It was once said that he would push water up a hill if he thought it would stay there.
And that his powers of persuasion were so great that he could sell ice-cream in Alaska.
A remark was also made to the effect that, such is his devotion to Derry GAA, you can almost tell the time of year just by looking at Tommy Donnelly.
Apparently Tommy doesn’t winter well. “He actually looks greyer around December,” a close friend observed. “With no club or county football, it really takes its toll on him. But even the McKenna Cup puts a bit of colour in his cheeks.
“By the National League, he’s nearly back to himself. By St Patrick’s Day, he has Cheltenham too – and he’ll be flying – you would swear his hair is almost black again.”
Living and breathing the GAA, Tommy Donnelly is originally a native of Lissan. He was integral to the reformation of the St Michael’s club and their re-entry to the competitive action of the south Derry league in 1962.
No job was too big or too small for Tommy. Barack Obama may have first used the phrase ‘Yes, we can!’ but Tommy Donnelly has been living ‘Is féidir linn’ his entire life. It’s not in his nature to use words like ‘can’t’, ‘maybe’ or ‘don’t’. He just gets the job done without fanfare or fuss.
A tough and dedicated competitor, Tommy usually wore the No.7 jersey for Lissan. The late Tommy McGuckin played at corner-back. When recalling his adventures with Tommy Donnelly in the Lissan defence, McGuckin used to say: “Our motto was ‘thou shalt not pass’”.
Alongside Joe McGreevey, a future well known Lissan referee, the trio would take it upon themselves, when not playing for their club, to ensure that the young people of the area were transported to any nearby Derry matches. Experiences in 1958 had filled the men’s imaginations and fuelled their ambitions.
To this day, Tommy Donnelly has only missed one Ulster championship game in 50 years in which Derry was involved. A prearranged trip to Lourdes one summer is said to have caused much angst. It was reported that Tommy prayed for Derry’s safe passage to the next round. He really doesn’t like to miss matches.
Following his marriage to Mary Gallagher (of Hillhead), with whom he had 13 children, Tommy Donnelly moved to Bellaghy – where he still resides – via Portglenone.
Publican at the Blue Lagoon Bar in the Bann-side town for over a decade, events caused temporary upheaval for his family, as his son Jude explains:
“There was a fire and the bar where we lived was burnt to the ground” says Jude Donnelly, who was only four-years-old at the time of the blaze.
A former county minor who coached the Derry U21 and Lavey senior football team, Jude currently manages Portglenone, the town from where he was forced to relocate 36 years ago.
“The family was scattered, living with different relatives for a short period before we all moved to Bellaghy,” he says.
Now resident in the south Derry village for 40 years, Tommy Donnelly’s contribution to Bellaghy Wolfe Tones has been remarkable. He was a close friend to Seán Brown, the former club chairman who was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries in May 1997.
“Nine times out of 10 Tommy would have been with Seán locking that gate,” recalls a friend.
Tommy was with Seán only hours earlier to collect a part for his van. He spent the evening getting his van fixed. The following morning he learned about the horrors of the night before.
“It took a lot out of him, as it did everyone,” the man recalls.
Kevin Doherty, the current chairman of the Wolfe Tones club, whose grounds are now named after Seán Brown, is glowing in his praise for the service Tommy Donnelly has given to the town, community and club:
“The effort put into building and sustaining a club is always shared among its volunteers,” said Doherty.
“Bellaghy has been lucky over many years to have a man of the calibre of Tommy Donnelly. He has made a massive contribution to that collective effort. His dependability, selflessness and resourcefulness have been indispensable to us.
“Over four decades, he has been involved in fundraising for our club in many ways; not least in his longstanding role as chief lotto officer. His organisation and management of countless ‘Nights at the Races,’ and the very many ‘half- time draws’ could not have happened without Tommy’s organisational talent.
“He is known in every home and business in Bellaghy and beyond, and his efforts on behalf of both club and county have marked him as the epitome of a true Gael. We are proud to have Tommy as a member and he represents us with distinction wherever he goes,” concluded the Wolfe Tones chairman.
If ‘selfless’, ‘resourceful’, ‘quiet’ and ‘unassuming’ are words which shine some light on the character of Tommy Donnelly, they are all overshadowed by ‘generosity’. Never known to call with a friend or neighbour without bearing some token of appreciation, it’s perhaps the gift of his time which registers most profoundly.
Tommy, along with his brothers Joe and Seán, are still remembered among sections of the Lissan community as people who went to the aid of their neighbour, working hayfields or gathering potatoes once their own tasks were complete. Real and meaningful community was a habit their parents had instilled early.
It was still evident in November 2013 when Tommy and his other great friend, Eamon Scullion, took it upon themselves to conceive and run a Club Derry ‘Fight Night’ at the Elk, raising over £25k in the process.
And in 2014, 2015 and 2016 when he would regularly run out of books of tickets, travelling the county selling on behalf of Derry’s youth teams.
And again in September 2017 when he personally collected thousands of pounds in support of the Derry minor football team before the All-Ireland final.
Two Ulster minor titles in three years are the fruits of unseen labour by men like Tommy Donnelly.
Remarkably, although not surprisingly, Tommy was perhaps the only man in Ireland who was happy that the recent heavy snow caused chaos to national GAA fixtures. Having been hospitalised with a minor ailment, from which he has now happily recovered, the postponements meant Tommy would miss less football, as he would cheerily inform his legions of visitors. He really doesn’t like to miss matches…
With lambing season underway and the daffodils about to flower, those around Tommy Donnelly can sense that his seasonal optimism is ready to blossom once again.
“So, Derry lost a league game to Fermanagh?” a friend remarked to Tommy as he lay in his hospital bed.
“Aye, but I heard they were very good in the second half,” he shot back instantly.
They say where there’s a will, there’s a way.
For as long as Derry has supporters like Tommy Donnelly, the county can be optimistic that it will find a way.