Saturday 25 January 2020

'I never fouled. Mick O'Connell had it right: play and let play'

Roscommon legend believes cynicism and poor skills are killing modern-day football

Dermot Crowe

LIAM Gilmartin's large hands once pulled balls out of the sky for Roscommon and now they shake as he holds photographs from his prime, images of the county's golden era.

He is one of only three Roscommon men with All-Ireland senior medals still alive. He captained the first county team to win an All-Ireland minor in 1939, and later celebrated twice as a senior, forming a winning centre-field partnership with Eamon Boland.

His old fetching partner is since deceased and Gilmartin has removed himself from rural Roscommon and been domiciled in Dublin for almost 70 years. His original home-place was a townland called Ballymurray on the outskirts of Knockcroghery -- the village which produced the legendary captain Jamesie Murray. Ballymurray once had a team of their own and reached a few county finals in the 1930s before joining with Knockcroghery to form St Patrick's. Before that Gilmartin had countless days spent playing football and learning the game in a field in Ballymurray donated by a local farmer Dan Foley.

These early memories he happily recounts, at 91, as fondly and vividly as the big days in Croke Park before thousands when Roscommon's flag was pinned to the summit of Gaelic football. His mother would routinely inform people who called for him in vain in his younger days: 'Ah where is he ever; down in Foley's field.' Later in the 1960s when an ailing St Patrick's began a revival with a junior title the team had 11 Ballymurray men. The townland punched above its weight.

Gilmartin and two other survivors of the 1943 breakthrough team that won the Sam Maguire for the first time, Brendan Lynch and John Joe Nerney, are now the earliest Gaelic football senior medal winners still alive. Lynch is retired in Bray. Nerney is back home in Castlerea. Gilmartin is the oldest of the three. Today he lives in Raheny in north Dublin with his daughter, surrounded by close family, on the edge of St Anne's Park and its open green spaces.

A couple of years ago he was back in his old stomping ground to jointly launch a club history of Knockcroghery along with Gerry O'Malley. His name is one of five inscribed on a stone monument in the village marking local All-Ireland winners. His family uprooted and moved to Dublin in the 1940s where some of his younger siblings were reared and there is no surviving family connection to the place. But it remains part of him and who he is.

Liam Gilmartin was one of the best midfielders Jamesie Murray observed in action and Donal Keenan, another celebrated member of those dazzling Roscommon teams, would later state that they'd have won a third All-Ireland in 1946 had he been fit to play. By then Gilmartin had been forced to retire from the game at just 23 after contracting TB shortly after joining the Guards in Dublin.

His last match was an exhibition game in Corrigan Park, Belfast for the reigning All-Ireland champions against a combined Leinster/Ulster selection, not that he knew it at the time.

"I was a good footballer," he says, "and I was going to get better. I was only 23 and most of that Roscommon team were young, 22 or 23. I was working on night duty and I became ill. I didn't know what was wrong with me; I'd never been ill."

He remembers the game in Belfast in early 1945 and the mud on the pitch left by a couple of weeks of snowfall. That summer while he spent a lengthy spell in hospital, Roscommon went down to Mayo in Connacht and he had already become detached from their story. He was strong enough to be a guest on the Roscommon bench the following year when they lost to Kerry after an All-Ireland final replay, blowing a six-point lead in the drawn match, but admits he didn't feel part of it. He spent four extended periods in hospital before streptomycin was discovered and provided a remedy for tuberculosis, then a killer disease.

"They didn't know what to do with it. They put you in hospital and you rested, they took blood tests and eventually it might become negative. I was out after seven months the first time. It's a lonely disease because people don't come to visit you. There were very rare visits. None of the team could ever come. I went back to work four hours a day for a while. One day I was walking along and I spat blood and they shifted me to the depot hospital. I went back to work again after that and then it happened again and I went to Rialto. I met my wife in Rialto. She said, 'you are looking very sad'. We got married and had a family; they were the most important thing in my life."

His football career high came in 1944 when Roscommon defeated Kerry to retain the All-Ireland. Since Mayo's win in 1936, Kerry had won four All-Irelands, including a three-in-a-row. The only breaks in the sequence were Galway's win in 1938 and Dublin's in 1942. When Roscommon won their first Connacht title in 29 years in 1943 a wonderful new team emerged captained by Murray. Gilmartin's appearance as a substitute in the provincial final is seen as a critical moment in the team's development.

