Maher, Thomas Joseph (‘T. J.’) (1922–2002), farmers’ leader and public representative, was born 29 April 1922 at Castlemoyle, Boherlahan, Cashel, Co. Tipperary, seventh child of Thomas Maher, farmer, and his wife Julianne Maher. Raised on the family's forty-five-acre holding and educated locally at Ardmayle national school and at the CBS and VEC schools in Cashel, ‘T. J.’ took over the farm in 1948 when ill health forced his father into retirement. He subsequently enlarged it to 120 acres. Mechanically adept, a talented sportsman, and a member of Cashel Dramatic Society, he joined Macra na Feirme and was a founder member of the National Farmers’ Association (NFA) in January 1955.
Maher was a member and chairman of the dairy committee of the NFA before coming to national attention through his participation in the historic farmers’ rights march led by Rickard Deasy (qv) to Dublin (7–19 October 1966), part of the militant campaign for fairer agricultural prices and for reform of taxation and rates on farmland. His part in the subsequent three-week sit-down protest and meeting with incoming minister Neil Blaney (qv), at the Department of Agriculture, confirmed his reputation as a tenacious campaigner for agricultural causes. In August 1967 (shortly after 100 farmers had served prison sentences for withholding rates) he succeeded Deasy as NFA president. Charismatic, articulate, and decisive, he also had a strong sense of personal responsibility, which governed his expectations of colleagues and associates. With exhausting rounds of travel and meetings, Maher was impossible to ignore and grist to the media mill, with his apparently impromptu but, in reality, carefully rehearsed speeches criticising politicians, parties, bureaucracy, and tardy national policy. He warned of national economic failure unless government and public services took radical modernising initiatives. He was at once nationalist, internationalist, and a revolutionary campaigner for change, an idealistic firebrand who was essentially conservative in social matters.
Maher's campaign for agriculture was tempered by a wider interest in the social and economic future of Ireland ahead of crucial negotiations for membership of the European Economic Community (EEC). ‘T. J.’ became a household name, gadfly of bureaucrats and hero of farmers. In November 1967 he attended the European Congress of the International Federation of Agricultural Producers in Rome as an advance action prior to taking part in the subsequent negotiations leading to Ireland's ‘entry to Europe’ in January 1973. He was re-elected president of the NFA in 1970.
Amalgamating the NFA with several of the agricultural producers’ organisations, he oversaw its reemergence as the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) in January 1971 and remained president till 1976. Strengthened by his pro-European leadership, the IFA withstood the counter-propaganda which, in the referendum of May 1972, urged rejection of the EEC on economic, social, and religious grounds. Despite his own moderately conservative social views and unequivocal opposition to abortion in Ireland, his commitment to European integration was not in question.
Maher was a director of prestigious state-sponsored bodies including Bord Bainne, the Irish Sugar Co., and the B & I shipping line. He also served six terms between 1976 and 1983 as president of the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS). Such relative sinecures were balanced by adherence to humanitarian causes that occupied most of his subsequent life. Passionate about practical support for developing countries, he became a founder and chairman of Bóthar, the Irish self-help relief agency for supply of livestock overseas. He urged prison reform and supported Amnesty International in its prisoners’ rights campaigns. Running as an independent candidate, he was elected MEP for Munster in 1979, beating the strong Fine Gael candidate Alan Dukes. Describing himself as a public representative rather than a politician, Maher sat in the Liberal and Democratic parliamentary group and continued to fly agricultural and other kites as a non-party deputy. Typically, he criticised the scale of Irish embassies abroad, suggesting alternative teams of trade and tourism personnel; he advocated fairer agricultural policies towards developing countries in spite of prevailing European attitudes of self-interest, and urged the transfer of Northern Ireland from British jurisdiction to European protectorate status; at home he sought all-party consensus on economic recovery from the depressed condition of the mid 1980s, well intentioned and lonely causes that failed to draw significant political support.
Maher's habit of travelling with tools to unlock sealed hotel windows was an example of his sometimes eccentric practicality. His unsuccessful attempt to win a dáil seat for Tipperary South in the general election of 1981 postponed his return to Ireland, although he was twice reelected an MEP before retiring in 1994. During his time in Strasbourg he was a quaestor of the European parliament and a member of its committees on rural development, regions and petitions. He advocated decentralisation of power in Ireland while also criticising local authorities for laxity in their commitment to environmental protection.
For all his outspokenness, Maher was widely respected for the courageous positions he adopted. When time permitted, he was an avid reader of history. He maintained his rural pastimes, especially attendance at Gaelic sports, where he could test the political pulse of his constituents. Following a short illness he died 19 April 2002, aged 79, at St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin. He was buried at Boherlahan cemetery after requiem mass, celebrated by his surviving brother, the Rev. Michael Maher CSSp (a former veterinary surgeon), and his cousin Denis.
He married (8 January 1958) Elizabeth (‘Betty’) Kennedy from Bansha, near Cashel. They lived at Castlemoyle and had one daughter, Julianne, and two sons, Thomas and Denis. His brother James (‘Jamesie’), who predeceased T. J. in October 1975, had been a medical consultant at St Vincent's and consultant surgeon to the IRFU.