The author of this unique story, Ursula Kane Cafferty and I became acquainted through the wonder of Twitter – a useful platform when used responsibly! We had both written books about a rugby player. I was struck by the similarities. Her uncle Tom Cleary was not just a supremely talented rugby player, but he was much more than that, and so is his story.
Suitcase Number Seven was written after Ursula found a suitcase belonging to her uncle after he died in 1997. It was a simple suitcase with the number 7 on it – a poignant reminder of his rugby playing days. Ursula was amazed to discover that her uncle Tom Cleary had kept a record of his life in this small suitcase. As Ursula tells it:
‘When we reached the bottom of the case, it was lined with a green plastic property bag from the hospital where I worked and where Tom had first been treated a year earlier. The hair stood up on the back of my neck and a shiver ran down my spine as I realized Tom had known he was dying during the past year of his illness and had sorted out what he wanted us to have and see. His story. It was then I knew I had to write this book.’
Suitcase Number Seven is told as a fictional memoir, only in the sense that Tom’s life is recreated by Ursula. The chapters are entitled either ‘Ursula’ or ‘Tom.’ Those written by Ursula are her account of what she remembers about spending time with her uncle, and the wonderful times (and sometimes difficult times) they had. It is also a well-researched story of the life of an incredibly talented sportsman. The chapters entitled ‘Tom’ are told as if Tom were telling them himself. This gives the reader an intimate account of one man’s hopes, dreams, triumphs and struggles.
Tom Cleary was born in 1930 and spent the first 15 years of his life growing up in Carrick-On-Suir in County Tipperary. At 15, as tradition in his family dictated, he was sent to boarding school at Castleknock College in Dublin. After a nervous start, he discovered his love of rugby. He took to it like a duck to water and was a ‘natural talent.’ However, he was not just gifted at rugby but he also excelled in both tennis and table tennis. He won numerous trophies for tennis including the junior cup, and also played on the Senior cup team despite his tender age.
Tom Cleary became known as a sportsman with flair, natural talent and speed. This all began at Castleknock College, where he was popular with both sexes and had a wonderful time filling his days with sport. He was no slouch academically either.
As Tom neared the end of his education at Castleknock he was now playing as scrum-half, not only in the school’s team, but he played against Ulster in the blue of Leinster in an inter-provincial match. He was also on the team that won the Leinster School’s Senior Cup in 1947 against Blackrock College.
He continued to excel in tennis.
In adulthood Tom became an accountant and got a job in Limerick. It is here that he was to find the team to which he gave his heart and soul – Bohemians. He excelled there, captaining the club and making some lifelong friends along the way.
Despite all of Tom’s success the one thing that eluded him was an Irish cap, although he was on the reserves for Ireland 17 times. It is an ambition that he never achieved. In reading the book it is clear that it was an absolute travesty that he was never given this honour. A total injustice which he bore with great equanimity.
Ursula portrays a man who was shy, kind and a true gentleman who tragically became dependent on alcohol, due to struggles with low self-esteem and shyness.
That she was brave enough to tell the full story is a credit to her and in no way diminishes his reputation, if anything, it makes us realize how a person can be hiding sorrows and issues about which we may be entirely unaware.
Although there is much for rugby fans to enjoy in this book, this is much more than a book about rugby. It is a story of one man’s struggle to believe in himself and find self-acceptance, after knockbacks in both the world of sport and in his own romantic life left him rudderless and isolated, despite the love of family and friends.
The sadness of this book is that Tom Cleary was loved so well by so many, and for many years he couldn’t see it or perhaps couldn’t appreciate it. The joy of this book is that near the end of his life he found joy and understood that sometimes love of family and friends is all that matters. He also understood that giving is receiving.
This book is a moving account of one man’s journey from sports hero, to lost soul, to final redemption, and belief in the power of life and love.
I want to end with two verses from a wonderful poem that Ursula wrote at the end of the book entitled ‘If Only’ which, in my opinion is worth the price of the book alone! These are the final two verses:
‘So this was Tom’s life story, it’s a tale of ups and downs,
A tale of joy and happiness, but also tears and frowns.
I am very determined, that this book will serve to tell,
That success, it is not everything….and failure isn’t hell.
So to use the words of Grantland Rice, a sportswriter of note,
(I found it in Tom’s suitcase, this simply perfect quote)
“For when the one great scorer comes to write against your name,
He marks – not how you won or lost – but how you played the game.”
For further information on Suitcase Number Seven, check out the following links:
Ursula on Twitter – @ukanecafferty
Ursula on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Ursula-Kane-Cafferty-132496904510/
Ursula’s website at http://www.ukcafferty.com/