Tom O’Neill, who has died aged 81, was a founder member of Dumbarton Credit Union. He was born on 15 April 1940 at home in Poindfauld Terrace, off Dumbarton Common, the son of Thomas O’Neill and Matilda O’Neill (Quinn). He had a sister Agnes who died in infancy and a brother Patrick who became a schoolteacher and who died in 1975.
Tom, pictured right, left school in 1955 and worked in the Singer factory in Clydebank until 1958. From 1958 to 1998 he worked in the Distillery in Dumbarton.
He married Mary Fay in Belfast in 1973. His children are Christine, Patricia and Ciaran. His grandchildren are Patrick and Amy (Patricia’s children) and Eve, Freya and Sian (Ciaran’s). .
His elder daughter, Christine, told his pandemic restricted funeral Mass at St Patrick’s Church that her tribute to him was not a eulogy – “It cannot be a eulogy because my father was adamant there shouldn’t be one and I am not given to disobedience.
“I suspect he had many reasons for being against a eulogy. He was in many ways a very private person and not naturally demonstrative; he didn’t seek to be the focus of attention. He would not be comfortable listening to anyone speaking highly of him in public.
“He was also sceptical about the eulogies he heard at other funerals. He would remark that the person being buried was not the person whose funeral he thought he was attending – that the deceased had been transformed into a paragon of virtue. I think he thought it was dishonest (and unnecessary) not to acknowledge that everyone has feet of clay.
“He thought it better to say nothing at all than to paint a skewed picture.
“So, I should make it clear at the outset that my father was not perfect.
“On the contrary, he could be a total pain in the neck. He could be extraordinarily stubborn and uncompromising on the most trivial domestic issue. And his sense of pride frustrated his family, particularly as he became less mobile and would rather sacrifice a trip along the High Street or further afield than be seen to use a walking stick, wheelchair or – worst of all – a mobility scooter.
“But as his family we had the benefit of his better qualities too. Not so some of the others who might fairly complain that Tom O’Neill was a pain in the neck.
“I suspect that there is not a single person who worked in Dumbarton District Council’s Housing Office in the 1980s who, in the face of my father’s repeated complaints, didn’t at one stage or another describe him as a pain in the neck, or worse.
“Then there were those who were the subject of his criticism and sometimes ridicule in his regular letters to the editor of the Lennox Herald, not least those other correspondents who preferred anonymity to being prepared to put their name to their contributions. He openly challenged what he saw as their cowardice, unconcerned that he might be addressing neighbours, friends or relatives.”
He had a trait for frankness and a sense of duty, confirmed by Canon Gerry Conroy, who celebrated Tom’s funeral Mass: “Duty and community were important for Tom, not just the commitment he gave to his family, but the commitment he gave to the wider community in his work with the Credit union.”
Christine said: “The concept of acting out of duty may seem both dull and slightly disappointing. To do something because you feel it is your moral or legal obligation to do it sounds like drudgery – much better to be motivated by a positive desire to do whatever it is that’s to be done.
“Of course I am going to disagree. To do something because you believe it is the right thing to do, when you would prefer something else entirely, is as admirable as it is uncommon. For my father that approach to life might as well have been embedded in his DNA. He just didn’t know how else to live.
“And I believe there was a subtlety to it. It wasn’t simply that when faced with a choice you did your duty. It was that if you believed that something was right or wrong, that thing demanded action. The right thing had to be done, the wrong thing had to be called out.
Dumbarton Credit Union chairman Pat Tonner pictured with Kate Hosie, the assistant manager, and founder member Tom O’Neill at 147 High Street, Dumbarton. Picture by BILL HEANEY
“That attitude was central to how he cared for his family. My father had a work ethic that was second to none but his dedication to Hiram Walker wasn’t about personal ambition or advancement. It was a means of ensuring that we were as well provided for as possible. He walked to and from the Distillery in rain, snow and shine, week in and week out, and it would take serious illness before he would miss a shift.
“I can think of many a Saturday afternoon when the phone would ring and my father would utter the words “Aye, I’ll be in at six o’clock”. Tom O’Neill could always, and I mean always, be counted on to cover a 12 hour shift at short notice. A 12-hour shift was school uniforms, was money put away for the holidays or for Christmas. That willingness came with other costs. Those same Saturday nights were nights that my mum lost to the Distillery too.
“I don’t mean any of that to sound as though my father was a dour man. He was certainly serious – and thought life was to be taken seriously – but he had great humour and I know that he took great pleasure and pride in being a husband, a father and a grandfather.
