Tommy Ainsworth, Castlebar.

Mayo's legendary Tommy Ainsworth is still going strong at 93


Tommy Ainsworth won the last of his five county senior football medals with Castlebar Mitchels in 1959.

Many more would have come his way but for a serious injury sustained in a tournament match which kept him out of football for two years.

The first of those medals was won as a sub in 1950, and at 93 years of age Tommy is the only surviving member of that successful side.

He was 16 years old and had just emerged from the county cinema in Castlebar when two officials of the Mitchels club called him aside.

Their senior footballers were in the county final the following Sunday and Tommy Ainsworth, a budding star, was asked to allow his name to be added to the list of subs for the game.

Ainsworth was hesitant in responding. The match was between the two leading football clubs in the county, Ballina Stephenites and Castlebar Mitchels, a rivalry that generated more than its fair share of animosity.

Rarely had a game of these spirited rivals passed without an incident, and a county final between the two behemoths was scarcely the place for an inexperienced 16-year-old.

The Stephenites had dominated the early part of the 20th century winning a host of county senior titles, but in the forties they experienced an unfettered challenge from the Mitchels.

As the decade progressed their rivalry became more intense. Fists flew at some of their games, and the antipathy often extended to their respective supporters on the sidelines.

This was 1950 and football bore no relation to the standards of the 21st century. A rope around the pitch separated the teams from their supporters. Referees’ decisions were disputed and sometimes disobeyed.

The award of goals was almost always contested, especially when a ‘keeper was bundled into the back of the net together with the ball. It was the survival of the fittest and a far cry from the proficiency and discipline with which games are currently conducted.

During the war years and for some time afterwards many players and most supporters cycled to games. This final was held in Foxford, a mere doddle for the young men of both towns to pedal.

That’s how Tommy Ainsworth got there. As a sub he cycled to the match together with other colleagues, delighted to have been selected among the subs.

But while he togged out on the sideline he was also uneasy about playing among hardy, seasoned muscular footballers on such a big occasion.

Loose arrangements and selections were the order of the day. There was some good football between the contestants of the catch and kick variety. Backs were backs . . . and nothing else.

Forwards played in the positions for which they were chosen. No defender was seen up front or a forward in the backline.

High fielding midfielders often swung the issue.

While many of the players were strapping young men there was always room for a nippy, accurate player, one who could outpace opponents and elude their lunges.

Tommy Ainsworth was one of those. He was lithe and agile. As a teenager he spent all of his spare time in MacHale Park, evening after evening developing his skills.

He loved MacHale Park on those long, summer evenings. He was a special talent and Mitchels’ officials were anxious to have him in their team.

Half way through the game a row broke out among the players which was part and parcel of their rivalry.

But this was serious. Some players were victims of what amounted to vicious assaults. Tommy Byrne, Mayo’s star goalkeeper, was injured so badly he had to be replaced.

Tommy Ainsworth was asked to take over, but wiser counsel on the line advised against it. It was no place for an inexperienced, nascent 16-year-old. To become involved was to risk the danger of serious injury from which he might not recover.

Wisely, he left it to the leathery inveterates.

But the evolution of his skills and talent were rewarded with his selection for the 1951 championship and his first county medal as a playing member . . . a dream fulfilled. Louisburgh provided the opposition.

He won again the following year, having struck up a brilliant partnership with John Joe McGowan who himself was a half-forward of note. Tommy was stylish and elusive, and rarely missed the target from forty yards.

His pursuit of further glory with the Mitchels, however, was cut short at the height of his promise when an injury sustained in a match against Tuam Stars looked like ending his career. He was removed to hospital where he spent six weeks recovering. His injuries included a collapsed lung.

The tug of the game and his love for it were such that barely out of hospital he was back honing his skills and building his strength in MacHale Park.

In his first match after recovering from injury he was hurt again and spent two further weeks in hospital. But the lure only intensified and soon he was up and at it again, winning selection and starring in the finals of 1956 against the old enemy Ballina Stephenites and three years later against Claremorris.

In between he won an All-Ireland Post Office championship medal with Castlebar and an All-Ireland junior football medal with Mayo against Warwickshire in 1957.

To get to Warwickshire Ainsworth travelled to Dublin in his Morris Minor together with Louisburgh native Colm O’Toole, parked the car at the Garda Station in Dun Laoghaire before boarding the boat for Liverpool.

From there they took the train to Warwickshire, arriving at the hotel at 6 a.m. At 9 a.m. that same morning he was awakened by a priest to get up for Mass, and afterwards went on with the rest of the team to beat Warwickshire in the Junior final.

When he finally retired from senior football Tommy turned his attention to those players on the fringes, those for whom there was no place on the senior team. Junior football had been neglected in Castlebar throughout the Mitchels’ glory years of the forty and fifties.

Tommy, prompted by club secretary Gerry McDonald, set about revamping the less glamorous team, built it in his own football image and won the West Mayo junior championship at a time when the Cusack Cup was worth winning.

Tommy was also a keen golfer at which he was equally proficient.

He and his wife Una, who died some years ago, had a family of four, two daughters, Deirdre and Marie, and two sons, Tomás and Rory.

We wish Tommy, a former Eir employee, many more years of good health and contentment.