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'This priest was one cool cat': Fr Tony's life less ordinary

Story by Paul Fitzpatrick

Friday, 23rd February, 2018 11:52am

'This priest was one cool cat': Fr Tony's life less ordinary

Fr Anthony Dalton training in a South African cemetery.

Paul Fitzpatrick recounts the little-known tale of Fr Anthony Dalton, a brilliant footballer and athlete who lived a remarkable life.

Years ago, when vocations to the priesthood were more common, many young seminary students played football under false names. A lot of them were highly accomplished; indeed, it is said that former long-serving county secretary Hughie Smyth once made the comment that “it was vocations that destroyed Cavan football.”
Fifty-four years ago, Cavan trounced a brilliant Down side in the Ulster final and took on the might of Kerry next time out. In the report in The Anglo-Celt, it was noted that a “P Nulty” came on for the Breffni men that day – and the quotations marks are not mine.
“P Nulty” (referred to in the team list as “A Nulty”) was, in fact, Fr Anthony ‘Tony’ Dalton from Ballymachugh and his is one of the most extraordinary stories of all, from any era of Cavan football.
Born in Dublin, he came to Cavan after the death of his mother and lived with his aunt, Mrs Nulty, at Lavagh, Ballynarry. Soon, he began to play ball with the local Ballymachugh club. In 1963, he made his debut against Castlerahan in Ballyjamesduff and, aged 23, he quickly caught the eye of the county selectors.
By this time, he was studying for the priesthood but the young Dalton was one cool cat.
“Fr Anthony, as we all knew him, used to come to Ballymachugh on holidays every year,” Peadar Gill told me last week. 
“He was like Jesus, young, good-looking, tanned, had long hair and dressed like a cool guy. He drove an MGB GT. He set up a Youth Club in Ballymachugh, where Sean Briody has his garage to this day, called ‘Amen Corner’, because it was in the corner of the graveyard.”
Peadar’s brother Gerry remembers Fr Anthony as “looking like Tony Curtis in The Persuaders”.
In Gerry and Brian Donohoe’s excellent Ballymachugh club history, a section is devoted to Fr Dalton.

Tony Dalton (above) lining out for Cavan in the 1964 All-Ireland SFC semi-final.

“An attacking half-back,” it notes, “he was described by some of his fellow players as ‘hard as nails and a bloody good footballer too’.”
After being ordained as an Obliate father in ‘64 (The Irish Press carried a report on the departure ceremony of he and five other young priests on September 13), he was posted to Johannesburg, where he was engaged in pastoral ministry and youth work. Seven years would pass before he returned to Cavan.
As well as football, he had an interest in athletics – he once came second in the Co Cavan 400m race – and threw himself into that in South Africa. In his first year there, he set the ‘All Comers’ record over the half mile and earned the sobriquet ‘The Flying Priest’.
In 1966, after breaking his foot playing soccer, he decided to pursue his interests in horseracing and shooting as he recuperated. True to form, he excelled and in 1968, he was chosen to represent Ireland in the Olympics; he was forced to miss out due to his missionary duties.
He was selected for the 1968 South African Olympic national team but, due to Apartheid, they were barred from competing. They later ran their own games and awarded medals emblazoned with the Olympic five-ring logo, which caused much controversy at the time.
“Undeterred,” noted the Ballymachugh history, “he represented South Africa in the 1969 African Games, winning the gold medal in the 4000m and Modern Pentathlon.”

When the media discovered that he trained in the local cemetery, they were intrigued. “It’s the perfect place,” he told the pressmen, “level and quiet.”

Such mystique and charisma – ‘the quick and the dead’ would have been a fitting caption – was typical of the man. He would later train with the Irish 1972 Olympic squad, narrowly missing out on the final cut at the age of 32.
As well as athletics, he was a devotee of rock music. He formed a band and off the back of their success, opened a nightclub for the younger members of his flock, attracting 900 punters a week.
When Ballymachugh and Drumlane drew in the 1972 Cavan Intermediate Football Championship semi-final, the match report on these pages noted that the Hughs “were without the services of their former Cavan player Tony Dalton, who returned to the US last month to complete his studies”.
(It was also added, incidentally, that they were “fortunate to have the services of Liam Plunkett, a dashing forward who is employed as mental nurse in a London hospital and was brought over for the game.”)
By then, he had been chosen to study Mass Media Communications at Syracuse University, New York. He went on to specialise in psycho-spirituality in Berkeley, California in 1977 and subsequently was in residence as a work scholar at the Esalen Institute in the US for five months. 
On one occasion, the story goes, he had brought a gaggle of schoolgirls from South Africa on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They were encroaching on an area reserved for some Orthodox pilgrims when one of the priests took exception and pushed a schoolgirl. The result? “Tony decked him. He then had to take on the full pilgrimage singlehanded until security arrived with only some school girls for back up.”
When he returned to Jo’burg, he presented a weekly national television show and took up hang gliding. Despite breaking both arms in an accident, he kept at it but, tragically, was killed while pursuing his new hobby in April, 1984, aged 44.
His death was front page news in this paper and was carried in all of the nationals, too. A bright and extraordinary flame extinguished, all too soon and many miles from home.

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