GAA Football

His own man: Derry legend Tom McGuinness on football, family and finding his own way

Long before Tom McGuinness became 'Martin's brother', it was the other way around. Tom was a rare GAA star from Derry city and marked himself out as one of the finest midfielders in Ireland during the 1960s and '70s. Cahair O'Kane caught up with him to talk about football, his life, politics, education and the power of staying positive...

Derry legend Tom McGuinness pictured at Free Derry Corner, yards from his family home in the Bogside. Picture by Hugh Russell

THE walk from the sloping Elmwood Street to 100 Strand Road was exactly a mile.

Tom McGuinness remembers as clear as day the first time he made it.

Climb the hill to the top of the road. Turn right, showing his back to Celtic Park and the Brandywell, and head down towards the sweeping River Foyle.

At 15 years of age, he headed down to meet Sammy Black, a balding, austere, stern-looking man who worked for local bricklayer John Aiken.

The young McGuinness, who came recommended by a friend of a friend of his father’s, had come for interview.

‘What’s the half of 3?’

‘What’s the half of that?’

‘And what’s the half of that?’

‘And what’s the half of that?’

That was the interview. Tom had the right answers.

He started on the Monday morning, out in Ross Park in the Waterside, and worked in the building trade until “I started to educate myself at 37 years of age”.

There was no peace bridge along his walk in 1964. The Civil Rights movement was in the early stages of pregnancy.

For young nationalists, there was no housing, no jobs and no money.

Boredom was rife and out of that grew alcoholism that ravaged an impoverished city long before the bullets and bombs did.

Tom had failed the 11-plus, just as his younger brother Martin would after him in the generations before he was empowered as education minister and would attempt to abolish it.

“I’ll put it to you like this - I came out of it [the exam] and my mother asked ‘how’d you do?’ ‘It was no problem Mammy, it was great. No problem at all’. Failed, abysmally!”

The eldest of the McGuinness siblings hadn’t bothered much with learning in his youth.

Failing the 11-plus meant they went to the Christian Brothers at Brow O’ The Hill.

“My problem was I never really was interested in school. I just didn’t bother. I remember doing quite well on a couple of exams just to spite the teacher, and came top of the class. I could do it, I just had no interest.

“St Columb’s was for the privileged, for those who were bright enough to go at 11 years of age! How many students were considered failures at 11 and went on to be bright lights in their field?”

Just about all he took from secondary school was a bit of Gaelic football and a heightened moral compass, both of which were provided by a Clare native, Brother James Egan.

“He cared about the boys of the school, as distinct from the other teachers, who didn’t give a damn. He was a very humane person. A very gentle way with him.”

When Martin left the same Lecky Road school behind him, he was turned down for a job as a car mechanic because he was a Catholic. He instead became a butcher’s assistant - a job that was open to nationalists.

1960s Derry was as capable of absolving cruelty as it was of delivering it. You just needed the right surname.

But what Tom McGuinness found that if you were willing to work and kept your head down, you could get by.

When he started with Aiken’s, he quickly found he was as capable of setting out a building and calculating the quantities of materials needed as any man there.

Two pound and seven shillings was the wage. He’d buy a Mars Bar and a bottle of Fanta on the Friday evening, and give the rest to his mother, Peggy.

Their father Willie died when Tom was in his 20s. His 47th anniversary passed last week. Their parents went to mass every day and hosted a nightly rosary.

Their family was were reared in a two-bedroom house with an outside toilet, a scullery and no separate kitchen.

Willie McGuinness had worked as a foreman moulder in Brown’s foundry on the Foyle Road.

Every Thursday, the boys would go down to work with him and watch as the molten metal poured into the moulds for the street lamps and manhole covers.

“Most of the men that worked there were Protestants. My father had very good Protestant friends.
“One man in particular was a guy Willie McNeill from the Fountain. I served my time, with his son, Ronnie.

“Willie was the most gentle of persons. He used to come to our house regularly and visit my father.

“I remember one outstanding feature he had, he’d sit down and we’d stare continuously at this thumb on his right hand – he actually had two thumbs, one growing out of the other. This fascinated us to some degree.”

When the Troubles started, Willie stopped visiting.

“It was a disgusting feeling. Disgusting. I felt bereft. I still feel bereft because we haven’t seen each other since…

“That’s what this situation has done. It destroyed relationships. Apart from the fact they were Protestant – they suffered as much as we did.

