Here in Athy we have been short of footballing heroes for quite a long time but it wasn’t always so. We have to go back over 60 years to arrive at a time when Athy Gaelic footballers were regarded as the best in the county. It was in 1933 that the Athy club won its first Senior County Championship, having failed to score in its first such final contested nine years earlier. The 1933 success was followed by a second title the following year and in 1937 Athy were once again senior county champions. This was the great period of the Athy club’s footballing supremacy. It was a time marked by the presence of great footballers such as George Comerford, Paul Matthews, Barney Dunne and Johnny McEvoy. Before their time Athy had produced many good footballers, but none perhaps as good as Eddie “Sapper” O’Neill who before emigrating to America played football for Athy and for his native county of Kildare. “Sapper” O’Neill was one of the most highly rated players of the early years of Gaelic football in Athy while George Comerford, a County Clare born Garda based in Athy in the late 1930’s was regarded as one of the greatest footballers ever to have graced the football pitch at Geraldine Park.
Comerford played for County Kildare in the 1938 Leinster Final when for the second time in the space of three years the short grass men lost to their near neighbours, Laois. Playing in that 1938 final with George Comerford were two colleagues from the Athy Club, Johnny McEvoy and Tommy Mulhall. Johnny, who died last year, was goal keeper on the county team for several years, while his team-mate Tommy Mulhall was a regular on the county team for nine years up to May 1944. As well as being a county player Tommy Mulhall was also an inter provincial player who played for Leinster.
Described as one of the great stylists of Gaelic football, Tommy Mulhall was generally regarded by those who saw him play as the best footballer ever to come out of Athy. He was born in October 1911 and lived at the Barrow Bridge House in Leinster Street where his father Edward carried on business as a publican, grocer and hardware merchant. The premises in more recent years has been re-named “The Castle Inn”. Tommy was the eldest of eight children and his younger brother Pat will be remembered as the proprietor of the Barrow Bridge House business and later a sports shop at Emily Row.
At a young age Tommy Mulhall joined the “Young Emmets Football Club”, having played for the Christian Brothers team, “The Geraldines” which was founded by Brother Hoctor in 1918. He first came to prominence as a member of the first County Kildare minor team which contested the newly established minor championship of 1929. Two years later Tommy Mulhall played for Kildare in the Junior All-Ireland Football Final against Galway. With Tommy on that Junior team was another Athy club player, Paul Matthews. Another local lad who had shared in the junior team’s success up to the junior final was Paddy Myles of Rheban. Indeed Paddy so impressed the county selectors that he was picked to play in the All-Ireland Senior Football Final against Kerry in Croke Park on 27th September of that year. Paddy who had never previously played for the senior team had a disappointing All-Ireland Final which Kerry won. The 1931 All-Ireland final was the only occasion on which Paddy Myles played for the Kildare senior team. As a result of that game he was ineligible to play in the junior All-Ireland final which was played on Tommy Mulhall’s home pitch at the Showgrounds, Athy. In that game Tommy scored a goal which put Kildare into the lead at half time. In the dying moments of the game with Kildare still leading by two points, the referee, Paul Russell of Kerry who had played in the senior All-Ireland final against Kildare three weeks earlier, awarded a penalty to Galway. The Galway captain was told that the penalty would be the final kick of the game and consequently the penalty taker had to score directly. His shot was parried by the Kildare goalkeeper, but nevertheless crossed the line. The referee disallowed the score and declared Kildare winners. However, later that evening Russell changed his decision and the junior football title was awarded to Galway.
To Tommy Mulhall’s Leinster junior medal of 1931 were added county senior championship medals when the Athy club won the 1933 and 1934 county championships. Tommy was first picked to play for the county senior team when he lined out against Wexford at Croke Park on 2nd July 1933. Club colleague, Paul Matthews, was already a senior county player and both of them would be joined on the county team by different Athy players over the following years. These included Johnny Fox, Barney Dunne, Cuddy Chanders, Dick Donovan, John Rochford, George Comerford and Johnny McEvoy.
Kildare having won six successive Leinster Football titles up to 1931 next won the Leinster Championship in 1935. Playing on that team was Tommy Mulhall, as well as Athy players Cuddy Chanders and Paul Matthews who was the team captain. Defeating Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final paved the way for Kildare to meet underdogs Cavan in the final. The controversial dropping of Cuddy Chanders and his relegation to the subs bench to join Athy players Johnny Fox and Barney Dunne was blamed for the unexpected defeat of the favourites, Kildare. In the press reports leading up to what was to be Kildare’s last All-Ireland Final for many decades, Tommy Mulhall was described as “the brainiest player on the team and one of the fastest wing forwards. In combination with the full forwards he is responsible for many of the surprising scores made in recent matches. He is yet quite a young player and can be relied upon for many years to come.”
Indeed Tommy Mulhall would continue to play for the Kildare Senior Football team for another nine years. He played his last intercounty match for his native county on 21st May 1944 in Carlow when the home county defeated Kildare in a replay of a senior championship match. In the intervening years Tommy Mulhall won his third senior county championship medal with Athy in 1937 and two interprovincial medals with Leinster in 1939 and 1940. He played in the 1936 Leinster Final when Laois defeated Kildare and two years later he captained his native county in the 1938 Leinster final. The opponents were again Laois and as in 1936, Kildare were to be defeated.
When he left school Tommy joined the local Asbestos factory in Athy as an office worker. Some time in the late 1930’s Tommy transferred to the Asbestos Cement headquarters in Dublin and he finished his club football career with the Clann na Gael club in Ringsend. One of his team-mates on that team was the former Director General of the G.A.A., Sean O’Siochain. Tommy played in at least one Dublin senior county championship finals, but was unable to add to his medal tally.
Tommy Mulhall, one of the great sporting heroes of the past, died on the 22nd of January 1964. His footballing abilities were legendary at a time when Athy and Kildare produced many great players. Whenever footballers of the past are mentioned, the name of Tommy Mulhall will forever be recalled as one of the best, if not the best Gaelic footballer ever to have come from the town of Athy.