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Dermot Earley: an officer and a gentleman

Sport

An officer and a gentleman


A trip to Gorthaganny evokes Dermot Earley’s memory

Feature
Willie McHugh

CHAMPIONSHIP time. They live for days like this along a tract of land where Mayo and Roscommon share more than a nodding acquaintance. Football is the common denominator in a region where a pole points signs to places in both counties. Ballyhaunis and Ballaghaderreen, Castlerea and Kilkelly. Ballinlough, Coney Island and Loughglynn of the famed woodlands celebrated in song and story.
A healthy rivalry exists. Rival flags unfurl in neighbouring houses.  In places like Carrowbehy they flutter in the same front garden. 
The Roscommon border crossing is just beyond the ball alley in Brackloon North. Travel a barrel of tar and a dumper load of blinding chips stretch of road and you’re in Gorthaganny.  It was to here Mayo native Peadar Earley came to take up a teaching post in the local national school. Martin Walshe from Errew remembers the day of Peadar’s arrival in the classroom because it also coincided with his first day at school.
Little could he or even the greatest visionary have envisaged all those moons ago the lasting legacy Peadar’s son Dermot would bequeath to this tiny outpost. Gorthaganny became home to Dermot Earley, soldier and footballer. The young Dermot was a few classes ahead of Martin but it was in this school playground a friendship that lasted a lifetime was first forged.
After finishing secondary school in Saint Nathy’s College in Ballaghaderreen, Dermot joined the Defence Forces in 1965. He rose through the ranks and served as a Military Observer with the United Nations Troop Supervision Organisation on the Golan Heights and later in the Sinai Desert.
Dermot’s career path led him to the highest office and in February 2008 the young man from Gorthaganny was appointed Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces. In April 2010 he received the highest accolade of all when he was awarded a Distinguished Services Medal.
Following Dermot’s untimely passing that same year, the people of Gorthaganny made a vow to honour the memory of their most famous son. They were true to their word.
But it wasn’t in his military attire they dressed him in a statue of bronze in the front garden of his Gorthaganny home. They cast him togged in the jersey of his beloved Roscommon, the other uniform he wore with immense pride. It was in the primrose and gold he became a household name and an instantly recognisable sportsman, even in an era of limited media exposure.
Mention Roscommon in any football gathering and Dermot Earley’s name instantly rolls off the tongue. When Roscommon appeared your eye was immediately drawn to him. He was their inspirational leader and the heart and soul of Roscommon football.  A tower of strength who always used but never abused his natural physicality in the pursuit of victory.
A sportsman to his fingertips and with Dermot Earley what you saw was what you got. The great fetch, the giant stride forward, the well-hit long-range frees regularly landing on target.  Dermot Earley could point a ’45 even back in the day when they were 50’s.

IN Gorthaganny this week Martin Walshe recalled days of summers past.
1985 when Mayo beat Roscommon in a Connacht Final in Hyde Park and an impromptu sporting gesture that will never be forgotten. At the final whistle Eugene Rooney, Martin Carney, TJ Kilgallon Willie Joe, Noel Durcan and the other Mayo stalwarts carried him shoulder high from the field.
The 1972 Connacht Final in McHale Park on a sweltering hot day was probably Dermot Earley’s finest hour as he drove Roscommon to victory.
A cameo from the game was when he and John Morley of Mayo got their bootlaces tangled in a race for possession. As the outcome of a Connacht Final unspooled around them, Earley and Morley sitting on the pitch laughing as they unravelled their shackles is an abiding memory. And Martin Walshe has no hesitation in staying within Mayo and citing the late John Morley as probably the only player comparable with Earley in everything that’s good about Gaelic football.
Dermot was Gorthaganny to the core. To the family home he came to rest on nights before championship encounters. His charismatic nature a magnetic attraction and Dermot always made time to stop and chat. And that unique hooking handshake that enveloped you with its sincerity.
When they were opening an extension to their school in 2009 it was to their most famous past-pupil they turned to perform the official function.  It was to be Dermot’s last public function in Gorthaganny. In his usual captivating eloquent delivery he recalled times growing up in the village and playing club football with his beloved Michael Glavey’s.
He remembered three former classmates that day; Joe Gorman, Michael Mahon and Tom Flanagan lost their lives at Ballyclare railway crossing beyond Ballymoe returning home from a Roscommon/Sligo championship match in Hyde Park in 1977.
In Tony McNulty’s field in Gorthaganny, Dermot spent many an evening honing his football skills with those departed friends and other lads from the neighbouring townlands.
Gorthaganny has done his memory proud. Their project is a credit to the community and the spirit therein. Attention to detail was the priority. It had to be because it was Dermot’s mantra in life. It’s an image that snatches and transports you back to the playing fields of Roscommon, Tuam or Castlebar. It’s a brilliant piece of craftsmanship by that great sculptor Seamus Connolly from Loop Head on the coastline of Clare. Set in the surrounds of Lacken stone, the famous footballer is ever aiming the free he’s lining up towards a goalpost somewhere in Mayo.
In Gorthaganny they’ll never forget one of their own who walked the road of life as an officer and a gentleman. But on days like this when the furze bush sports yellow flowerings and the whitethorn blossoms in bloom, it’s Dermot the footballer they remember fondest of all.
He’s among them forever and a day now set in stone in his own front garden. It’s an almost lifelike image. Or as near as makes no difference.