Earley, (Anthony William) Dermot (1948–2010), Gaelic footballer and army officer, was born on 24 February 1948 in Castlebar, Co. Mayo, the eldest of three sons and two daughters of Peadar Earley, a primary school teacher, and his wife Catherine (née Byrne), both from Co. Mayo. He grew up in Cruck, outside Balla, Co. Mayo, then from 1953 in Cloonbonniffe, near Castlerea, Co. Roscommon, and finally from 1955 in Gorthaganny, Co. Roscommon, where his father was the school principal.
Revering his father, he inherited his passion for Gaelic football, and so chose to board at St Nathy's College, Ballaghadereen, Co. Roscommon. Playing in midfield, he captained the college's juvenile (1963) and junior (1965) football teams to Connacht titles, though his ineffective exertions as St Nathy's lost the 1965 Connacht senior final foreshadowed a career spent overcompensating for his teammates' inadequacies. A strapping youngster, he was selected for the Roscommon minors in 1963 aged only 15, playing both minor and under-21 inter-county football for four seasons.
In 1966 he made his senior championship debut for Roscommon and became the first footballer to line out for his county's minor, under-21, junior and senior teams in the same year, leading a late rally as Roscommon shocked Kildare in the under-21 all-Ireland final. He also played for the losing Roscommon team in the 1969 under-21 all-Ireland final. Emerging as a leading inter-county footballer, he was selected for the Connacht Railway Cup team almost uninterruptedly from 1968 to 1985.
A strong, fast, and rousingly direct player, he mastered football's basic elements – the catch, pick, kick, and solo run – thus enabling him to deploy a limited repertoire to great effect, and to overwhelm the opposition in bursts of individual attacking exuberance, punctuated by periods of relative quiescence. He was equally comfortable kicking off both feet and capable, even as a minor, of landing points from 60 yards when not battering through defenders or bombarding them with long balls. Normally the designated place-kicker, he was peerless from long range, though not quite reliable enough closer in.
Obliged to carry a weak and shambolic Roscommon side, which barely won a championship match in his first six seasons, he hunted extensively for possession and took too much on when he had it. For all the games he dominated, there were as many where the opposition's superior teamwork left him chasing shadows. The selectors' unhelpful reluctance to place him consistently in his preferred midfield position meant that he shored up every line of the Roscommon team and as late as 1974 spent much of the year at full-forward, becoming the leading marksman in inter-county football with 10 goals and 96 points in 25 matches. He eventually settled in midfield while occasionally appearing in the half-forward line.
Having been in the local army reserve since he was 14, he joined the Defence Forces cadet school at the Curragh Camp, Co. Kildare, in 1965. Two years later, he was commissioned into the army's Infantry Corps as a second lieutenant and appointed a platoon commander in the recruit-training depot at the Curragh. He played basketball and rugby for army teams and was fullback for the Curragh rugby club, using an assumed name ('Lieutenant Late') for rugby prior to the lifting of the GAA's ban on 'foreign games'. While he relished an honest battle in any sporting context, his army training instilled a sense of discipline that deterred him from ruthless physicality or reacting to provocation. (In a rare lapse, his sending-off for retaliation in a football league match in 1975 led to his suspension from that year's all-star tour to America, though he travelled in an unofficial capacity.)
In 1969 he was appointed an instructor with the Army School of Physical Culture in the Curragh and completed the first training course for the elite Army Ranger Wing. Deemed the fittest Gaelic footballer in Ireland, he developed unusually broad shoulders and thighs, and featured prominently in the army's recruitment campaigns. He completed a one-year diploma in physical education at St Mary's College, Twickenham, near London (1970–71), and supervised the physical conditioning of his Roscommon teammates from 1973. He married (1971) Mary Egan of Lisheen, Co. Tipperary; they lived in Newbridge, Co. Kildare, and had three sons and three daughters. Aside from undertaking the 180-mile round trip three times a week to train with Roscommon, he also travelled to Gorthaganny to play for the Michael Glaveys junior club (founded by his father) before joining Newbridge Sarsfields in 1978.
Promoted to army captain (1974), and then made adjutant (1977) and commandant (1980) of the army's general training camp in the Curragh, he spent eighteen months in the Middle East as a UN military observer (1975–6), based first in the Golan Heights and then in the Sinai Desert. He later served a six-month UN peacekeeping tour of duty in south Lebanon (October 1982–March 1983) as adjutant of the 52nd Infantry Battalion, which was regularly fired on by Lebanese militias.
After missing the 1976 championship serving abroad, he returned to a Roscommon setup where efforts underway since 1973 to improve fitness and organisation were bearing fruit. Powering his county to four consecutive Connacht titles (1977–80) and a National League (1979), he was fractionally past his peak, but played arguably his best, and certainly his most consistent, football, as the combination of personal maturity and sufficient team support allowed him to dictate the tempo and time his surges more tellingly. In 1977 his tally of 1–30 made him joint top championship scorer.
Progressing into realistic contenders from 1979, Roscommon reached the all-Ireland final in 1980 after three consecutive semi-final defeats. Facing a superior, but misfiring, Kerry team, an initially adventurous Roscommon succumbed to the occasion and lost an early lead by playing defensively and committing panicked fouls. To his subsequent mortification, Earley was culpable as the ineptly refereed encounter degenerated into a free-riddled fiasco. Yet he played well and his irrepressible sallies dragged Roscommon back into contention in the second half before a more poised Kerry narrowly prevailed.
