Talking with Martin Ferris - Republican and Kerry Footballer

by Weeshie Fogarty

"Conditions in solitary were deplorable. There was absolutely nothing in the cells but a mattress on the floor and a few blankets. The prisoners were not allowed to wear shoes inside the cell and did not have a change of clothes, except for underwear. He was deprived of visits, letters, radio, papers and writing material. All he had for distraction were his three library books per week. Normally to have a conversation it meant lying on the floor and tapping the pipe. The prisoner next door would come to the pipe and he could shout, and the voice would travel in along then pipe and they shout back, and they could at least converse with each other. In one particular cell this was impossible so the prisoner was in complete isolation. Martin Ferris spent months on end in these miserable conditions."

"In my mind I played a lot of football matches in solitary, reliving a lot of games I had seen down through the years. I would remember great days on the football fields and the friends that had been my companions. Great goals would be scored in my minds eye and points kicked from all angles. Many of the games I had played in were replayed in my mind over and over time and time again. Kerry football meant a lot to me during those long lonely days and nights in solitary confinement in Portlaoise jail, yes Weeshie it was tough continuous battle."

Last week my guest on Radio Kerry's Terrace Talk was Sinn Fein TD Martin Ferris, I spend an hour and a half interviewing him and not all revolved around his political life and times. This interview resulted following the publication two weeks ago of his book, Martin Ferris - Man of Kerry. I got the usual quota of inquiries in relation to why a political man was invited on the show, the answer is simple. While we dealt in great dept with his life on the run, being in Portlaoise prison, his hunger strike and The Marita Ann gun running saga and much more we covered a lot in relation to his football career. None other than Mick O Dwyer was quoted recently as saying that only for his political life Martin Ferris would have made one of the great Kerry footballers. Of course while no one can say with utter certainty he definitely showing all the signs as having what it takes to win All Irelands and I can vividly remember him as one who caught the eye while in action for club and county.

While he developed a life long interest in Gaelic games his father Pati had a huge interest in professional boxing. The world boxing monthly publication, Ring Magazine, the bible of boxing was a regular purchase in the house as he kept up a life long love for a sport which he had followed when he was in the USA. A handy fighter himself, Pati had in fact boxed in the preliminary rounds of the Golden Gloves Championship when he was a young man. So Martin was familiar with such names as Joe Louis, Rocky Marcinio, Jersey Joe Walcott and Sugar Ray Robinson from the golden era of boxing and as he told me still retains a great interest in the sport.

Memories of his first big match are vivid as he explained to me. "When I was ten I was football crazy, and spend hours kicking after school in Barrow", speaking to good judges who spotted him around that time it is reported that he had great hands, was strong under the ball, had great speed and hunger and most importantly if he was to make the Kerry team later in life he had what we term in Kerry, 'great cutting'. In 1962 he attended the Munster football final in the old Cork Athletic Grounds, and it turned out to be one of the most tempestuous final ever played up to that time.

"There was fighting on and off the field as Kerry raced into a huge lead eventually winning 4-8 to 0-4, referee Moss Colbert had a difficult afternoon as fistfights broke out around the field. Kerry's outstanding centre back Noel Lucy was sent off; Tim 'Tiger' Lyons downed Cork midfielder Garda Eric Ryan. Kerry goalie Johnny Culloty had to take cover in his own net as sods, bottles and stones showered down on the goal and he in turn advised the two umpires to join him and take shelter in the net for their own protection. The Kerry players and selectors had to receive Garda protection in the middle of the field. At that time the teams togged off in the old Cork boathouse well away from the field and once again protection had to be provided as the Kerry team made their way there. Indeed there were even reports that a players car parked near the river Lee was heaved dangerously close to the waters edge by the enraged crowd."

"We came home that night , my father took us to Fenit, he went for a pint while we headed for the Trough field for a few kicks. J P o Sullivan would later become a detective, and was a very handy footballer, Mike Brown and Mike Slattery were also there and we lived out our footballing dreams. The displays we had seen in Cork earlier that day inspired us as with every young Kerry lad, Donie O Sullivan, Seamus Murphy, Mick o Connell, Tom Long, Bernie o Callaghan and Pat Griffin were our heroes."

Pati Ferris died in 1970, and his son decided to joined the IRA that very same day, it is safe to assume now looking back in retrospect that young Ferris could without doubt have gone on to become a great Kerry footballer, however his life would take a very different path having made that decision and football would take second place in his young life from there on. In 1972 the parish team of Churchill won the Kerry Novice county championship and Martin was one of the stars of the team. He lined out at centre forward and one of his team mates was Pat McCarthy who would go on to become a star for Kerry at mid field, indeed as we discussed in our interview it is likely that McCarthy's displays for Kerry at that time in the mid seventies was instrumental in many of the Kingdome successes. Pat later became a selector with Mick o Dwyer when the Waterville great took the reins in Kildare.

Now just twenty years old it was inevitable that the Kerry selectors would come calling, He was called into action for the Kerry Under 21 team and scored the winning goal when Kerry beat Cork in the Munster final in 1972. He lined out at full forward in the All Ireland that year, however Galway proved too good winning 2-6 to 0-7. Despite being on the run Ferris was chosen for the Kerry under 21 side again the following year. Two former republicans and Kerry legends John Joe Sheehy and Joe Keohane were also involved with the team and appearances for Kerry were arranged for Martin by two selectors, similar arrangements had been made for Sheehy as a young man on the run in the 1920s.

On the day of the Al Ireland under 21 semi final in Tralee in 1973 despite being named in the programme at corner forward Ferris did not line out. With one eye to security he stood on the terrace in hooded anorak watching the Kingdom advance to the All Ireland final. That final was played in Ennis, Martin was a sub. and with Kerry trailing 0-9 to 0-1 at half time the selectors brought on "Pony", (he was christened this by his great friend Jerry Savage). Everything changed on his interduction and Mickey Sheehy, John Egan, Ger o Keeffe, Tim Kennelly, Paudie o Mahoney, Mickey Ned o Sullivan, Jimmy Dennihan all responded to the Churchill man's heart and spirit and Kerry ran out winners, 2-13 to 0-13. That was the foundation of Kerry's greatest team ever and who is to say that only for his political beliefs Ferris would not have gone on and won seven or eight All Ireland senior medals?

After serving ten years in jail for the Marita Ann gun running saga Martin was released from jail on the 20th June 1977, Mick o Dwyer called him into training with his great Kerry team for the Munster final of 1978, however his state of health at the time was not the best and o Dwyer was a hard taskmaster and together with his involvement with the IRA Martin found it difficult to devote the necessary time required to both lives. On the Friday before the Munster Final the Special Branch arrested Ferris, nevertheless with the assistance of well known republican and former All Ireland footballer and referee Dan Ryan, a Tralee taxi driver, Martin made the game.

Kerry beat Cork 3-14 to 3-7, and went on to beat Dublin in the final, "Bomber" scored his three goals that memorable day, however Martin Ferris was not there to collect his coveted senior All Ireland medal. He found training too severe; he simply was not up to that level due to the effects of his hunger strike and solitary confinement the previous year. While he continued to line out with his club the inter county game proved a bridge too far due to his on going health problems and the Churchill man faded out of the limelight.

So how good a footballer was Martin Ferris, shrewd judges of the game here in Kerry and there are many, will tell you that he had everything required to reach the very top at the inter county scene. My ninety minute interview with him on Terrace Talk last Monday week was certainly a revelation and whatever about his political beliefs in my opinion having seen him play at club, division and county level and having listened to his passion for Kerry football I am utterly convinced that he would have gone all the way with oDwyer and the greatest football side in the history of the sport.

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