Offaly legend Damien Martin looks back on a career of firsts and what hurling means to him
It’s often asked whether the juice is worth the squeeze for inter-county players if the Holy Grail is not obtained, but it was never about reaching the summit for legendary Offaly goalkeeper Damien Martin – the journey was always what mattered most to him.
“I met such great hurlers and great friends, and I’ll tell you something about hurling, winning an All-Ireland is fantastic, and it’s the icing on the cake, but it’s not the cake,” Martin says.
“I had the cake before I ever won an All-Ireland. I remember being up on this lorry in Tullamore after winning in 1981 and Pádraig Horan (Offaly captain) says to me, ‘Lord, Damien, wasn’t it worth it all along?’ and I says, ‘It was, but it was worth it if we never won it’.”
Time spent in Martin’s company unlocks a treasure trove of GAA memories, and 2021 is a special year for the two-time All-Ireland SHC winner, with a host of anniversaries occurring for the walking trivia question.
He is a man of firsts, having landed the maiden All-Star award 50 years ago, despite Offaly getting soundly beaten in that year’s Leinster semi-final. That same season, in the inaugural All-Ireland club hurling final, he was St Rynagh’s netminder as they were just pipped by Roscrea.
Martin, a regular with Leinster in the Railway Cup, was also the last line of defence when Offaly made their All-Ireland SHC breakthrough 40 years ago. And therein lies a “fairytale” story, as he had hung up his boots in the wake of the Faithful’s first Leinster title.
Seventeen seasons had been spent with Offaly – since making his debut as a minor in 1964 – but he nearly missed out on the glory days and was actually carrying hurls for their narrow Leinster semi-final defeat of Laois.
Horan scored a controversial “goal” through the side netting while Paddy Kirwan put over a famous free to clinch it – “it was 80 or 90 yards that time, it’s gone to a mile and a half now” – but that was also the day the O’Moore men hit them for a staggering six goals.
Martin was coaxed back by their messiah Diarmuid Healy and admits he “wouldn’t have two All-Irelands without him”, but a work accident left his foot “in a right state” before some strings were pulled to get him “VIP treatment” in Tullamore Hospital in order to make a triumphant return against Wexford.
The rest is history as he stopped bullets against Galway in the All-Ireland final with the pinnacle reached in the most dramatic circumstances.
“You talk about fairytales. I retired after 1980; I actually retired. I was self-employed in plant hire at the time and it was tough going. Our goalie at that time didn’t get on too well and I was asked to come back,” Martin recalls.
“Imagine being retired after 17 years and I come back and get two All-Irelands, you couldn’t write it. Lads talk about the good days. You only properly realise how good the good days are if you see the bad ones first.”
Martin eventually finished up with Offaly at the end of 1986, but his love affair with the GAA ensures that he will never retire. He has served on various committees between club and county since then, as well as a selector with Offaly at nearly every grade while his ongoing term in charge of the St Rynagh’s U-10s/U-11s would rival Meath legend Seán Boylan for longevity.
Martin, who worked as part of The Sunday Game team during Jim Carney’s days as a presenter, is “as healthy as a snipe” with regular trips from one pitch to another gobbling up every hurling game he can get his eyes on.
“I couldn’t imagine my life without the GAA. If a lad threw in the ball and mentioned such a thing, then you could talk hurling all night. When you go on holidays, you meet GAA people and you always have something in common no matter where you go,” he says.
Regardless of parish or county boundaries, GAA bonds people together like nothing else and their first All-Ireland triumph perfectly summed that up.
“We had club matches against Camross and I’ll tell you one thing, you wouldn’t be safe in the house when they were being played. When we won the All-Ireland in 1981, the last man that I spoke to outside our little bubble was Johnny Carroll of Laois,” he says.
“He was one of the greatest goalies I ever saw and he’s never mentioned. It nearly embarrasses me when I read the paper, and I’m amongst a list of whatever it is, and Johnny Carroll isn’t on it.
“We got off the train at Kingsbridge (Heuston). We were getting on our bus and there was another crowd getting on their bus and Johnny Carroll was one of them. He came over to me and wished us well and said he’d be shouting for us.
“Then, when the final whistle went, there were two lads that picked me up. One was John Cox from Killeigh, God be good to him, and the other was Tim Keenan from Camross. He was actually the first man to me and pulled me up with his arms. Tim Keenan, 12 months earlier, would bury me in the back of the net any chance he got. That is one of the beautiful things about hurling.”
When Darragh Canavan joined father Peter as an All-Ireland SFC winner in September, the pair linked up with Damien (1981 and ‘85) and son Eunan (1998) in a select crew of father-and-son All-Ireland winners and he’s delighted to see Offaly on the rise again.
While Martin rates the current Limerick crop as the “greatest of them all”, Offaly’s Christy Ring Cup success and a surprise All-Ireland U-20 FC victory “gives us all such a lift”. Optimism is sky high in the county once again under Michael Duignan’s stewardship.
Shane Lowry is on board as a sponsor with a swell of support at every turn, highlighted by the Offaly Association’s first annual Offaly GAA Golf Classic to be held in Dublin’s Palmerstown House proving a resounding success last week.
Martin lives and breathes hurling, but the 75-year-old doesn’t long for the bygone days when it was tradition to “bury the goalie” and he feels sanitisation has saved the game’s future.
“It was dog eat dog back when I played, they’d get jail now. Thanks be to God, it’s so different now because it was shocking. I guarantee you if hurling hadn’t changed that, there’d be no one hurling. Do you think modern parents would let their young lads play hurling the way it was that time? Not a chance.”
Martin has seen it all. He’s shared fields with “hurling gods” like Eddie Keher and Pat Hartigan and the small ball will always be a constant in his life. The goalposts may have moved, but some things will never change.