“His devotion to my mother was unqualified: he was her chief fan in all things. Friends of mine have expressed their surprise to me that that my parents actually seemed to like one another. That is not apparently the universal experience of long-married couples. My parents could be seen out walking and still holding hands well into their sixties and seventies.
“When I registered my father’s death the Registrar asked me if either of my parents had been married before they married one another. I nearly laughed out loud. The idea was incomprehensible. My father would have been more likely to have walked on the moon than have had anyone other than my mother.
“[This is of course the moment when in another town my father’s secret second family would stand up in church and make themselves known. But as this is Dumbarton and since no one gets to have a secret for more than 5 minutes never mind 81 years I think I am on solid ground.]”
Tom O’Neill was driven, if not to say obsessed, by the importance of education and the possibilities that it could open up.
Christine added: “That included formal education – and he was a vocal opponent of any measures he thought might damage our education, including the controversial idea put about in the late 1980s that Catholic teenagers of different sexes in Dumbarton might go to the same school together – but his commitment was by no means limited to formal education.
“He spent countless wet school holidays taking us round castles, museums and art galleries because he believed it was important for us to know those places. And because a big country house or a museum like the Burrell Collection was a good opportunity to raise our class consciousness and our awareness of the evils of colonialism.
“And he was an educator himself. He helped us to read, he taught us to tie our shoelaces and how to tell the time. And each of the three of us made the mistake of asking him, at different points, how our pressure cooker worked. I remember distinctly being perhaps 4 years old, standing on a chair by the sink and listening to him explain something about pounds per square inch. I still don’t really understand how pressure cookers work but I do understand that I had a father with the patience to try to explain it to me.
I can be consumed by rage at the realisation that a person with such respect for education was so poorly served himself. It is astonishing to me that someone with his appetite for knowledge, breadth of interests and energy for communication could leave school at 15 with no qualifications. He made up for it by reading voraciously his whole life and educating himself.
“He also taught us the most important skill needed to survive in the O’Neill family: the art of the argument. For my father, arguing (and I mean arguing and not fighting or personal conflict) was a recreational sport. And like any recreational sport there were different levels of competition. A one-to-one argument on nationalism versus socialism, on nuclear disarmament, on religious tolerance versus secularism was standard fare on any given day of the week. That might turn into a whole family affair of an evening.
“But these were only practice sessions for the day long, multi-party debates that took place with our cousins, those foreigners labelled the Vale O’Neills, on special occasions. While other families spent Boxing Day watching The Eagle has Landed, the O’Neills spent literally hours arguing a range of topics at high volume and with enormous energy. And Tom’s main contribution was to be contrary, provocative and unbending: a heady combination designed to ensure that the game was never put in danger by the risk of consensus breaking out.
“My father’s grandchildren got the benefit of all of the same qualities I have mentioned already but they got more too. My sister’s children, in particular, were young at just the right time when my father had retired. They had a tremendous relationship with my father and he has left a lasting imprint on their characters. I am not in the business of regretting anything about my father’s life but I do feel sad that my brother’s children, who are younger, did not have the chance to know my father when he had more energy and still owned a pressure cooker.
“While my father had a very clear view about his role as a husband and father, he was (perhaps surprisingly) tolerant of others on issues of personal morality and conduct. I don’t ever remember him gossiping about other people’s lives and one of his favourite sayings was that it is impossible to know what goes on behind closed doors. He was not interested in how or with whom people had relationships so long as they weren’t doing anyone else any harm.
“His tolerance reached its unbreachable limit at the point at which personal conduct became political, at which point all bets were off. I don’t know any person who ever openly confessed to voting Tory in my father’s presence. It was beyond the pale.
“And while my father accepted that other people had to be allowed to have political views that were different from his own, he didn’t ever accept that they might be right. If he was to change his opinion on any issue – and over the years there were one or two on which he did – it was because he came to a revised view on his own terms.
“The other thing that was beyond the pale for my father, and which drove much of what he did in his life, was poverty and debt. My father had a visceral fear of debt. He had no doubt seen what it did to people.
“Another abiding memory of mine is seeing him at the dining table each week counting out his pay packet as he wrote down in pencil on an old envelope who was to be paid what. And every week there were stamps for everything: for the electricity, for the gas, for the TV licence.
“And he despised those that exploited those who were poor by putting them into debt. In our house the devil incarnate was the Provie man.
