Roscommon’s Lion-Hearted Gerry O’Malley.
For a period of eighteen years, from 1947 to 1965, the heartbeat of Roscommon football was Gerry O’Malley. It was he who gave it hope in the latter years of the fifties and the early years of the sixties. While Roscommon had many fine players in that time the one name that echoed across the length and breathe of the Gaelic football world was that of O’Malley.
Not only did he represent his native County with distinction in both football and hurling but he was a central figure in a great Connacht team when the Railway Cup competition was a highlight of the GAA calendar. In the fifties, the five Connacht counties probably had their greatest ever individual Gaelic footballers. Galway had Sean Purcell, Leitrim had Packie McGarty, in Sligo it was Naas O’Dowd, Mayo was spoiled for choice with Paraic Carney and Tom Langan and in Roscommon it was Gerry O’Malley. O ‘Malley played for thirteen years with Connacht winning three medals ‘51, ‘57 and ‘58 in the Golden Age of The Railway Cup.
The hope always was that O’Malley would achieve his just reward and win an All-Ireland Senior Football medal. Though he came close, being in the Final of 1962 and the Semi-finals of ’52 and ’53 and ’61 he did not achieve the ultimate accolade. He was later feted in 1984 in The Sunday Independent/Irish Nationwide Centenary team representing ‘the greatest players never to have won an All-Ireland Senior medal’. Naturally he was also selected on both the Roscommon and Connacht teams of the Century. He did win an All-Ireland medal, of which he is very proud, in 1965 when Roscommon Junior hurlers defeated Warwickshire in the Junior hurling final in St. Coman’s Park.
Gerry came from Brideswell near Athlone in South Roscommon and went to school in The Marist College, Athlone. He later progressed to UCG and UCD for his Agricultural Science studies. In University he participated in The Sigerson Cup which he regards as ‘the toughest competition I was ever involved in’. His native area is now represented by one of the county’s top GAA Clubs St. Brigid's whose emergence in the early fifties is in part due to the prowess and inspiration of O’Malley. He just missed out on the great period of Roscommon football in the forties coming on the scene in late forty seven. That ‘Polo Grounds’ year Roscommon had been beaten by Cavan in the All-Ireland Semi-Final. Perhaps the inclusion of a young O’Malley might have tipped the scales otherwise. O’Malley quickly rose to stardom and was selected on The Ireland Team of 1949 who played The Combined Universities in a popular representative game of that period. These were The All-Stars of the time. In 1961 he won the Gaelic sports writers award of Footballer of the Year.
O’Malley’s Greatest Hours:
When one defines greatness in a player it is not just the occasional great performance but a consistency over a long period laced with those exceptional performances. A large number of these performances had the sports writers reaching for the superlatives such as the Connacht Finals of ’53, ’61 and ’62. Perhaps the one most etched in the folk memory is the Connacht Final of 1962. This is aided by its linkage to a particular incident which resulted in this final becoming known as ‘The Broken Crossbar final’.
The Mayo dominance of the late forties and early fifties was broken by an O’Malley inspired Roscommon in the Connacht Final of 1952. There was a newspaper strike at the time and legend has it that such was the scepticism with the result submitted that the Radio Eireann Sports Department held back until it could be confirmed. The score read; Roscommon 3.5, Mayo 0.6.In a very good team performance the hero of the hour was O’Malley. He gave one of the greatest displays seen in a Connacht Final similar to Purcell in ’54. ‘The Western People’ of Mayo was generous in its praise of O’Malley as its report went, ‘He gave a display so outstanding that no praise of mine would give him due merit”. Four great Mayo players, Carney, Mongey, Langan and Irwin all tried their luck on him but to no avail. Roscommon were unlucky to be beaten by Meath in the All-Ireland Semi-Final. Gerry regards this as the best Roscommon team he played in with a mix of fine new players such as O’Donogue, Kelly and Batt Lynch and some great players from Roscommon’s Golden era such as Boland, Nerney and Jackson. There was similar disappointment against Armagh in ’53. The accounts of Roscommon Championship games through the remainder of the disappointing fifties are dominated by the performances of O’Malley and he is regularly referred to as ‘the great hearted’ and ‘the lion hearted’ warrior of the primrose and blue.