In the final he marked the Kerry great Paddy Kennedy, whom he had got to know in Dublin where they both worked as Guards. In '46 Gilmartin had to watch Kennedy lift the cup knowing he would never experience that feeling again. But staying alive had become a more pressing consideration. He has managed to achieve long life and that is an achievement in itself with so many of his contemporaries dead, many of them long gone. Kennedy died in 1981. Jamesie Murray passed away in 2007.

Today St Brigid's play in the Connacht semi-finals with intentions of making up next March for the All-Ireland final they lost to Crossmaglen. They are a modern outfit with grand designs and an excellent track record in club football. When St Brigid's won their first county title in 1953, Gilmartin could still have been playing. He was 32. He has been around for every one of the 11 titles they've won since.

No team has won more county championships in Roscommon than Clann na Gael, with 16, but Gilmartin was 40 when they took the first. He was born in 1921, before the foundation of the State. In 1929 aged eight he saw Mayo take on Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final. He went with his father and can still remember the passion for playing ball first time on the ground.

Before he died a few years ago Mick Higgins, the last of the Cavan team from the Polo Grounds to go, was asked how he'd like to be remembered. He replied: "That I never hit anyone, I played a clean game and I was never put off." Gilmartin, a contemporary of Higgins, holds similar ideals and laments the cynicism of the modern age. One of his most cherished recollections is the 1943 All-Ireland semi-final against Louth. The match finished 3-10 to 3-6 in Roscommon's favour but a late goal from Frankie Kinlough concealed the full fury of Louth's challenge.

"We weren't sure what Louth were like. But they were like us; they were a bunch of kids. That was the best match I ever played in. Incredible. It was the cleanest match I ever played, it was the fastest match I ever played. We were lucky to win. Nobody deliberately fouled. We came through (Connacht) colleges football (Roscommon CBS); in colleges football they wouldn't have it (fouling). That's the team we were. We didn't. Wouldn't. I would never deliberately foul. I never deliberately fouled in my life. Mick O'Connell, I think, had it right: play and let play."

He has loved most sport all his life but has fallen out of love with Gaelic football and prefers to watch rugby or "good" soccer. Sometimes he might begin to watch a Gaelic match and have to switch it off.

"I don't know who to blame. The attitudes have changed. Nobody should say 'well, we won it, it doesn't matter how we played, we won'. That isn't good enough for me. Taking frees from the hands . . . now they have a situation where they bring out the goalkeeper to take the free for God's sake. We give a tee for a round ball, for Christ's sake. That sort of (rule change) happened because they weren't thinking how this would affect the game. Kicking out of the hand didn't speed up the game. You give them a tee and now they are kicking it out 30 yards. We are losing skills."

So he'll watch rugby. And Lionel Messi and "the things he can do". He feels Congress should be disbanded because it is "democracy gone mad". But his game, Gaelic football, he can't love it like he used to. How long has it been like this?

"It goes back," he smiles. "Kevin Heffernan might have been near enough the first of the managers who changed the game to a certain extent, and it's been progressive since then. He allowed backs to move through the field. Which is fine, there is no good reason I suppose why a back should not move, but in the long run it means too many forward, and we need to find somebody to stop the bunching."

He doesn't like the casual "enmity" that exists on the field, hitting off the ball, any of the tactics now commonly used to gain unfair advantage.

When they played in Foley's field in Ballymurray they had a rule that once a player got the ball he was allowed to kick it unhindered. "No matter who they were or where they were. It was a fairly good system, you learned how to win a ball and you learned how to kick. In the long run we found people were improving." Perhaps that explains why so many good players came from there. And why Gilmartin had a reputation as a stylish midfielder, a neat distributor.

Life hasn't been a smooth ride but the win over Kerry in '44 is an experience he'll never forget. The attendance of 79,245 was a record, all the more remarkable for being in the middle of a world war when transport was severely curtailed. Boland, his midfield partner, threw his arms around him. People spilled in from the sideline seats. Murray gave a moving speech.

"The final match against Kerry was the most important part of my life. There isn't a whole lot more in it -- I didn't succeed in a whole lot else except raising a family."

Almost all his contemporaries are dead but their football lives are immortalised. "Phelim (Murray) was the best footballer we had. Kinlough was the most stylish. (Bill) Carlos was exciting. Lynch was a great defender. Nerney -- he was five foot feck all -- but when he pulled a Roscommon jersey over his head he was six foot four."

Euphoric Roscommon people engulfed the players at the final whistle in 1944 not knowing it would be their last for generations. Nor did Gilmartin realise that his football days were almost over. That evening in the hotel room he shaved and contemplated three-in-a-row. It didn't seem unreasonable. How could he possibly have imagined what was to follow.

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