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GAA Museum Hall of Fame - Dermot Earley

By John Harrington

The outpouring of sadness that followed Dermot Earley’s death at the age of 62 in 2010 was a reflection of the high esteem he was held in all over the country.

Not just as a footballer, but as a man.

The fact that he rose to the rank of Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces was a fitting testament to his character and charisma.

He showed the same leadership and natural ability on a football field in the primrose and blue of Roscommon as he did in his professional life.

From a young age he was hailed as someone destined for footballing greatness.

Sean Kilbride knew him better than most having served in the Army with him and played with and against him on the football field.

Kilbride was three years behind him in secondary school in St. Nathy’s College in Ballaghaderreen where it was already obvious he was something extra-special.

“He was just and outstanding underage player,” recalled Kilbride of Earley when interviewed for the GAA’s Oral History Project.

“He would have been at schools level probably the best player in Ireland at that stage. Himself and Jimmy Duggan were the two players that stood out in Connacht and, I'd say, probably in Ireland.

“He was on the Roscommon from the age of 17 and was on the Connacht team from 17. He was a really precocious prodigy, really. A huge talent. That was obvious when he moved straight into senior inter-county at 17/18 seamlessly as if he was born to it.

“If he was playing with one of the more successful counties he would be even more of a legend than he is. The reality is that what Roscommon did achieve in his time was largely attributable to his contribution.

“He had a huge impact on Roscommon in his time playing.”

Dermot Earley in action for Roscommon in 1985. 
Dermot Earley in action for Roscommon in 1985. 

Kilbride was a fine footballer himself and played against Earley at inter-county level when Mayo and Roscommon did battle.

When he then moved to Roscommon himself he switched his allegiance to his adopted county and freely admits one of the most enjoyable things about making that move was having the opportunity to play with Earley.

So what was it about Earley that made him such a revered footballer all over the country during the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s?

“He was a spectacular player,” says Kilbride. “Everything he did and the way he did it stood out. His fielding was just magnificent.

“He wasn't a huge man, I'd say he was six foot at the most, but he could outfield people who were much taller because he had a fantastic spring and tremendous judgement.

“But even the style of it, I always felt that one of the greatest pictures of all time is one of him in mid-air catching the ball. And for a big man he was unusually graceful, I suppose, is the word you'd use.

“Everything he did, his kicking style, he was a great free-taker and a fantastic kicker of the ball. And then moving with the ball, soloing the ball, that would be one of the abiding memories that people have who played with or against him.

“He was very powerful going forward with the ball and very hard to knock off the ball. And then he could score goals and points from all sorts of distances and angles.”

Roscommon's Dermot Earley celebrates with his son David after victory over Armagh in the 1980 All-Ireland Football Semi-Final.
Roscommon's Dermot Earley celebrates with his son David after victory over Armagh in the 1980 All-Ireland Football Semi-Final.

Earley wasn’t just someone with a gift for Gaelic Football, it was his equally natural leadership qualities that elevated him to an even higher level in the eyes of his team-mates.

“He was an inspirational player, a leader, who never gave up,” says Kilbride.

“He played his heart out in every game. Played to win and inspired everyone around him really, both on and off the field. He was a hugely influential player off the field because he was so dedicated. He didn't drink, and everyone knew that his whole life was football.

“I did a fair bit of training with him in the Curragh and we'd tog out in my room and run down to a pitch nearby. He'd remind you of a child at Christmas when he got the ball, even in his thirties. He just loved the football. The way he'd be handling it and fondling it, it was kind of as if he was a young lad on Christmas morning with a new toy.

“There was nothing that he loved more than football. There was no sport that equalled it for him, no other pursuit that he ever got involved in during his life.

“Even though he became Chief of Staff, I'd say his job was secondary to football if that was possible even as dedicated as he was. Football, he just loved it and everything about it.

“Every team he played with and every dressing-room he togged out in, he inspired.”

For those who knew him best, Earley’s premature passing is still hard to take.

“He was a huge loss to the army, a huge loss to the football community, but, above all, a huge loss to his family,” says Kilbride.

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