This loss disheartened Roscommon, and Earley, who was captain from 1983, reverted to illuminating an underachieving side, defying his years by maintaining a level of commitment and performance that put most of his teammates to shame. For all his inspirational qualities, his humble, good-natured disposition made him too tolerant of the managerial incompetence and player apathy that repeatedly blighted his inter-county career. Latterly, his brother Paul, sixteen years his junior, joined him on the team, winning an all-star award in 1985.
In 1985, Early's last season, he inspired Roscommon's Connacht semi-final victory over Galway and received a standing ovation when forced off with a fractured jaw. Following surgery and against medical advice, he lined out for his valedictory Connacht final, a disappointing loss to Mayo, after which he was carried shoulder high off the pitch by two of his opponents. One of the best footballers never to have won an all-Ireland, Earley finished with five Connacht medals (1972, 1977–80), two Railway Cup medals (1967 and 1969), a National League (1979) and two all-stars (1974 and 1979). He also won two Kildare senior county medals with Newbridge Sarsfields (1982 and 1986).
By then he was based in the Defence Forces HQ in Dublin as officer for overseas and current operations (1983–7). Seconded to New York in 1987 as assistant military adviser to the UN secretary-general, he benefited in this globetrotting role from speaking English and from Ireland's neutrality. Promoted to deputy military adviser in 1989, he participated in the UN initiatives that helped end the Iran–Iraq war (1988) and accomplish Namibia's independence (1989–90); he played a pivotal role in securing a ceasefire in the Angolan civil war (1991). Also involved in the negotiations preceding the Gulf war (1990–91), he attributed their failure to American intransigence and subsequently supervised the introduction of peacekeeping forces into Kuwait.
Returning from the UN in 1991, he burnished his reputation with a well-judged authorised biography, and was appointed an instructor at the command and staff school of the Military College in the Curragh, joining the college's newly inaugurated UN Training School Ireland in 1993. He also unsuccessfully managed the Roscommon (1992–4) and Kildare (1994–6) football teams, successively taking over counties in decline, and winning only one championship match in four seasons. In both instances, the players were too comfortable with his familiar manner and lacked confidence in his methods, which ignored the trend towards ultra-fitness. Thereafter, he was active with Newbridge Sarsfields as team selector, under-age coach and club chairman, and regularly commentated on GAA matches for local radio.
Promoted to lieutenant-colonel in 1995, he was given command of the 27th Battalion, stationed in Dundalk, Co. Louth, before commanding the 52nd Infantry Battalion on its UN peacekeeping tour of duty in Lebanon (April–October 1997). He was then posted back to Dublin headquarters where he held positions with responsibility for public relations and for conciliation and arbitration. Supportive of the newly established soldiers' representative associations, he impressed when representing the high command in talks with the army officers' association, as bumper public revenues facilitated wage increases throughout the Defence Forces.
After receiving an MA in peace and development studies from the University of Limerick (1999), and graduating from a one-year course at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London (2001), he was promoted colonel (2001) and served as director of administration and then of personnel before becoming brigadier-general (2003). In 2004 he was made major-general and appointed deputy chief of staff (support) with responsibility for personnel, financial management and logistics. The politically astute and media savvy Earley capped his ascent by reaching the rank of lieutenant-general and the position of chief of staff in 2007, thereby assuming overall command of the 10,500 members of the Defence Forces.
His authoritative bearing, oratorical eloquence and unaffected affability made him popular with the rank and file, but the officers distrusted him as too political, believing that a position in the Department of Foreign Affairs' new conflict resolution unit beckoned upon his scheduled retirement in 2011. Nonetheless, in his first year he delivered the state funding needed for the Defence Forces' ongoing reorientation towards overseas peacekeeping missions, and also persuaded the government to sanction the risky deployment of 450 Irish soldiers to Chad as part of the EU intervention force charged with protecting refugees and aid workers. Conducted across a remote, inaccessible territory, teeming with hostile rebel militias, this two-year mission (2008–10) demonstrated the Defence Forces' improved operational and logistical capabilities, but aroused misgivings that the Irish were overstepping their normal peacekeeping duties. When the leasing of two incorrectly certified helicopters deprived the Irish troops in Chad of air transport for four months in 2008, Earley apologised to the minister for defence for this blunder, which an internal inquiry blamed on an officer exceeding his brief. Amid collapsing government finances and fears of civil unrest in Ireland during 2008–09, he adroitly handled the closure of four barracks and attendant relocation of 690 personnel while firmly rebuffing the soldiers' representative association when it sought assurances that the army would not be used to break public-sector strikes.
Falling ill in autumn 2009, he was diagnosed in January 2010 with Creudtzfeldt–Jacob disease, a rapid degenerative condition, and forced into retirement in April. At his retirement ceremony, his friend Taoiseach Brian Cowen presented him with the distinguished service medal, the highest military honour. He died on 23 June 2010 in the Drogheda Memorial Hospital in the Curragh and was buried in Newbridge cemetery. The widespread dismay accompanying his death illustrates his merit, personal appeal and exemplary conduct as a sportsman and public servant. Throughout his life, he successfully played up to the public's yearning for an idealised, wholesomely masculine embodiment of authority – a role that came naturally to him.
In 2011 a bronze statute of Earley was erected in Gorthaganny. His son Dermot followed him into the Defence Forces and enjoyed a distinguished Gaelic football career with Kildare, winning two all-star awards. His daughter Noelle won one all-star playing football for Kildare.