphy’s underage in 1971, before it was taken on, with great success, by Phil Roche. It fell by the wayside some years later but Tommy, with Martin and Orla, was part of its revival in 2017.
Tommy held several administrative roles over the years and in 2012, his commitment to underage development saw him elected chair of London Minor Board, which he held with the position of Coaching Officer.
At this month’s London GAA Convention he was re-appointed Oifigeach na Gaeilge despite his absence due to ill-health – an unprecedented act that spoke volumes about the esteem in which he was held in London GAA circles.
He was three times manager of the London team, twice in the nineties before returning to the role in 2014.
When not manager Tommy stayed closely involved as selector or liaison officer and was part of the management team when the Exiles won the Nicky Rackard Cup in 2005 and Christy Ring Cup in 2012.
He was also Fergus McMahon’s ‘right-hand man’ during his four years in the job, which included reaching another Christy Ring final last summer.
“His contribution to hurling in London was massive; when you think of London hurling, you think of Tommy Harrell,” said McMahon.
“If lads were getting stressed out Tommy would pull a joke and get a laugh. He was a massive part of the set-up and the lads had huge regard for him.
“He’d clean the kit after every game and he’d have it immaculate. He’d give out at the lads if they got blood on their kit and he’d be telling them not to get cuts.
“I remember after losing the 2009 Nicky Rackard final in Croke Park the boys were devastated but Tommy put things into perspective.
“He said ‘Look boys, it’s just a match’. He had been diagnosed with cancer earlier that year and that was nine years ago. What a man. He’s fought it for so long and it’s a credit to him.
“He’ll be greatly missed.”
TOMMY HARRELL RIP:
It is with regret that we inform you of the passing of long serving club member Tommy Harrell. Tommy passed away yesterday after a long battle with illness.
Read more: https://t.co/U9yqBI1o6h
May he Rest In Peace. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam. pic.twitter.com/RInTyDqui2
— Fr. Murphy’s London (@FrMurphsHurling) December 15, 2018
Former London chairperson Eugene Hickey, under whom Tommy served as secretary, said: “Tommy was very, very helpful during my term as chairman of the board. He was a great administrator both with London GAA and then Wexford Association.
“A gentleman, both on and off the field, his greatest love, apart from his family, was hurling. He was a real hurling man.
“He was a gentleman and an ambassador, and a true Gael.”
Sean Reid played against Tommy for Brian Borus in the 1960s and ‘70s. He said: “I never got near to him, so I never got a slap at him. He always played out a bit further and I was in the full back line.
“He took the frees for Murphy’s and he was good at them – he’d take them with his glasses on.
“Tommy was an absolute gentleman and a dedicated GAA man. He was a real family man and loved his family. He was brave to the end.”
Irish World GAA reporter Larry Cooney knew Tommy for 35 years. He said: “The enormous reaction to the passing of one of life’s great people reflects just how much the habitually jovial and charismatic Tommy Harrell was revered by those he touched in his distinguished and fulfilled life.
“A hurling fanatic, who never missed the annual showpiece on All-Ireland final day, and he did so much at all levels to promote the game he loved, as well as becoming an icon of the London hurling team for almost three decades.
“Tommy had many ‘strings to his bow’ both from a sporting and non-sporting perspective. He was the first person to contact me in my hospital bed three years ago and his inspirational words ‘keep your chin up and you’ll be back like me’ meant so much to me in my own recovery.
“Tommy’s lifetime achievements even before he was struck down by illness will benefit many in other generations to come.
“He lived and loved life to the full and just the very mention of the words ‘Tommy Harrell’ is sure to evoke great memories of the ‘twinkle’ in his eyes and ‘tongue in his cheek’, and probably forever!”
He was proud of coming from Wexford and chaired London’s Wexford Association for seven years including its 60th Anniversary in 2014.
The London Wexford Association said: “Tommy always had a smile for everyone and would be sure to bring laughter to the conversations.
“He was a proud Wexford man always promoting links with Wexford and supporting great causes. He was honoured to be invited back to the St Patrick’s Day parade in New Ross to lead the parade as Grand Marshall (in 2015).”
Tommy will be a sorely missed figure in Ruislip, Greenford, and wherever GAA is played in London.
Tommy Harrell – Funeral arrangements
Reposing at Ryan’s Funeral Parlour: 49 Oldfield Lane South, Greenford, Middlesex, UB6 9LB – from 3pm on Thursday 3rd January 2019.
Arriving at St. Josephs Church, 191 High Road, Harrow Weald, HA3 5EA at 7pm on Thursday 3rd January 2019; followed by drinks at McGovern Park, West End Rd, Ruislip HA4 6QX
Funeral Mass Friday 4th January at 10am; Burial afterwards at Mill Hill Cemetery, Milespit Hill, London, NW7 2RR; Following the burial you are all invited to The Claddagh Ring, 10 Church Rd, Hendon, London NW4 4EA
Family flowers only. Donations, if desired to St. Luke’s Hospice, Kenton Grange.
Thank you for all the phone calls, emails, text messages & online messages in regards to Dads passing! We have been very touched by the love, support & stories of our amazing Dad and we will give Dad a great send off & celebrate his life & all of his achievements!