The GAA Gene - The Daltons
The GAA is built on tradition, and there is nothing more traditional in Gaelic Games than great family dynasties.
Trace the history of any county team in Gaelic Football or Hurling and you’ll see the same surnames consistently reappearing as you move back through the decades.
In our series – The GAA Gene – we profile the families that have given outstanding service through the generations.
This week we focus on the Daltons of Kildare and Meath.
By John Harrington
History has a way of repeating itself in the Dalton family.
When Davy Dalton captained the Kildare footballers to the 1956 Leinster Senior Football Championship he was in fact starting a family tradition.
The Lilywhites wouldn’t win another Leinster title until 1998, but, when they did, his son, also named Davy Dalton, picked up a medal of his own.
Then, incredibly, Davy Jnr’s son, David, also won a Leinster medal as a member of the Meath panel that defeated Louth in the 2010 Final.
Three generations of Davy Daltons, three Leinster senior football medals. That’s what you call a tasty little slice of history.
To avoid things getting too confusing, it’s probably worth clarifying now that for the purposes of this piece we interviewed the Davy Dalton of Kildare '98 fame.
Growing up as a boy in Kilcock in Kildare, he admits he didn’t really appreciate at the time that his father was something of a living legend in GAA circles, but the flame for football was handed down nonetheless.
“Yeah, he captained Kildare in '56, but, to be honest, as we grew up we weren't that aware of it, really,” Dalton told GAA.ie.
“It's only as you got older you look back and appreciate it. Probably now more than ever.
“When I was growing up he was finished playing football, but he would have looked after me and coached me and definitely pushed me in that direction.
“That's where my love for the game would have come from.
“To be fair, there wasn't a whole lot else going on at the time, it was all gaelic football where we were growing up and there was little else to do.
“Not like today where there are so many options and choices for kids to go here, there and everywhere. All we had to do was go down to the football field.”
It might have been the only option, but it was nevertheless one the Dalton embraced.
He doesn’t mind admitting he was never the most skilful footballer to lace up a pair of boots, but you would have gone a long way to find a more determined one.
A no-nonsense defender who played for the Lilywhites for 16 years, he puts his success down to pure graft.
“If you want to get some sort of success out of it you have to put in the work,” says Dalton simply.
“There were loads of lads I played with who were probably more talented than me, but they weren't as driven.”
The story of his career can be best summed up by the parable – ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again'.
He would belatedly win an All-Star and a Leinster title in the final two years of his career, but before then frustration was his lot as he played for a Kildare team many were happy to label as bottlers.
“There are lots of reasons why we didn't fulfil our potential in those years,” says Dalton.
“Mainly, though, there was never a manager given the time necessary to build a team.
“As soon as you lost a couple of years in a row, the manager was gone. The attitude was to just get rid of the manager and bring in a new one.”
Even Mick O’Dwyer failed in his first stint as Kildare manager before he worked the oracle when given a second opportunity in the position.
“I think the one thing that Micko was eventually given was time,” says Dowling. “And as well as that he was able to find the best players and then give them game-time as well.
“In Kildare it's not like the big counties where they can nearly put a whole new team together in a few years. In a county like Kildare you need to give lads time to develop.
“That's what eventually happened with Kildare. The likes of Glen Ryan and those came along and were given time to develop, whereas in the past lads were in and out.
“We knew they were the best lads we had so we had to stick with them, and when they were given time and we got a few games in Croke park they developed confidence.
“I think the three games against Meath in 1997 were crucial to the development of that team. We got loads of experience from playing in those games and that stood to us going forward.
“Even though we lost the last of those three games, they really stood to us.”
Dalton would be a central figure in those three epic matches it took to separate Kildare and Meath in the 1997 Leinster Semi-Final, but he very nearly wasn’t involved at all.
He’d retired from inter-county football after the 1996 Championship, and was only persuaded to return to the fold two weeks before the first round of the ’97 campaign when an injury crisis brought Mick O’Dwyer to his door.
“We were after losing to Laois in the Championship in 1996,” says Dalton. “I was burned out from playing year after year and I had a young family as well. So I was burned out more than anything else.
“Hindsight is a funny thing, but that break was the best thing for me. I hadn't been playing well for a while and should have taken a break before that.
“And when I came back from the break I played the best football i'd played for at least three years before that.”
