Higgins, Liam

22 November 2006
The late Liam Higgins

An impeccable one minute’s silence was observed at the recent county final to honour the memory of Liam Higgins who died in his sleep that Sunday morning, November 12th, 2006 after a six-month battle with cancer. Typical of the man he donated his body for medical research.

That gesture encapsulated everything we knew about the former Kerry footballer and radio broadcaster. He was a big man in every sense of the word and he saw well beyond the world of everyday living where according to award-winning novelist John McGahern "the best day of life is lived quietly where nothing happens beyond our calm journey through the day".

Liam’s journey was not always calm or placid and, for sure, it was never boring or uneventful but one thing can be said with absolute certainty. He loved life and he lived it to the full of as long as he could. Family, friends and football meant everything to him.

It was sad to observe his leave-taking at the comparatively young age of 61. By normal chronological expectations he should have had much more time ahead of him but, sadly, it was not to be. The riper years of old age were not his to enjoy and he must have felt cheated because of that but he was not one to complain - at least not outwardly. After being diagnosed with cancer he remarked to a friend: "It’s an awful way to go". Beyond that, there was no further dissent.

If you want to measure human fortitude it is sufficient to think of how he coped during his last days. He faced death with much more certainty than a soldier going into battle and his stoicism and acceptance of that situation were awe-inspiring. He took it on the chin and made the best of what time he had left. We met briefly at the All Ireland football final and having been warned in advance how fast he was sinking I was prepared to be shocked. And yes, it was a shock to see him looking so thin and drawn, just a shadow of his former self. His parting words were "I’m going to keep on fighting".

That weekend he came to Dublin insistent on performing his normal duties and doing his usual commentary on the match for Radio Kerry. This meant having a morphine pump strapped to his body which gave him occasional release form the pain. Johnny Culloty summed it all up so well when he said: "If Kerry have the same spirit today as Liam Higgins we won’t be beaten."

He continued to lead as normal a life as possible right up to the end. This meant attending matches and doing his usual commentary on radio until his health went into serious decline.

He was a natural communicator and this made his job as a sports broadcaster relatively easy. Speaking about football, a sport he clearly loved, was second nature to somebody who knew what he was talking about. Every nuance that surrounded the players was part of the canvass that he painted. His deep knowledge of the game shone through in every syllable that he uttered. But it wasn’t just the big occasions. He had an equal facility to go to remote venues and with minimal research handle the needs of the day to perfection. A consummate professional he made few if any mistakes. He did this for 16 years.

Along with his close friend and colleagues, Weeshie Fogarty, be became the authentic voice of Kerry football. Together they travelled the length and breadth of the country without ever having an argument or ever exchanging a harsh word. He was an easy man to get on with. Weeshie, on his own admission, will be "lost without him".

The President of the GAA, Nickey Brennan, said of Liam that he was the ’embodiment of the traditional Kerry footballer, tall, athletic, skillful and brave". He was all of those things.

He came to the Kerry team as a young man in 1969 after the county had languished in the doldrums for seven years and he made an immediate impact at full forward. Jackie Lyne provided the coaching for the role he wanted him to fill and he blended seamlessly with corner forwards Mick Gleeson and Mick O’Dwyer who did most of the scoring with Higgins acting mainly as facilitator.
You could say the Lispole native was the original trendsetter and prototype for Eoin Listona and, more recently, Kieran Donaghy. he was a big man, 6 feet 2 inches in height, who stood tall on the fringe of the square and he knew football was - and still is - a simple game that should be played without irritating complications. He had the basics of his trade, good fielding ability, unselfishness on the ball and an eye for an opening. Two All-Ireland senior medals, four National League Medals and three Munster championships were his reward.

From a young age the GAA became the consuming passion of his life. He continued to play club football with Lispole into this early 40s and he was a key figure on the team that own six successive West Kerry championships. He trained Kerry to win a Junior All-Ireland B colleges competition.

Up until the time of his death he had served for 20 years as Lispole delegate to the county board. As a Kerry selector he sat impassively through many tension filled games without showing the slightest outward sign of emotion. This ability to detach himself from the tumult around him was astonishing. He was a clam voice in the dugout who knew how the flow of play could be altered by swift and decisive action from the line. That was an area of operation in which he excelled.

A teacher by profession, he shaped the lives of a younger generation who came to know him as guide, philosopher and friend. While, on occasion, he could be a hard taskmaster he was never over-bearing or confrontational in his work. He had a reputation for being a gifted teacher.

Pride of place meant everything it Liam Higgins and he remained a proud West Kerry man throughout his life without ever wavering in his loyalty. He revelled in the sporting exploits of men from his own area and he trumpeted their virtues unashamedly on radio whenever and where ever possible. If some people thought this was a bit extreme at times, then so be it. Liam never found it necessary to apologise for the way he felt about issues that were important in his life. Where West Kerry, its people and traditions were concerned he nailed his colours to the mast and he never retreated from that position.

A hard competitor on the field, he didn’t take suspects never mind prisoners and if some opponents felt the brunt of those broad shoulders or even, on occasion, a clip around the ear, then that was the way it had to be because he was not one to stand back. By the same token he shipped many a knock himself without complaining.

In private life Liam was a most engaging companion, full of fun and with a love of friendship and conviviality that brought him into the ambit of a huge circle of friends. These were people who had come to know and appreciate his many fine and endearing qualities.

For the most part he was too busy to enjoying himself to be bothered with unpleasantness or frivolity. Pettiness or small-mindedness did not interest him. He was a good man.

Ar dheis lamh De go raibh a anam uasal.

Courtesy of The Kerryman
22 November 2006