COVID HASN’T SPOILED AMERICAN DREAM
The last time we saw Katie Daly on these shores, she was lifting the Buttercrane Intermediate Championship trophy in late September 2018 on a flying visit home from Boston to where she had emigrated less than a fortnight earlier.
A Cullyhanna appeal had resulted in the competition running beyond its scheduled end date but Dromintee captain Daly’s dash back from the United States for the final was rewarded when her team defeated Forkhill.
Dromintee edged an absolute thriller by the minimum margin after extra-time, ensuring a fairytale ending to six-foot goalkeeper Katie’s fulfilling ladies gaelic career on Irish soil which included notable triumphs with Armagh and Queen’s as well as at club level.
“That’s right up with there with any of my highlights from football because I’d played for Dromintee from six years of age and having the honour of captaining the club in a Championship final which I knew was going to be my last match was special, playing alongside girls who have been friends since childhood.
“It was such a tight game, which could have gone either way, but we got over the line in the end and lifting the trophy was a great feeling. How we won will live long in the memory, though the whole weekend was a whirlwind,” recalled Katie from her home in Boston on Sunday morning.
“I’d flown home from holidays for our semi-final against Mullagbawn but it was a big blow when the final was postponed. I left for America on September 11 as scheduled to start my new job. I returned 10 days later but was in Ireland for less than 24 hours in total as I had to be back in work on the Monday.”
Since then, American-born Katie, who had her 26th birthday last month, has settled well in the homeland of her beloved late mum Ann, whose sixth anniversary is today (Tue), though she has had to contend with contracting coronavirus this spring.
That is hardly surprising considering how rampant the Covid-19 pandemic has been in her part of the world but thankfully the young and healthy Daly was able to come through without significant complications.
“At the start of May, I was tested on a Friday evening after a co-worker had become infected. The result came back negative on the Sunday and, although I’d been very ill in between, I assumed it must just be a bad dose of the cold though my employers moved me into a hotel room so I could isolate.
“However, when I woke up on Tuesday morning with no real sense of smell, which I knew was a symptom, I immediately drove to a rapid testing centre, was swabbed and got confirmation 30 minutes later that I had coronavirus.
“I isolated on my own in the hotel for the two weeks and, although I experienced loss of smell and taste along with feelings of nausea and some vomiting, myself and a bunch of co-workers who tested positive didn’t have difficulties breathing or any fever so we were relatively mild cases.
“There was a conference in Boston early in the year at which a man from Italy unknowingly spread the virus to 200 people and it really rippled out from there. New York was the epicentre for Covid, but our state of Massachusetts was pretty bad too.
“Everything was closed but we’ve been trying to open up again, though for example it’s outdoor patio dining rather than inside restaurants and you have to wear your mask. Thankfully we’re seeing declining numbers whereas it’s surging in Florida for instance.”
Unsurprisingly she hasn’t been impressed with President Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis and, while the hope is that he may pay a price come election time this autumn, Katie knows the true cost can be measured in needless deaths.
“I’ve found it very strange. I’m not used to American politics or educated in it, but it’s very different to back home. President Trump hasn’t dealt well with the pandemic or the race-related issues lately yet he retains a significant core of diehard supporters, though I don’t know any personally.”
Thanks to her American mum, Katie has always had an affinity for the United States and it’s no surprise she ended up there though, as she explains, professional reasons also played a part in her moving when she did.
“I was born over here, have always had American citizenship and knew since I was a kid that this was something I wanted to do. However, I was aware when studying for my Masters that there were more resources in America for those working in the field of behavioural analysis.
“So I decided to look for opportunities in the US and Canada but then someone from the company I’m working for actually came to Trinity where I was studying. I was hired in April (2018) with a start date of September.
“I work with teenagers with severe autism, helping to treat their challenging behaviours such as self-injury and aggression, and trying to increase their communication. I’m based outside Boston in a place called Watertown and settled in quite quickly.
“The culture and weather are very different to Ireland, with hotter summer, more snow in winter and more vivid colours. A fill of fuel for the car costs only 30 dollars but groceries are more expensive.”
