A CHAMPION?Mayo native Dan O’Neill who, in 1957, won an All-Ireland senior football title with Louth.
GAA family says farewell to great Gael Dan O’Neill
DAN O’NEILL and Seamie O’Donnell were the two last Mayo men to win All-Ireland senior football medals. They partnered each other at midfield in Louth’s victory over Cork in 1957, the county’s third and last senior title.
It was the pinnacle of Dan’s football career, and when he died in Galway on Friday 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 in his autobiography, ‘Divided Loyalties’ published in 2008.
Dan was of that fifties vintage not far removed from those of us who dreamed his dreams, half a dozen years older perhaps, but near enough for us to see in him qualities similar to those of the men who had enhanced the esteem of Mayo football in those remarkable years.
He emerged from the street leagues of Castlebar to win a place in the local Mitchels senior side of 1951 which won the second of five in a row county senior titles. He was 18 years of age. Eloquent evidence of his rapid development was reflected in three further county senior medals, the winning of a Connacht junior medal and selection on the county’s senior side by 1954. But after winning a Connacht senior medal the following year he picked up an injury that kept him out of the All-Ireland semi-final.
It was his last outing for Mayo in his heyday.
In the meantime he had joined the Gardai and was stationed in Drogheda. But a row with the Mayo GAA Board over travelling expenses angered Dan to the extent that he decided to commit to Louth, and his dream of winning an All-Ireland medal was realised, not with Mayo paradoxically, but with Louth.
Miffed though the Mayo Board was, Dan had chosen wisely. Not even his array of skills as a high fielder with a powerful surge, was ever likely to guide Mayo to another title.
Those back-to-back All-Ireland winning stars of the early decade had begun to fade. One by one they bowed out. There was no Flanagan left, no Prendergast, no Langan, no Carney. Dan would have been left with a pale shadow of the great side, too inexperienced to lift a Connacht crown let alone the Sam Maguire.
Having left the Gardai, he returned to Mayo as a Calor Gas representative in 1962 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 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 which no longer exists. There, too, he took a deep interest in Muintir Mhaigheo.
But his affection for the town that moulded and conditioned him never diminished, although many of his football colleagues had predeceased him. You get some semblance of that sentiment in lines from a song he wrote for the Castlebar Song contest and which was performed by band leader Dermot O’Brien, who was captain of that All-Ireland winning Louth side.
“How I’d love to be back on the shores of Lough Lannagh
With the girl that I loved in the days long ago,
And to just hear her whisper those three words, ‘I love you’
Then my home I would make back in dear sweet Mayo.”
In his autobiography, ghosted by Liam Horan, 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 influenced by those early years but he 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.
To his wife Nancy, and family our sincerest sympathies.