Dublin GAA great O'Leary hails young son as real hero

John and Tom O'Leary walk up the famous Hill 16 (All images via
John and Tom O'Leary walk up the famous Hill 16 (All images via

Football legend John O’Leary was led up the steps of his beloved Hill 16 by his son this week – as he reached a milestone his family feared they may never see.

Six-year-old Tom walked up the steps leading his proud dad towards the top of the Hill, in a move which delighted his loved ones. 

Tom’s latest strides in his mobility come despite the fact that he was born with a very rare condition which leaves him with numerous health and developmental issues.

He’s recently started walking unaided for the first time as the result of years of hard work and dedication – and grinned as he led his dad up the steps of Dublin’s most famous stomping ground. 

“He’s walking on his own for the first time and we’re just delighted with him,” smiled John. “It’s very special to have him leading me up the steps. 

“Tom has always been very active and very curious. There are two places he wants to be in the house at the moment – the front door and the back door.” 

John with Catherine, Jack and Tom at Croke Park

This is the third year, parents John and Catherine say, that they’ve walked Hill 16 with Tom to raise awareness of the charity that transformed their lives, The Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation. The first year John carried Tom on his shoulders, while last year he was able to stand by himself. 

Now he’s scampering up the steps ahead of his dad, an indicator of just how much progress he’s made – and how much he could yet achieve. 

For John, a double-All Ireland winning goalkeeper for the Dubs, Tom’s progress is down to diligence, persistence, belief and hard work – both from his youngest son and his loved ones. 

Catherine credits the work of the dedicated staff at St Michael’s House in Dublin – the special needs assistants, teachers, physiotherapists and other staff who work with Tom and all the children there – with getting him to where he is. 

At home they work with him constantly to improve his social skills and mobility. 

“I wouldn’t call it work, though” said his proud dad. “He enjoys some horseplay with his brother. Then we’d push him to walk, to stand, when he can. We’ve always treated Tom like a typical child.

“Early intervention is very important. But you never know when you’re doing stuff with your child whether it’s going to work, you just have to try to do it anyway.” 

Indeed, big brother Jack – like the rest of the family – is instrumental in helping Tom reach his potential and dotes on his brother.

Tom and Jack

“He’s very funny, he pulls me around on the floor,” said Jack. 

Catherine and John recall Jack shouting to Tom when he first tried to walk: “Come on, you can do it.” 

For most parents like the O’Learys, having a child with special needs does bring uncertainty, and demands strength and faith. 

Tom was born with a heart condition and had surgery when he was just six months old. He also had a very rare chromosomal disorder which leaves him in need of constant care and with numerous health and developmental issues. 

Because this includes poor muscle tone, his family didn’t know if he would ever be able to walk. Thanks to another parent, Jonathan Byrne, who developed a home-made set of parallel bars for his child before passing them on to the O’Learys, Tom learned to stand and grow stronger. 

“Getting him to stand up with the help of the bars was huge,” said Catherine. “The physio bars made and given to us by another family were a huge breakthrough  – and now we’ve passed them on to another family of a child with special needs.” 

Jack and Jill was the first charity the O’Learys turned to when they were looking for support, and the one they continue to work with. John is now on the board of the charity. 

The family is passionate about the need for Jack and Jill to continue to provide home nursing to benefit other families, even though Tom is no longer a direct service user.

The charity usually provides for children up to the age of four. 

They are dismayed that public trust in charities has been shaken due to recent scandals involving other charities. It’s having a direct impact on smaller donations for Jack and Jill, like coffee mornings, which are down 25 per cent. 

As a result, the family has backed the extension of the Up the Hill campaign until late November. The campaign involves a sponsored hill walk for the charity and registration costs €16 – the cost of one nursing hour for a sick child.

“If you’re a member of the public looking at where you should donate, you have every right to question what’s going where, and charities need to be transparent,” said John. 

“But with Jack and Jill there are no layers. Also, the Government has allowed a void in care for these children where charities have to step in once they get past the age of four. It needs to be addressed –  as a model it just doesn’t work.” 

Chef Neven Maguire is doing a food demonstration on October 26 in Clane’s Westgrove Hotel in aid of Jack and Jill and numerous other events are planned.

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