I mentioned the other week the launch of Dan O’Neill’s book Divided Loyalties and, having now read it, I can heartily recommend it as a good stocking filler, not only for those interested in Gaelic football but also, indeed, for anyone with an interest in Irish life and society over the past seventy years or so. In his introduction to the book, Dan O’Neill says that its genesis was the promptings from his grown-up children to “write down some of those memories” but it was only when he suffered an accident on the golf course last year that he finally found the time, with the able assistance of GAA journalist Liam Horan, to do so. We should be glad that he did because his story in an interesting one about his life and times in 20th century Ireland and it’s one that’s well told.
The book’s title refers, of course, to the author’s decision, as an inter-county footballer who was stationed in the Guards in Drogheda in 1956, to switch allegiance from his native Mayo to Louth. Ballaghaderreen’s Seamie O’Donnell was also a Louth-based Guard who declared for the county in which he was living that year and this resulted in the pair becoming the last two Mayomen to win senior All-Ireland medals as both played for the Wee County team that won the Sam Maguire in 1957.
O’Neill’s decision to jump ship – prompted by a dispute with the County Board over expenses – was a newsworthy event in its time and it’s clear from his account of the incident in the book that it’s a decision that has lived with him down the years since then. In the passage in the book where he deals with this issue, he concedes that “I was young and perhaps I acted impetuously” and then, a few lines later, says that he knew he had “made a rash decision in a fit of pique”. But, as he explains, he felt that the County Board’s decision not to pay in full the expenses he had claimed “was an implied slur” on his character and that this “could not be allowed to go unchallenged”. As he kicks over the traces half a century on from when it happened, O’Neill sounds almost apologetic for having once been a headstrong young man. It’s obvious, however, that he was also a principled one and, in making this fateful decision, it was his principles that prevailed.
Having made the move (and saved himself a number of days annual leave which he had until then been gladly been giving up in order to turn out for Mayo), it soon became apparent that his timing was good. Although he was badly injured in his championship debut for Louth in 1956, where his adopted county lost out to Kildare in the first round of the Leinster championship, the following year the Wee County began what was at first an improbable march to glory. Following wins over Carlow, Wexford and Kildare in Leinster, they announced their arrival as serious title contenders by beating a strong Dublin team in the provincial final. Tyrone then provided the opposition in the All-Ireland semi-final and in those days well before the swarm welcome was heard of, Louth were more than able for the Northeners and they booked their place in the final by virtue of a six-point win. The following month they defeated Cork to claim their first All-Ireland title for 45 years and their third in all. Like ourselves, they’re still waiting for their fourth one.
The book deals at length with the memorable events of 1957 as O’Neill lived through them but either side of this glory year for Louth, he talks about his part in helping Mayo to win the 1954 NFL and then later on, once he had relocated back to his native county, how he single-mindedly went about achieving his goal of reclaiming a place on the Mayo team, a feat he realised in the league campaign of 1963. His last appearance for the county was against Longford at Pearse Park on the 17th of November 1963.
Either side again of all the narrative on his footballing years, the book also contains a fair bit of detail on the author’s childhood in Castlebar and, later on, of his varied working life. And it certainly was, for the times that were in it, an extremely varied one. Many men his age never got to see a single job in Ireland but O’Neill initially trained as a psychiatric nurse before then joining the Guards, from where he moved to GEC and then later returned to Mayo to take up a position with Calor Gas before finally settling into a long-time role with the Ireland-West Tourism organisation.
In what was for many a job-for-life era, that constitutes serious mobility and it’s hardly surprising that he comes across as a very motivated and get-up-and-go kind of individual. I often think that that particular generation – my Dad would be the same age as Dan O’Neill – had a hell of a lot more going for them in terms of their resourcefulness and abilities than the generations that have come after them. They certainly needed their wits about them in order to survive and prosper – as so many did – in an Ireland where opportunities simply didn’t arise in the way that they have for those of us of subsequent generations.
In summary, then, this is a nicely judged account of a very full life lived by a proud Mayoman (and may he long continue to enjoy living it) who strove for and achieved success both on the field of play and off it. The book would go down just dandy, I think, over Christmas with your belly full of Christmas pud (and the rest), a half-one at your arm and a nice roaring fire in the grate.