Brendan O Sullivan

Liam Higgins

November 23rd, 2011
by Brendan O Sullivan

A recent contribution to the Kerry GAA Forum highlighted the fact that five years had passed since the death of Liam Higgins. This prompted me to listen to the Radio Kerry broadcast of the 2006 All-Ireland Final between Kerry and Mayo on the Terrace Talk website. This was Liam's last commentary, given under extraordinary circumstances, demonstrating his courage and devotion to duty. For Liam had been diagnosed with cancer some months previously, was undergoing treatment in Kerry General Hospital and knew that this was almost certainly his last final.
Listening to the commentary is a poignant experience. His voice is strong and vigorous, full of enthusiasm and, with Weeshie's assistance, the tense and exciting atmosphere before the game is perfectly caught. But there are indications that all is not well. In a sideline interview, Johnny Culloty, then a selector, mentions Liam, stating that if the Kerry team have the bravery of Liam Higgins, they will not be beaten. A few minutes later, Liam thanks the hospital staff, especially the oncology department-- and the Head of Sport in Radio Kerry who presumably made the decision to allow Liam do the broadcast.

The match begins and goals from Declan O'Sullivan, Kieran Donaghy and Colm Cooper leave Kerry in control. Mayo reply with three goals in an amazing first-half but Kerry end as comfortable winners of their 34th All-Ireland. Liam's commentary is clear and passionate. His pride in the Kerry players is obvious and he is delighted at Kerry's victory and their style of play. He is especially proud of the players from his own area and states that eleven current or former students from CBS Dingle are on the senior and minor panels-the minors had drawn with Roscommon in the first match. There is another personal note when Declan O'Sullivan is about to accept the Sam Maguire Cup-Liam refers with anguish and admiration to the number of times Declan has broken his heart when playing for Colaiste na Sceilge against the teams he coached from Dingle CBS. And, as the programme winds up, Weeshie pays his own tribute to Liam by saying that there were two men of the match-Seamus Moynihan and Liam Higgins.

For Liam was more than a commentator, he knew what it was like to play for Kerry on All-Ireland day. Born in Lispole in 1945, he played for his club from the age of 14 until he was in his 40s. He was selected for West Kerry, then for the Kerry juniors and in the late 60s progressed to the senior team. The '60s had been frustrating; Kerry  won the 1962 All-Ireland but lost 4 finals-beaten twice by both Down and  Galway- before Liam became a regular on the team at the end of 1968. He settled into the full forward position and was flanked by fellow-newcomer Mick Gleeson and the evergreen Mick O'Dwyer, then playing the best football of his long career.

1969 was a successful year for Kerry. The League was won in two dramatic games in New York and the 21st All-Ireland was finally achieved in a dour victory over Offaly in September. In 1970 the panel travelled to Australia and Liam, newly-married, brought his wife there on honeymoon. Kerry made it two-in-a-row when they defeated Meath in the All-Ireland final later that year. Liam was a target-man full-forward, adept at catching long accurate deliveries from the likes of Mick O'Connell and transferring the ball to O'Dwyer or the inrushing half forwards for them to score. But he could score too and had a total of 15-54 to his name in 57 appearances in the Kerry jersey. He also regularly switched to midfield in the course of a game.

Liam was a teacher in CBS Dingle for almost 40 years. Inevitably, he took charge of the school teams and enjoyed tremendous success, winning two All-Irelands. He was a committed and inspiring coach and teacher, with an outgoing personality, who loved all social gatherings. As a young lad playing football at home, he was in the habit of giving a running commentary on what was happening, pretending to be Micheal O Hehir. And he became Kerry's Micheal O Hehir when, soon after the start of Radio Kerry, he became the station's regular commentator on gaelic games. Some years later, he was joined as analyst by Weeshie Fogarty and they became the most famous double act on local radio.

Liam retired from teaching in 2006 having months earlier received the news that he had cancer. He was positive in his attitude but as the weeks passed, it seemed that he was fighting a losing battle. He was a patient in Tralee Hospital as All-Ireland day, September 17, approached but was determined to be in Croke Park to give the commentary.

With a morphine drip attached to his body to control pain, he was temporarily discharged and travelled to Dublin. When Kerry won their 21st and 22nd titles, Liam was a hero on the field; on the day the 34th was won, he was a hero in the commentary box.

Exactly 8 weeks later, on Sunday November 12, the day of the Kerry County Final between South Kerry and Dr Crokes, Liam died. He was honoured by a minute's silence at the match and by the huge crowd who attended his funeral some days later. He donated his body to medical science. Five years have passed-and he is still remembered with affection and admiration.

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