Tributes paid to former Garda and All-Ireland winner Dan O’Neill
On Jan 10th 2015 the death took place of former Garda Dan O’Neill, a native of Castlebar, who went on to have a distinguished career both in public life and as a Gaelic footballer. Born in the early 1930s he joined his local club, Castlebar Mitchels that went on to win five Co Mayo Senior Football Championships. He joined An Garda Siochana in 1954 and was assigned to Drogheda Station. From this base, he opted to play football with Louth, which proved quite a controversial decision at the time. In 1957, he played centre-field on the great Louth Football team captained by Dermot O’ Brien that beat Cork to clinch the All-Ireland title at Croke Park.
Dan’s autobiography “Divided Loyalties”, co-authored with Mayo journalist Liam Horan and published in 2008, explains why he dramatically quit his native Mayo before going on to an All-Ireland glory with Louth. The former Garda detailed how a disagreement over expenses was the catalyst for his move to the Wee County, where he was stationed at the time. O’Neill felt the Mayo county board were “penny pinching” when they failed to cover the full amount he requested to travel west to play with Mayo one weekend early in 1956.
“I was young and hurt and felt my credibility had been called into question. My first reaction was one of indignation,” said O’Neill. Admitting that the monumental decision was taken “on impulse”, and probably deserved “more consideration”, O’Neill felt he had no alternative. “For me it was a matter of principle. I felt short-changed by Mayo, believed my bona fides as a person was being questioned. In my view, this implied slur on my character could not be allowed to go unchallenged,” he writes.
O’Neill and another former Mayo player – Seamie O’Donnell – ended up playing together at midfield for Louth in the second-half of the 1957 All-Ireland final win over Cork. Later in his decorated career, O’Neill returned to the Mayo colours but never again played championship for his home county, “I wanted to set the record straight. I wanted to show the people of Mayo that I was ready and willing to wear the county jersey again. I couldn’t let my career end with any suggestion that I wasn’t devoted to the cause,” he explained.
His last appearance for Mayo was against Longford in a league match, ten years after making his debut against the same opposition. “It is amazing to think that neither Louth or Mayo have won an All-Ireland senior title in the last 50 years, particularly when you consider that between them they claimed three titles in the 1950s. As a Mayo man with such a strong connection to Louth, I hope this omission is put right soon,” he said.
That glorious day in Croke Park in 1957 proved to be the pinnacle of Dan’s football career, and when he died in Galway this month he left a legacy of memories, not only in the county of his adoption but also in his native Castlebar, of a talent that was not confined to football. It is a measure of his love for his native town that the accolades heaped on him for bringing glory to the Wee County were exceeded only by a message of congratulations from Castlebar Urban Council.
“The vote of congratulations from my native town meant more to me that any other praise I received during the entire campaign,” he wrote. After leaving the Gardai in 1962, he returned to Mayo as a Calor Gas representative and on being told by a member of the Mayo Board that he would never don a Mayo jersey again, Dan resolved to prove him wrong.
The following year he was back in a Castlebar Mitchels jersey, winning his fifth county senior medal and a place on the county side. “I played my first National League match against Longford in 1953 and my last (also with Mayo) against the same county ten years later,” he said. He took up a position with Ireland West Tourism in 1967 and went to live in Galway where he played with Fr Griffins Club.
In his autobiography,, the difficulties Dan encountered growing up in Castlebar, are vividly portrayed — the death of his mother when he was eleven years old, the subsequent splintering of a large, close family mainly through emigration. His was a life profoundly influenced by those early years, but Dan never lost his inherent wit or humour, and reaching the pinnacle of his sport, and business — becoming chief executive officer of North West Tourism – were accomplishments hewn from a relentless determination to succeed, which was perhaps his greatest victory.
( Dan O’ Neill) photograph: Arthur Kinahan