His performances in those epic three matches against Meath in ’97 ultimately earned him an All-Star award, but the competitor in Dalton still looks back on those games with regret rather than pride.
“They were great games to be involved in, it was just unfortunate we came out on the wrong side of them,” he says.
“I made a terrible error in the second game myself and it took me a while before I could even look at that game again.
“We were winning by three-points and the game was up. I should have passed the ball to Anthony Rainbow but I didn't.
“The game was well into injury-time and I thought it would have been blown up if I just kicked the ball out over the sideline.
“But the ball came straight back in and ended up in the back of the net and the game was drawn and went to extra-time.
“Now, we went four or five points up in injury-time, but were pegged back again.
“Jody Devine went to town that day and we were probably a bit slow on the line that day because they left the same lad marking him the whole time.”
Kildare were eventually defeated by Meath in the third game of the series and the loss stung, but ultimately the experience of those three matches laid the foundation for the long-awaited Leinster title that followed in ’98.
“Meath were All-Ireland champions so the fact that we could compete with them in ‘97 gave us a bit of belief and impetus to go back and put in the work again,” says Dalton.
“We found a few lads as well. We'd been missing a free-taker over the years, so Padraig Graven made a difference.
“I'd always maintain that Willie McCreery made the biggest difference of all for us in '98, even he if doesn’t always get the credit he deserves.
“His work-rate was tremendous and perfectly complemented Niall Buckley, who was a class act, in midfield. “Like most teams we needed a few to fill in the gaps. You build the bones of a team first and then you fill in the gaps. Willie and Padraig were big cogs when they came in.
“In some ways 1998 was bitter-sweet for me because I got an injury and didn't get back in the team for the Leinster Final.
“But we won it, and that was the main thing. After all those years of trying, it was a seriously satisfying win.”
A move from Kilcock to Summerhill in Meath meant the next generation of Dalton footballers were destined to wear green jersies rather than white.
Davy’s son David looked like more than just a chip off the old block when he first broke onto the Meath team, but ultimately his career was cut short by a litany of injuries.
“Yeah, he was unlucky with injuries,” says Dalton. “He's playing away with the club now and he seems to be avoiding them at the moment, touch-wood.
“Nowadays with time-commitment and the constant commentary on social media, I think it's a lot tougher to be a county footballer anyway. I don't think I'd have enjoyed it as much if I was playing now.
“It was bad enough before picking up the paper if you'd had a bad game, but now there are a lot of keyboard warriors on social media you'd have to deal with too.”
The Dalton GAA Gene isn’t just the preserve of the Davys in the family tree.
Davy’s son Sean has also played for Meath at underage level, his nephew Dalton McDonagh has had a good innings with the Meath senior team, and another nephew, Jack Robinson, was the star-player on the Kildare minor team that won last year’s Leinster minor title.
Davy lives in Meath, managed the Meath minors for a couple of years, and has sons who’ve worn the green jersey, but he’ll 100 percent behind his native Kildare when the two counties meet in the Leinster SFC Semi-Final tomorrow.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he says. “The pressure is on you when you're a player, there's no pressure when you're a supporter, it's just there to be enjoyed.
“It's a big game for both teams. I would have trained a lot of the Meath lads when I was Meath minor manager, around six of the current panel, and they're all good footballers.
“But you have to learn your trade and be given time. Both Kildare and Meath are building again and have the raw material, but whether they'll get the break or two along the way that you need remains to be seen.
“With Dublin around at the moment you're just looking for them to have a bad day to have any chance of beating them. Unfortunately that's just the way it is.
“The commitment required nowadays as a county player is incredible, and that's why it's going to be harder and harder for counties like Kildare and Meath to compete with a team like Dublin.
“It took us many years to build a successful Kildare team back in my day, and if these current Kildare or Meath teams don't make a breakthrough sooner rather than later then their teams will start to break up because players just aren't able to play for as long anymore with the commitment that's required.”
Who knows, maybe it'll take the arrival of another Dalton one the scene to get Kildare or Meath back winning Leinster senior titles again.
*Davy Dalton is one of the organisers of the Meath-Kildare Tour Cycle on June 25th which is raising funds for the suicide prevention charity, Pieta House and Summerhill GAA club. See www.summerhillgfc.com for more information. *