“Protestants suffered as much as we did in Derry, and everywhere else. It was so endemic. It was a terrible, terrible situation.

“Willie’s dead now. It was really sickening, to think those relationships could be destroyed.”

* *

TOM McGuinness was a natural sprinter and a gifted fielder of a ball.

He was only 5’11” at his peak but he played all his days in midfield, where he could simply run faster and jump higher than those around him.

That was plenty for one of the greatest midfielders to have pulled on the Oak Leaf jersey.

He’d graduated from Derry’s All-Ireland U21 winning team in 1968 and went on to win three Ulster titles in the 1970s.

His playing days began with the old Sarsfields club. But football in the city, for a variety of reasons notwithstanding his club’s amalgamation with two others to become Doire Colmcille, quickly dwindled.

The more weekends passed with games being cancelled or teams being unable to field, the more restless he grew.

McGuinness had gotten to know Harry Cassidy from the Derry setup, and was asked to go down to Newbridge. He took Derry City goalkeeping legend Eddie Mahon with him, and the pair made the journey from the city to the shores of Lough Neagh for the next decade.

They reached the Ulster Club final in 1970 but were beaten in Casement Park by Bryansford, a game McGuinness remembers as “the most frustrating game I ever played”.

Sport had always been the McGuinness’s escape hatch.

Another brother, Paul, was an outstanding right-back for Derry City and Finn Harps but was lost to the GAA when the Christian Brothers made him choose one or the other as a teenager.

The pair of them would ‘tant’ Martin, whose lifelong interest only took him as far as doing goals for a couple of local teams.

“I think he looked on with a jaundiced eye at Paul and me. He was a wannabe,” Tom laughs.

“I kept telling him ‘you can’t play, you just look at us, we’ll teach ye’.”

He went the opposite path from Paul, choosing GAA and enjoying as rich an extraordinarily rich career for a city boy.

They were from the Bogside, but in youth they’d spend the full of every summer down with their mother’s people in the Illies, just outside Buncrana.

To pass the day there, they’d walk four miles to Sadie Coyle’s shop and back, or go dipping sheep with their uncle on the hill beside the Crannach, or lay nets to catch salmon above the dam now named after Eddie Fullerton, a local Sinn Fein councillor who was killed at home by the UDA in 1991.

The entire family would be there, and villagers would ceili to the house at night where they’d sit and tell stories in front of a huge turf fire.

“We’d sit with mouths lying wide open listening to them talking about all the relatives and the nicknames they’d have for differentiating between families, the Dohertys and McLaughlins and Donaghys.

“We used to listen about ‘the Shoemaker’s Annie’ and ‘the Blacksmith’s John’.

“Summers were long. It was unlike hanging around the Bogside anyway.”

Guns, violence, politics, none of it ever interested Tom.

He was only ever drawn to the cause when their mother pushed them out the door to join the civil rights marches. Otherwise, the entire struggle was one that he knew and recognised around him, but never felt the full effects of himself.

“I never liked marching, to be quite frank. I thought it was so totally ineffective. I was bored though, all I wanted to do was get some excitement into my life.

“I recognised the difficulties from other people’s suffering, how they portrayed themselves as being marginalised.

“I didn’t encounter it myself as discrimination, but I knew it was there because other people weren’t coping as well as me.

“It’s like the virus today. I don’t know what it’s like to have had it, but you know it’s there. That’s the only way I can present it to you.”

Tom McGuinness pictured in front of the famous 'Petrol Bomber' mural in the Bogside area of Derry city. Picture by Hugh Russell

On January 30, 1972, he was down the country playing a National League game for Derry against Galway.

He’d idolised Sean Purcell when he and Frank Stockwell led the Tribe to All-Ireland glory in 1956, and 16 years later he sat with Purcell in a pub in Galway chewing the fat, delighted to have met one of his heroes.

They got back in the car and as they headed for home, the news came on the radio. British soldiers had opened fire on a march in the city and killed 13 people.

He came home to the smoky haze and deathly silence of a city that would by morning be a place transformed for eternity.

“I went into the house and I was relieved there was no casualties from our family. But a street over, Mickey McDaid, a young boy I knew all my life, was shot dead.

“Though the blood was up sometimes in me too, you felt the ire, but it was just that. It went no further for me. After a few hours it would settle down in me.”

