The recent death of ‘Boiler’ White brought back memories of a time when our heroes were more home grown than the celebrities of today. My youthful memories extend back to the 1950s, a time before television engulfed the countryside in a bewildering maze of individuals accorded instant unearned celebrity status. Those entrusted with that status never come near to equalling, in my eyes at least, the greatness of my youthful sporting heroes. Men like ‘Boiler’ White whose prowess on the football field I sought to emulate but could never hope to match. As a Gaelic footballer in the early 1950s ‘Boiler’ was a legend in his own time, such that when referring to him his name was invariably prefaced with the prefix ‘the’. ‘The Boiler’ White was my generations Roy of the Rovers, the peerless footballer whose strength and skill seemed limitless.
Gaelic football was in my teens a sport ingrained in the parish with offshoots which involved the Kildare county team. With my friends I played football every day and the long hot summers of my youth (always remembered as such) afforded every encouragement for playing out our roles as county players of the future. We imagined ourselves striding out onto the playing pitch at Geraldine Park to represent the Lilywhites in a contest almost invariably opposing our neighbouring county folk of either Carlow or Laois. We had no desire to go any further in our imaginations than the neighbouring counties which we could always feel confident of beating. At least our confidence in successfully overcoming Carlow was seldom wide of the mark, even if the plantation county of Laois did not always play true to our belief of being less than equal to the short grass county.
As youngsters in the 1950s our football was played out in the reflective glory of Gaelic football players such as ‘Boiler’ White, Paddy Gibbons, Larry McCormack and Toss McCarthy. Men whom we saw play on our home pitch at Geraldine Park at a time when issues of public health and safety did not concern the authorities and attendances on the terraces were limited only by the ground’s capacity.
There was no television in those days and so our enjoyment of Gaelic football was wholehearted and untainted by comparisons with games played in places as far apart as Anfield and Old Trafford. Our sporting heroes were the men who played Gaelic football for our county of Kildare and the mighty ‘Boiler’ White was a special favourite.
In 1956 Kildare won the Leinster Championship Final and two men who played on that team had by then assumed the mantle of sporting heroes which once graced the broad shoulders of ‘Boiler’ White and his colleagues of the early 1950s. Danny Flood was of course from Athy and had first played as full back for the county senior team in 1954 and would continue to do so for ten more years. The big strong man from the south of the county easily filled the bill as a sporting hero of my youth, as did the smaller but graceful footballer from Monasterevin, Seamie Harrison. Danny Flood would continue to play for Kildare seniors during the years Mick Carolan and Kieran O’Malley came to prominence. O’Malley was a stylish player whose free taking and ability to chip the ball from the ground into his hands without bending or stooping down were marvels to behold. With Mick Carolan he joined the pantheon of sporting heroes who over the years graced the football field wearing the colours of the Lilywhite County.
But for me at least the one name which stands about above all others is that of ‘The Boiler’ White. Maybe it was because ‘Boiler’ was in his prime as a player when I first became aware of the greatness which attaches to sportsmen who excel at their sport. For whatever reason ‘Boiler’ White was my first sporting hero, the man whose name was heard when in imaginative mood I realised the dream of bringing the Sam Maguire Cup to Kildare as I bore down on the goal mouth in a practice match with my friends. It is now over 50 years since those days and the recent passing of ‘Boiler’ White has brought a curtain down on memories of sporting times past.
Strangely I never met ‘Boiler’ White but his name was with me for over five decades. He was a sporting legend and my first sporting hero.