Like former boxer Wayne McCullough and golfer Graeme McDowell, Daly has what has been dubbed a mid-Atlantic twang now, though she partly puts that down to American influences in her formative years.
“Although I’d started speaking by the time I left for Ireland aged three, the American accent would have been eradicated but for growing up around mum and I think that made me more susceptible to picking it up pretty readily when I moved here.
“As a young girl I’d have said ‘laundry’ rather than talking about ‘the washing’. Family and friends from home say I sound American now but, to the people here, I’m still identifiably Irish,” she reflects.
Daly reveals that coronavirus has scuppered plans she had to play football for the first time since that night in Silverbridge she captained Dromintee to the Intermediate title, though the ladies gaelic scene in Boston is fairly limited.
“I took last year to get settled but dad had bought me boots and gloves last Christmas when I was back home and I’d hoped to get involved this season and contacted one of the local clubs, but then the pandemic came along and put everything on hold.
“There are a lot of men’s football teams and some hurling but only a couple of ladies sides, who have to play each other all the time. I was told in early March that training would start after St Patrick’s Day but that was the week everything shut down.”
Back home, meanwhile, as sport prepares to restart, players from the two sides which contested that 2018 Armagh Intermediate decider are ready to tackle a shortened domestic season as an amalgamated team called Dromahill.
Lack of numbers means the two south Armagh clubs have extended their underage collaboration of previous seasons to adult level and, having been placed in Division One, Dromahill’s bow will be at home to Grange in their opening game this Saturday (7pm).
This hasn’t been the first time in recent years that Dromintee haven’t been able to field independently, though on the previous occasion there was a real silver lining for Katie and two of her county colleagues.
Along with Dromintee clubmates Aoife McCoy and Shauna Grey, Katie joined Shane O’Neills on loan for the 2016 season and helped the Camlough club lift the Armagh and Ulster Intermediate titles before being beaten in the second tier All Ireland decider.
“That year we folded, initially it looked bleak because we couldn’t amalgamate with anyone and weren’t sure if transfers would be allowed but Shanes proved a perfect fit for the three of us as we knew the Mackins and Moya Feehan from county and they helped integrate us.
“Aoife and Shauna went to America that summer so only came on at half-time in the (Armagh Intermediate) final against Sarsfields at the Athletic Grounds. We were already doing well but they hammered home our advantage.
“It was evident what winning meant to the club but they ensured we really felt part of it too. Shanes had incredible momentum that year and we went on to win an Ulster Intermediate final against (Fermanagh’s) Kinawley which had a lot of goals and another special memory is beating (British champions) Parnells on a very foggy day in Camlough.
“I think the players from Forkhill and Dromintee can embrace the amalgamation, make a success of it and ensure it is an enjoyable experience, whether for just this season or if it needs to last longer before fielding separately again.
“The county girls from both clubs already have a connection and, for the rest, it will be a novelty playing with other players. Ladies gaelic is a competitive sport but also a social sport and most of my friendships in life have come from football.”
Daly won her first Intermediate title with Dromintee aged just 17, the icing on the cake of a 2011 season which had earlier seen her help an Armagh Minors team managed by dad James claim the All Ireland B title.
Dromintee made the main county final against Clann Eireann the following year but the big highlight of 2012 was Armagh’s Intermediate title triumph in Croke Park, for which Katie was on the bench but she had been thrown in for the semi against Longford when regular goalkeeper Catherine McAlinden was ruled out by injury.
“I was genuinely terrified for, although I’d got some game-time in the National League during what was my first senior season, the experienced Catherine was clearly first choice come Championship. It was scary stepping in though I remember Caroline O’Hanlon coming over and reassuring me before the game.”
Daly did a good job against Longford and the subsequent victory over Wateford in Croke Park paved the way for an Armagh renaissance which would lead to back-to-back NFL promotions, a first Ulster Senior Championship success since 2007 and qualifying for successive All Ireland semi-finals.
