I was shocked and deeply saddened to learn in the last few hours of the death of my close friend, Tom O’Donnell, former Minister, MEP and TD.
Tom was a man of great warmth and conviction. He retained a youthful enthusiasm for all the causes in which he was involved, right up to end of his life. He never wavered.
To his wife Helen and his son Tomas, and all the O’Donnell family including his nephew Kieran O’Donnell TD, I extend my deepest sympathy.
Tom O’Donnell was born in Limerick on 30 August 1926 and was the eldest of eight children of Patrick and Josephine O’Donnell of Bulgaden, Kilmallock .
He came from a family with strong political traditions, constitutional nationalist on his father’s side and old Sinn Fein on his mothers’ side . Her brother Dick O’Donnell was a Cumann na Gaedhael TD until 1932.
Tom was educated in Cappamore NS, Crescent College, and CBS Charleville.
He obtained his BA in UCD. He taught in a number of post primary schools in Dublin before returning to Limerick to pursue a political career. He was active in Muintir na Tire and Macra na Feirme.
Tom O’Donnell was nominated to contest the 1961 General Election on behalf of Fine Gael and was elected to the Dail in October of that year. He was re elected in the 1965 Election doubling his previous vote. In 1969, he headed the poll.
Again re elected in 1973, he was appointed Minister for the Gaeltacht in the government led by Liam Cosgrave.
He was an outstanding success in this role. He inspired great affection among the people of the Gaeltacht and brought unprecedented attention,at the highest level, to them and their needs. He acquired a mastery of the language and conducted all the official business of his Department in Irish.
In the previous 50 years, the Gaeltacht had lost half its population.
Tom O’Donnell’s motto as Minister was that ” without people there would be no Gaeltacht,”.
So he prioritized bringing employment to the Gaeltacht. During Tom O’Donnell’s term of office employment in the Gaeltacht doubled and the infrastructure was dramatically improved,
In 1979, he was elected to the European Parliament and served as the spokesman on regional policy for the Christian Democrat Group (now EPP). He cooperated with John Hume, also an MEP, on a report on coordinated regional investment by the EU in both parts of Ireland.
He also served on the transport committee of the European Parliament and was active throughout his career in promoting Shannon Airport.
He stood for the Dail in the 1981 General Election, helping Fine Gael to win two seats in the constituency. He helped the party to hold those two seats in both the General Elections of 1982.
He was re elected to the European Parliament in 1984 and helped bring in his running mate Tom Raftery.
He retired from politics in 1989.
Tom told me that the “most important and happiest event” in his life was in 1984 when he married his wife Helen. Like Tom, Helen has a deep interest in politics and was active in Young Fine Gael . Tom was very proud when Helen was named Limerick person of the year in 2013 in recognition of her work for tourism.