As an athlete and athletics journalist, Tom O’Riordan, by his own admission, had plenty of opportunities to evaluate Danny McDaid’s progression whilst “playing the system.”
A native of Ardfelt in north Kerry, where he had also played football in the green and gold of his native county, O’Riordan ran the 5,000m at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and spent 35 years of his life writing on his two great sporting loves – Gaelic football and athletics.
And by “playing the system,” O’Riordan means that he could effectively double-job – compete in the running event and then pen the report afterwards.
More than anything else, O’Riordan remembers McDaid as being a great competitor; someone who never gave in.
“There was a four-mile road race in Dublin in 1977,” O’Riordan, now 75, said. “I would have been the hot favourite to win it and everything was going to plan until it came to the sprint.
“Several times I thought that I had him but he matched me all the way and then edged me out at the finish line. I could hardly believe it, but that was Danny McDaid for you. He never gave up.”
O’Riordan recalls McDaid at many a meet, whether competing with him or jotting the race, but there’s one that sticks out in his memory – the 1979 World Cross-Country Championships at Greenpack, the old Limerick Racecourse.
Back then, it was a huge operation - especially considering it coincided with a three-month postal strike.
Ironically, McDaid, a postman, used the lay-off to pound the pavements in preparation for the event in which he would be Irish team captain for the fifth time.
The strike this caused havoc as the BLE (Bord Luthchleas na hEireann) had no way to receive entries from abroad. Limerick hammer thrower Bernie Hartigan, a member of the organising committee, came up with an ingenious solution.
Hartigan worked for Aer Lingus in Shannon and he got the stewardesses to post the entry forms in London and also created an address there where they could also collect the international entries and courier them home.
The event was delayed for a year because of the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease but in 1978, a 20-year-old by the name of John Treacy from Villierstown, Co Waterford, became the youngest ever winner of the World Cross-County Championships at Bellahouston Racecourse in Glasgow.
Local interest in the Limerick staging of the event was huge as a result. For the first time ever the spectators, of which there were 30,000, were allowed on course.
This created a spectacular atmosphere on March’s last Sunday, a day when all the other local sporting events were postponed or switched to accommodate the world’s elite.
“There was a massive effort put in for the 1979 World Cross-County Championships,” O’Riordan added. “Maybe it’s good there was a postal strike as it gave Danny more free time to really prepare. I remember reporting that day and Danny, with his white cap in the muck, just wouldn’t drop back.
“I had been up to Donegal to interview him beforehand and he had showed me around and how he trained. It was then I realised he had worked all the tactics out and had such a will to win. Ireland ended up coming second in the team event, with Danny as captain.
“He finished 11th overall himself. I know he had been to two Olympics beforehand, but for me, that was the day he arrived.
“The reason I say that is because Danny was an unobtrusive character, reserved and never a loud-mouth. He was perhaps someone who made the breakthrough late.
“Sometimes I thought he was even a little too conservative in the way he ran but in Limerick he was inspirational. You cannot underestimate what he did that day.”
McDaid was 37 that mucky afternoon and with Treacy taking individual gold, the Irish team also included Gerry Deegan (43rd), Mick O’Shea (39th), Donie Walsh (47th) and the late Tony Brien (50th) packed brilliantly to pip Russia by just a point to take second behind the United Kingdom. Eamonn Coghlan, Ray Treacy and Eddie Leddy were also part of the team.
Two years earlier, Ireland had come 14th from 15 competing nations in Düsseldorf, Germany. Limerick, that murky afternoon in 1979, was the only time ever every punter at a racecourse left feeling like a winner.
Nowadays O’Riordan and McDaid cross paths only occasionally but they still have a bank of memories to share from, starting from the early 1970’s when the Newmills native wore the vest of Clonliffe Harriers.
They met last at the 30th anniversary of the 1979 triumph and were to meet again on Saturday at Letterkenny Athletic Club’s Sub Four-Minute Mile Challenge Event, only for O’Riordan to have a prior commitment.
“My granddaughter Molloy is making her First Holy Communion in Sligo so unfortunately I won’t be able to get to Letterkenny,” O’Riordan said. “I know the track is named after Danny and for me, Letterkenny, with so many rising stars is the ‘Mecca’ of Irish athletics right now. There’s great work being done there.
“I don’t see Danny that often but I wish him all the best this weekend and he’s a man I have nothing but praise for.
“He is a humble man that I came to admire. Danny became a hero figure for me.”