The last hero: Remembering Liam Gilmartin


‘I found the real reason for living
WAS football’ – Liam Gilmartin 


Liam Gilmartin, the last member of the great double All-Ireland winning Roscommon team of the 1940s, passed away on Saturday last, 2nd of March, 2019. He was in his 98th year (his birthday being June the 1st).

  While I did not see him play, like a boy, I imagined him playing as Brian Fenton does now for the Dublin team. Infused with elegance, gliding over the surface of Croke Park, stretching those long arms to pluck the high ball from the sky. Majestic in all that he does.

   As that boy from Fuerty a few miles out from Roscommon town, I was brought up in a GAA house of the 1950s. It was less than a decade removed from Roscommon’s Golden Age of Gaelic Football.

  Every country, county and parish needs its heroes. The great Roscommon team members of the ‘40s were OUR heroes then. They were a team of all talents with names which still echo in our county 75 years on. 

  Isn’t it remarkable to think that Liam Gilmartin captained Roscommon’s first All-Ireland winning team of any colour in 1939 – with the minors – which will be 80 years ago later this year? He went on to win back-to-back senior All-Irelands in ’43 and ’44 as a young man. Roscommon in that short period won five All-Ireland titles between minor, junior and senior, with other near-misses in ’46 and ’47.

   What a time it must have been to be a Roscommon footballer and what a time it must also have been to be a Roscommon supporter. This was in the time of ‘The Emergency’ as it was called in Ireland then, World War Two globally. It was a time of rationing, deprivation, uncertainty and fear. Through it all, Roscommon football shone through like a beacon, a new team with names that were to echo not just in the county but throughout the 32 counties of Gaelic Football. Roscommon people could and did walk taller in the glow of their achievements. Liam, with his midfield partner Eamon Boland, was central to all that. Gilmartin and Boland are always mentioned together.  

   In 2008 I brought the football used in the 1943 final to Liam in his Raheny home for him to sign as someone who had played with that ball. We talked of football of course and I lamented the fact that I did not have a tape recorder to help remember the conversation. He promised to do one for me and so he did. After I heard it I realised I had a gem and I will repeat some of his observations here. In it he talked of growing up in Ballymurray: ‘Ballymurrray was a great place. I had a great childhood. There you would cast your boots from you after school and that put wings on your feet’.

  He spoke of his introduction to football and hurling and of his first real ‘structured’ football in the schools. Of its progression in Roscommon CBS and with the ‘39 minors. “It was great fun and I was hooked. I found the real reason for living WAS football. To play in Croke Park for the first time was special. Roscommon were All-Ireland champions, the first time ever. It was absolutely brilliant”. 

  He talked of joining the army as so many did then…and later the Gardai.

  In ’43 he became a member of the Roscommon senior team who finally won in Connacht and played a gallant Louth team in the semi-final. It was a game he often referenced, fondly. He had such regard for Louth as sporting opponents. Roscommon went on to beat Cavan in a replay to win the first All-Ireland senior title. The following year they were up against a great Kerry team in the final. “I savoured the coming contest” he related. He detailed the use of two different football boots. One of his own and the second one of his brother, Charlie. It fitted him just that little bit better. He describes being in the parade: “I looked up to the area where my dad was sitting in the Cusack Stand. I don’t see him of course but I know he is there, quiet and hoping”.

  The game ends in victory and the crowd invade the field. He describes what it meant and felt.

  “The field was filled with a mass of cheering, excited, happy people. I suddenly realise what victory means to them. We savour with pride one of the fruits of victory, walking amongst your own, now victorious people. An old man with a tear in his eye clasped my hand in both of his, not speaking. So much emotion and there was no place I would rather be then, than just there, at that particular time”.

  Later that evening he got to thinking: “Could we make it three? Though the next championship is a long way off…. June ’45”. He could not have known that this, his finest hour, would not, and could not be repeated. Early in ’45 he was diagnosed with the tragic illness of the time, TB. When he told his superior officer that he was sick the man responded ‘…ill, how could that be and you one of the fittest men in Ireland?”. That was in Fitzgibbon Street Garda Station, a few hundred yards from Croke Park, where, just a few months earlier, he had been invincible.  

  His next contest was to survive. It was a struggle, but he finally triumphed. It is ironic that for a man so ill in ’45, he was to survive to the age of 97, nearing 98. Many times I had been asked in the last twenty years the question ‘How many of them left?” Well that question is redundant now. As a character in a Synge play declares, “They are all gone now”.

  In more recent decades Liam has emerged to carry the mantle of those times and to represent ‘the lads’, as he called his former playing colleagues. Since then he has enjoyed being asked occasionally “Are you the footballer?” (He remembers some occasion being asked the same question decades ago by another footballer, the poet Patrick Kavanagh).

  Liam was not at all a one-dimensional man. He had poetry running through his veins and the mind of a philosopher. He loved cricket and golf and enriched the lives of those he met and conversed with. I was privileged to have known him in recent decades.      

  Gerry O’Malley, at the funeral of Jimmy Murray, used the simple phrase “I’m not so much sad as lonely”. I understand that these days.

  So hopefully we will remember that ‘Band of Brothers’ as they came to be and especially Liam Gilmartin at this time as we reflect on the long life and legacy of not just a great Roscommon footballer, but a great Roscommon man.