TOM O’DONNELL: An Appreciation

May he rest in peace.


The sudden death of Tom O’Donnell on 15 March 2000 caused shock, dismay and deep grief throughout the Service of the Brothers of Charity–a reaction which spoke volumes of the love, respect and esteem in which Tom was held by all.

Tom was educated by the Christian Brothers in Limerick and was an accountant by profession. Having gained wide and varied experience in Limerick and London, he returned to Ireland to work in the Dental and the Eye, Ear and Throat Hospitals in Dublin before joining the Brothers of Charity. In later years, Tom continued with his education and achieved both a BA and MBA.

Times were very different in 1969–the employment of a lay-person at senior management level in a religious organisation was a new development. Filling the role of Administrative Director effectively posed major challenges to one’s diplomacy, people-skills and loyalty. Tom O’Donnell’s qualities of courtesy, integrity, loyalty and commitment filled the role to perfection. His achievements in the Service are many and impressive. As well as the pioneering work at Lota, Tom also played a key role in the formative years of the foundation of the Mid-West Services at Bawnmore, Limerick. He organised the administration in Pery Square, purchased facilities for hostels and respite care, and masterminded the first official ceremony marking the beginning of the service.

However, his most significant contributions were in his beloved Lota and the Southern Services. He laid the foundation of the infrastructure of the services and supported successive Brother Directors and Provincials in a variety of developments over the years. Tom relished change and the challenges it presented for the Services–the transition from large institution-type facilities on campus to ‘village-type’ residences; the movement of a significant population from campus to community group homes; the establishment of strategically placed Child & Family Clinics and the development of support teams to assist families in supporting their children in the local community.

Tom was always looking for innovative ways to attract funding to the Services. He initiated the first Strawberry Fayre, which was for thirteen years a major source of income and publicity for the Services and a highlight of the Cork social calendar.

One of Tom’s great strengths was his skill as a negotiator on behalf of the Southern Services. This reflected his personal commitment to the service users and their families which impressed the agencies with whom he had contact. He worked closely and constructively with government bodies. He was instrumental in negotiating the establishment of St. Gabriel’s School, one of the first special schools for children with severe/profound learning disability in the Country,

At regional level Tom’s vision and foresight led to a variety of alliances and shared service arrangements that stand as models of effective service provision. The agreement in 1996 on the division of the Southern Health Board region into defined service catchment areas was seen as a major breakthrough in the development of local, service-user focused, services and in defining relationships for all service providers in the region.

Tom was appointed Director of Services in July 1997. He saw his new role as a great challenge and, with catchment areas in place, an opportunity to establish a vision for the service into the new millennium. He was determined to create a vibrant framework to encompass the way forward, incorporating the ethos of the organisation, and he actively began pursuing the targets outlined in ‘the sectoral model’. His untimely death dictates that someone else has the task of completing this work.

Tom was first and foremost a family man; his love for Catherine and his three daughters, and his pride in their careers and achievements, and in his grandchildren, was evident to all those who worked with him. His many achievements in the area of sport were also modestly hidden, such as representative honours in rugby (he was a member of Young Munster Rugby Club and captained at junior and senior levels) and rowing in his beloved Limerick.

Tom’s death leaves a gap that will not be easily filled. Service users, families and friends in our own and other services, know that they have lost not only a dear friend, but a pioneer of forward-looking service user-centred services in the region.

‘Somebody is going to come along in the year 2000 and say ‘well really we should have done something else.’ We don’t know what, but that is progress. We are creatures of the moment, we do our bit and pass it on to someone else.’