Tom O’Neill, second left back row, with fellow fouder members of Dumbarton Credit Union. This photograph of office bearers was taken in Riverside Parish Church Hall on June 7, 1990, at the formal opening of Dumbarton Credit Union. Standing left to right. Deirdre Lynch, Tom O’Neill, Pat Tonner, Eileen Lally, Anna Trainer, Sister Anne Jane O’Rourke, Margaret Orr, Sarah Davis, Helen McGillen, Sally Connolly, Jock Findlay and Eamonn Cullen. Seated: Siobhan Kerr, Sandra Scott, Anindya Majumdar, Gregor Gordon, Barbara Croft, Carol McCafferty and Helen Devlin.
“With that background it was entirely natural that my father’s imagination was fired by the idea of a credit union, an idea that my mother says was put into his head by her experience of credit unions in Belfast. And if something could be done to alleviate the misery that was caused by debt and extortionate credit then in Tom’s view there was duty to do that.
“And so as part of a group of dedicated and determined people from Dumbarton, all of whom had other commitments and none of whom had run a bank before, he helped create Dumbarton Credit Union beginning on 14 June 1990 with 45 members and deposits of £322.60.
“My father’s working patterns meant that he never joined clubs or societies or has pastimes that involved a regular weeknight commitment – 2 out of 3 Tuesdays would be lost to the wrong shift. But his commitment to the credit union was completely different from anything else. He kept a weekly planner on the wall clearly marking out his allocated nights for telling duty and rarely missed an obligation. Operating again on the basis that the small stuff matters, he always ensured that he and all the other volunteers claimed the expenses they incurred on stationery and stamps for credit union business. His reasoning was simple: no potential volunteer should be put off because they were worried that it might cost them money to be involved.
“I am not in a position to say much about my father’s personal faith. He practised his faith but he didn’t talk about it. He regarded it, I believe, as another immutable aspect of his life. It was not a matter of choice: he was part of the community of the Catholic Church and he could no more choose to be outside of that community than he could choose not to be part of the wider community in which he lived.
“I think it must be true that his faith informed his sense of duty; he certainly brought his sense of duty to chapel. Another memory of mine is attending the Saturday night vigil Mass on Mission Sunday at St Michael’s when I was maybe 11 or 12. We were treated to one of Father Harry Parkinson’s finest sermons. Having served in the missions himself he was uncompromising. If any of us, sitting in Castlehill, believed we were poor or disadvantaged we were kidding ourselves. There was nothing in our circumstances that could compare in even the smallest degree with the deprivation that others in the world experienced. And so we had only one obligation and that was to give everything we possibly could to the mission collection that night.
“And Father Parkinson was clear that he meant it literally. Not what you thought you could afford. Not what was left over after all else had been paid for. But whatever you had regardless if that caused difficulty: because it was nothing compared to the difficulty of others.
“And I saw my father empty his wallet. I strongly suspect that when he did that he will have felt a tightening in his chest because he would have known that something else would not get paid. But he did it because he believed it was the thing he ought to do, and having reached that conclusion there was no other choice open to him.”
Christine added: “I could say so much more about my father’s other passions. About Celtic, about the work he did to research his family background and the friends that he made doing that, about his ability to walk down Dumbarton Hight Street and take 3 hours to travel 100 yards because of his capacity to talk the hind legs off a donkey and put the world to rights on all and every possible topic. Of his campaign over 3 decades, on the letters pages of the Lennox, to persuade the people of Dumbarton that the electoral system needed to be reformed to make voting compulsory but only if there was the possibility of a positive abstention – which he put in his own version of plain English as meaning that it should be possible to mark an X against ‘All of the above are chanty wrastlers’. About his love of walking simply for the sake of it. About the lifelong friends he made in the Distillery and the people he spoke for as a shop steward.
“Like my father I could talk all day but still not capture the man.
“I finish on a favour theme of my own. It is fashionable in many contexts these days for people to talk about the importance of having mentors. A mentor at university or in the workplace. A person to whom you can talk, who can help you on your way and support you in times of difficulty. I don’t know what Tom O’Neill would have made of mentors.
“What people talk about much less often is the need for heroes. I do not by that mean comic strip characters or fictions with supernatural strengths.
“For me a hero is not the person who helps you get to be where you want to be but is the person who you actually aspire to be: the person ahead of you who you admire and who you want to be like when you grow up.
“I have had many heroes in my life. My father, who was not perfect, was and remains my first hero. I know he was a hero to many other people too. If he heard me say so he would turn in his grave.”