That purple patch came in 2014 and 2015 but, before that, Katie was in nets as Queen’s University won the O’Connor Cup for the first and only time in their history with a team containing Orchard colleagues Sinead McCleary, Fionnuala McKenna, Sarah Marley, Caitlin Malone and Danielle Morgan, and managed by James Daly.
“We were the first Queen’s side even to make an O’Connor final. It was actually comfortable enough but the key moment had come in the semi-final, when we would have lost but for a last minute goal by Caitlin Malone, which came from a perfect play.
“The following year the O’Connor Cup finals weekend was being hosted by Queen’s so being beaten in the final was a big blow, but I think that disappointment made me appreciate the previous season all the more.”
In 2014, unfancied Armagh upset three teams who had spent the spring playing two league levels above them to claim an unforgettable Ulster title in a packed Clones at the expense of champions Monaghan but, just over a week after that glorious Sunday, Ann Daly lost her long and brave battle with cancer.
“Mum had been sick since I was 12 and she passed away at 7.45am the following Monday but I’m thankful that she got to hold the Ulster trophy when dad brought it into the hospital the night of the final.
“I treasure the memories of her being at the NFL Awards in Croke Park just a few weeks earlier when I was named in the Team of Division Three. She had been very heavily involved in Armagh ladies football as County Board Secretary.
“I’ll always look back on that Ulster final with rose-coloured glasses. It was a special performance from Armagh and losing mum so soon afterwards makes our success especially poignant. I’m emotional even now thinking and talking about it.
“For a few weeks after she died, I didn’t go to work or football but being part of club and county teams helped get me back out among people. We went on to the All Ireland semi-final and again the following season after we won the Division Two title.”
Katie lost the first choice goalkeeper position to Anna Carr under new Armagh manager Ronan Clarke in 2016 and opted out of Orchard duty the following season to focus on her Masters in Applied Behaviour Analysis in Dublin.
Thereafter the professional opportunity which came up in Boston brought forward her American move and means Katie’s elite level ladies gaelic career effectively finished aged just 22 but she has more medals and amazing memories than many who played a lot longer.
“After such highs in 2014 and 2015, I kind of faded from the team the next year but there was never any decision as such to stop playing for Armagh and never return. Things just happened how they did and that’s how the dominoes have fallen but I’m grateful for the experiences I had,” she reflects.
James has been a constant theme throughout Katie’s career, having managed her for various Dromintee and Armagh teams as well as with Queen’s, but she says he has always found the balance between being her dad and football boss.
“He’d always be known for being very vocal, but he leaves it on the pitch and, in my case, did a good job of separating football and family. If I let in seven goals, he’d just be helping look forward to what we could do next time.
“Dad has been my manager ever since Under 14s at Dromintee, and I’ve enjoyed a lot of success under him, albeit being part of squads with the likes of Sinead McCleary, Caroline O’Hanlon and Aoife McCoy has helped.
“It was always great winning with him as manager, and I remember him running to me on the field when the final whistle went in that All Ireland Minor B final. Thankfully there were more big days to come but back then you couldn’t know whether there would be.”
James, who has since gone on to manage Longford, Clann Eireann and Cavan, steered Armagh to five trophies in a successful four-season spell, while being left to bring up three children aged 20 and under, with Megan and Ryan both younger than Katie.
He organised a game in memory of Ann to raise funds for cancer charities and many of the top ladies footballers in Ireland came to Dromintee to honour her on a poignant night in October 2015 with RTE’s Marty Morrissey as celebrity commentator.
“Mum came to Ireland as an American, having married an Irish guy. She came and embraced the local culture, including gaelic football, and could speak more Irish than me. It was touching to see the turnout for her and it was a fitting tribute.
“After mum died I knew I wanted to go to America in the future, maybe make my home here. I’m sure my dad would love me to be back in Ireland but he’s so supportive and knows he came here for 10 years as a young guy and that’s how he met my mum,” concludes Katie, who sounds confident, flourishing and, yes, quite American!