The Broken Crossbar Final:
The decade of the fifties is dominated by Galway. It is not until 1961 that Roscommon turned the tables on Galway in “A Gripping Affair” as The Irish Independent reported. Disappointment followed with defeat by the great Offaly team of the time. If the ’61 Connacht Final was regarded as a high point for Roscommon at the time few could have predicted that it would be surpassed by the even more dramatic ‘Broken Crossbar Final of ’62.
The Roscommon goalie, Aidan Brady swung on the bar and it broke. Galway were leading comfortably. After the necessary repairs O’Malley, from midfield, took the game by the scruff of the neck and inspired all around him. Roscommon drew level and it looked as if a remarkable draw had been salvaged but in a last surge O’Malley powered his way up-field through the heart of the Galway defence past bewildered rivals and team-mates alike, the crowd in a frenzy. An amazed Roscommon support willed him on and a shocked Galway support feared the worst. This was a painter’s picture of a sporting battlefield in slow motion. Finally the release as he passes to Don Feely who calmly makes an angle and drops the ball neatly between the uprights. The kick out and the game is over. Roscommon have come back from the death. A pandemonium of Roscommon euphoria mirrored by stunned disbelief from the Galway supporters. There is no rush to the exits as people try to absorb it all. The sports doyens did their best but realised that even their superlatives fell short. Donal Carroll (Irish Independent), “The unsurpassable Gerry O’Malley has done it again. His was a masterly exhibition” Jack Mahon in the Gaelic Weekly introduces the term “the lion-hearted O’Malley” while in The Roscommon Herald it was “the incomparable O’Malley”.
All-Ireland Final of 1962
Having overcome Cavan in the Semi-final this All-Ireland was to have been ‘O’Malley’s Final’ with the hopes of so many wishing he would finally get his just reward. Overall there was too much pressure resting on one person’s shoulders. Alas an early injury, necessitating hospitalisation, meant he was not the necessary influence and was eventually forced to retire as another great, Mick O’Connell, dominated for the victorious Kerry side. Gerry looked back on this as, “the greatest disappointment of my life”
O’Malley was to continue until 1965 but the great new Galway side emerged as Roscommon declined.
Gerry O’Malley served many units of the GAA with love, loyalty and commitment. His first major Club was the famed St. Patrick’s Club of Knockcroghery with Jimmy Murray and many members of the great Roscommon team of the forties. They lost the ’47 County Final to their great rivals of the time, Tarmon from outside Castlerea run by GAA President of the time, Dan O’Rourke. This was followed by victories in ’48 and ’49 over another power-house of the time, Elphin. While these victories were sweet they were submerged when his own parish of Brideswell and Kiltoom as St. Brigid’s, emerged to defeat Elphin in ’53. After losing to the same opposition in ’57 St. Brigid’s put two titles back-to-back in ’58 and ’59. A feature of these wins was that the same line-out obtained for the team in both years. His last County Final victory was in ’63. He continued to follow the fortunes of St. Brigid’s and regularly attended their games and functions. There was no one prouder than he when St. Brigid’s finally achieved the Holy Grail when winning the All-Ireland Club Championship in 2013. He was a great believer of the position of the Club as the bedrock of the GAA and was a very willing and visible inspiration to Clubs who called on him. He has lived for a long number of years in Swords in Dublin and was a regular at games in Croke Park. His retained until the end a clear memory of the detail of his long career.
A love of Hurling:
O’Malley was an excellent hurler having been introduced to the game by his National School teacher Master O’Sullivan. He played with the Four Roads Club where his mentor was Johnny Mee. He helped them win their first title in many years at Easter 1946 for 1945. He was only a youngster then. He was a member of five further County Championship winning teams with Four Roads. He was the major figure in a good County hurling side in this period and if he was denied his All-Ireland football medal it was hurling which provided that final accolade when Roscommon defeated Warwickshire in the All-Ireland Junior Final of 1965. He was one of a few Roscommon hurlers to play Railway Cup with the Galway dominated Connacht side. In conversation his love of hurling shone through.
It is somewhat unsatisfactory just recording the mere statistics of Gerry O’Malley’s long and illustrious career as many of his displays are intertwined with an emotive response nurtured by such games as the two Connacht Finals of ’52 and ’62 when his unquenchable spirit shone through and will never be forgotten by those privileged to have seen the lion-hearted Gerry O’Malley in full flight.