Defence Forces chief was famed footballer

Sat, Jun 26, 2010, 01:00

DERMOT EARLEY:LIEUT GEN Dermot Early, who has died aged 62, was chief of staff of the Defence Forces and one of the country’s best Gaelic footballers, enjoying a senior inter-county career spanning 20 years.

Regarded as a born leader on the football pitch and in the dressing room, he rose through the ranks of the Defence Forces to emerge as one of its most highly regarded chiefs of staff.

Dermot Earley was born in 1948 in Castlebar, Co Mayo, one of five children of Peadar Earley and his wife Catherine (Kitty) Byrne. The family later moved to Gorthaganny, Co Roscommon, where Peadar took up a teaching post.

Educated locally and at St Nathy’s College, Ballaghaderreen, he joined the Defence Forces as a cadet in 1965. Commissioned into the Infantry Corps in 1967, he was appointed platoon commander in the recruit training depot at the Curragh. He specialised in physical training and education, and was appointed an instructor in the Army School of Physical Culture (ASPC) in 1969.

He completed a specialist diploma in physical education at St Mary’s College, Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, in 1971.

He held a variety of operational and administrative appointments at Curragh Command, and completed the first Ranger course in the Defence Forces, which led to the establishment of special operations training and the formation of the Army Ranger Wing.

Following a period as assistant command adjutant at Curragh Command he was appointed school commandant of the ASPC. From 1983 to 1987 he was desk officer for overseas operations and later current operations in the chief-of-staff’s branch at Defence Forces headquarters.

He participated in overseas missions with the UN, including as a military observer in the Middle East and twice with Unifil, the UN mission to Lebanon. And from 1987 to 1991 he served as deputy military adviser to UN secretary general Javier Perez de Cuellar.

He was involved in negotiating an end to the Angolan civil war. Afterwards, at a dinner in Lisbon with Angolan leaders and international statesmen, he made a “passionate speech” about what the future held for Angola. A Portuguese academic and student of the peace process handed him a piece of paper with his summary of Earley’s speech. It simply said: “You have it. Don’t f**k it up.” Earley later told The Irish Times that he agreed the summary would be in line with his basic philosophy.

While serving with the UN up to 1991 he was a member of negotiating teams dealing with the Iraqis and Kuwaitis, and was a key adviser during the setting up of the UN’s mission in Kuwait – Unikom.

On return from his UN posting in 1991 he was appointed an instructor at the command and staff school of the Military College, and in the mid-1990s he helped establish the UN Training School Ireland in the college.

On his promotion to lieutenant-colonel in 1995 he commanded the 27th Infantry Battalion on the Border, and held further appointments related to conciliation and arbitration and public relations at Defence Forces headquarters.

Promoted to colonel in 2001, he held the appointments of director of administration and director of personnel before being selected for promotion to brigadier-general in 2003. He was promoted to major-general in February 2004 and was appointed deputy chief-of-staff. He became chief of staff in April 2007, leading the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service.

He became ill last year and had been on a period of extended sick leave since the beginning of this year. He formally retired two weeks ago, on June 13th, due to ill health. His last public appearance was in April, when he was presented with a distinguished service medal by the Taoiseach.

Earley was known for his impassioned oratory, particularly while addressing younger members of the Defence Forces about to depart on overseas missions. He reminded them of their ability and the confidence he had in them, and pressed upon them the need to have confidence in themselves.

As a footballer he was equally brilliant at midfield or centre-forward. He played minor championship football in 1963 at the age of 15. Two years later he was promoted to the Roscommon senior side, and won the first of five Connacht championship medals in 1972. In between, he won an All-Ireland under-21 medal in 1966 when Roscommon beat Kildare in the championship final.

Twice an All-Stars awards winner, he won a National League medal (1979), an All-Ireland runners’ up medal (1980) and two Railway Cup medals. He retired from inter-county football in 1985.

He played club football with Michael Glaveys in Roscommon and was later involved with Sarsfields of Newbridge, Co Kildare, where he lived. He managed and was a selector for many teams at the club.

A measure of his popularity in footballing circles across the country was that on the occasion of his last game for Roscommon, against Mayo in 1985, he was carried shoulder high from the field by members of the opposing team.

He also played rugby, and in 1974 lined out with an Army team against Wanderers in an IRFU centenary celebration match at Lansdowne Road.

After he retired as a player he managed the Roscommon and Kildare county teams. He remained committed to local football in Kildare until he fell ill last year, and continued commentating on club games for local radio after his promotion to the highest rank of the Defence Forces.

One of his sons, Dermot Earley jnr, is also an Army officer, and like his father has two All Stars. Earley snr’s daughter Noelle also plays football for Kildare and has also won an All Star.

His former Roscommon team mates spoke this week of a gifted player who was not only determined to get the most from himself, but who helped develop others beyond the limits of their own ambitions.

Those in the military remember an inspiring figure who made time for everyone and engaged at every opportunity with even the most junior Defence Force members.

He died on Wednesday at the Drogheda Memorial Hospital on the Curragh, Co Kildare. His funeral takes place today.

He is survived by his mother Kitty, his wife Mary, and six children: David, Dermot, Conor, Paula, Ann-Marie and Noelle.


Dermot Earley: born February 24th, 1948; died June 23rd, 2010