Tom McGuinness lived through the Troubles but not among them.

That was a choice he’s happy with.


AS a result of how embattled the Bogside became in the early 1970s, Derry City football club lapsed into its wilderness years.

Their father had taken the boys up the hill to games in the Brandywell from they were no age.

His experience under Br Egan in school turned Tom towards the GAA and so most of his days, he stopped 500 yards short and cut into Celtic Park instead.

But there was always a keen interest in soccer.

The summer cups were a huge part of their lives as young men. Heading down to Ramelton with only one eye on the football and the other on the night out.

They’d have played in the Kennedy Cup in Moville, a junior tournament which offered a prize of £2,000, huge money in 1964. That attracted all sorts of ringers, led by the infamous Carfin Emeralds, who legend has it borrowed players from Glasgow Celtic that donned false beards, wigs and make-up.

Paul McGuinness played at right-back for Derry City first and then Finn Harps.

“He was the artist in footballing terms. He had loads of ability, but very little pace. I always said if he’d had my pace, he’d have been some player. You wouldn’t have been able to listen to him!”

With his GAA playing days winding down, Tom McGuinness signed on to play a couple of seasons for Harps himself.

“What carried me in soccer was my ability to run. I always felt confident if a ball was hit in behind the centre half, they weren’t going to catch me.”

At one stage he was the League of Ireland’s top goalscorer before a knee injury came for him.

His sporting claim to fame is playing in the two-legged UEFA Cup tie against Everton in 1978, when the Donegal side were beaten 10-0 across the two legs, given equal beatings both nights.

McGuinness spent the two nights chasing up and down the line after former England international Mike Pejic, the son of a Yugoslav immigrant whose name made him peculiar in those days.

“After the match we went into Everton’s reception room, their players came in and Pejic was there. We were leaving and all he said was “keep running Tom” – that’s all I did all night, was run after him.”

He dabbled at that for a while and then got drawn in by former Derry and Lavey great Anthony McGurk to helping create a new GAA club in the Ballyarnett area of the city.

McGuinness landed down to a meeting and was hijacked by the offer of becoming Steelstown’s first manager.

That lasted a short time and since, he’s concentrated largely on keeping himself ticking over.

Never married, Tom McGuinness has never lived out of the city other than for a couple of summers playing football in Philadelphia in the mid-70s.

His identity became wrapped up in that of his sibling, but Martin was Tom’s brother long before it went the other way round.

“In the advent of his political rise, we used to go to Croke Park. I used to walk in with him and boys outside, I’d say to Martin, were asking ‘who’s that along with Tom McGuinness?’ The tables were turned then!” he laughs.

“I became, as they say, synonymous with Sinn Fein. Now, going by what you’ve learnt from me this past hour, how could they have done that? It’s bad perception. ‘If it moves like a duck and quacks like a duck…’

“I was never in Sinn Fein in my life. One thing I did have was loyalty to my brother, Martin. Concern. That concern mainly came from the fact that my mother loved him dearly, and I loved my mother dearly.

Tom McGuinness and his late brother Martin both failed the 11-plus as children - one went on to teach for more than 20 years, the other became Education Minister. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

“So if you hit my brother, you hurt my mother and that impacts upon me, upon my being.

“Unfortunately we’ve lost him. I miss him greatly. I’m sitting here looking at a photograph of him up here on the wall. It’s just unimaginable, how it could have happened.

“That very first day I was called over to the house to see him, I knew in my heart he was going to die. I just knew in my heart, before I even set eyes on him.”

Martin is gone three years past in March.

The pair of brothers that failed the 11-plus, one went on to become a teacher of more than 20 years in Derry tech, and the other education minister.

Their neighbour from home, journalist Nell McCafferty, once wrote about their mothers standing looking at Martin McGuinness trying on a suit for his first day on the hill, saying: ‘Isn’t he the Minister of Education, him that left school at 15, and there’s our Nell with her degree that couldn’t get a job teaching in Derry.’

Two very different lives, two very different men, they took two very different tours before they settled back on to perpendicular roads.

He jokes that when he goes, “I’ll be the fittest corpse in the graveyard”. Still doing weights and sprints each day – “I keep sessions as sharp as I can, no more than 15 minutes” – he continues to carry the positive attitude that allowed him to always find the sun through even the darkest of clouds above home.

Tom McGuinness was always his own man.

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