"We’re better people in our house because of her" - Mayo's All-Star Danielle Caldwell continues to be inspired by sister
By Daragh Small
She came to the game late, didn’t play until she was in secondary school, and wore shin pads to her first training session.
However, after moving from Wicklow, Danielle Caldwell soon learned the Mayo way. She loves football now, while still understanding the importance of being able to switch off when she goes home at night.
Her sisters are her grounding force and between Danielle (25), Anna (26), and Katie (29), they have a unique bond. Anna has special needs and has become the fulcrum of their family.
“It’s lovely having two sisters who don’t play sport because when you come home, it’s a complete switch off,” says Danielle.
“Anna has no concept of sport at all and she puts everything in perspective as well. Even after a bad game or if you lose, there are people in a lot worse positions than losing the game.”
Anna has a translocation of her chromosome 17, which results in her having special needs.
“When Anna first got diagnosed, mum had just found out she was pregnant with me. There’s only a year and a month between us and growing up, I kind of grew up a bit earlier than other kids. I was defending her, I suppose, I was nearly a big sister to her rather than a little sister.
“I wouldn’t change anything for the world, she’s absolutely amazing. We’re better people in our house because of her. She taught us how to be kind and patient and she makes us better people in general.
“She doesn’t take anything for granted and she’s so happy. There’s not a care in the world on her and she is turning 27 in January.”
Danielle and Katie have both taken healthcare career paths – it was perhaps inevitable, given their caring natures.
Danielle moved to England in 2018 and has just finished her physiotherapy studies, where she was based in Manchester. Now she works in a nursing home in Knock, County Mayo.
Katie is an occupational therapist and, between them, they have both helped their parents, Josephine and Daniel, to care for their sister.
“Both of us went into healthcare just because we wanted to help people. We’ve cared for Anna our whole life so it kind of stems from that as well, to work with people,” said Caldwell.
“Katie and I are in the rehab section so it’s to get a patient and help them in some way to get back to their baseline function, or to discharge them home from hospital.
“But I do think the reason we’re in this kind of line of work is definitely from Anna. We’ve been caring for her since we were kids. It’s a natural role to fall into.”
Caldwell is still a ferocious competitor on the field, and she picked up her first TG4 All Star award at The Bonnington Dublin Hotel just a few weeks ago. It was an amazing night for her and her parents.
She and fellow Mayo All Star winner, Shauna Howley, are inspiring the next generation of Ladies Footballers in the county. The Green and Red have a new young crop that will look to feed off successes from the past.
Mayo train at the Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence, which is close to Caldwell’s place of work, which helps, but even when she clocks out and prepares to take the field, she continues to care for her sister.
“Anna would never really be left by herself. So, for instance, when our family are out and it is me minding her, Anna would come to training with me. She absolutely loves coming to training and socialising with the girls. The girls are so good to her, they always make her feel so welcome,” said Caldwell.
“She is quite dependent on my mum and dad but she does attend a rehab centre from Monday to Thursday in Castlebar, which is a great social outlet for her. She has loads of friends in there.
“We are really blessed that Anna has full mobility and she is able to communicate her wants and needs. It is great that she can because I know there are people who aren’t fortunate enough to have that.”
Danielle speaks like a wise head on young shoulders - and it shows on the football field, where she commands the pitch from the full-back line.
It is amazing to think that she only began playing this game when she was 13 and was making her senior inter-county debut just five years later.
“I grew up in Greystones in Wicklow, so the only sports that I played were athletics and field hockey,” said Caldwell.
“I had no real concept of Gaelic up there. I don’t know was it because of the school I was in but I was just never introduced to it really. It was only athletics and hockey.
“So when I moved down to Mayo, I tried to find an athletics and field hockey club but I just didn’t really enjoy them that much. And of course, I started secondary school so I just thought the best way to make friends and get into the community would be to join a Gaelic team. I joined it and I haven't looked back since.”
Caldwell moved to Castlebar and attended Davitt College, where she soon learned the lie of the land, and that football was the mainstay. However, she knows were it not for the great influence of some of her teachers, it could have been a different outcome too.
“I couldn’t praise my PE teacher enough, Ms Flynn. Sinéad created such a nurturing environment for me to excel in. She put me in goals for my first few games but as soon as she saw that I was trying to learn how to solo and hop at training, she threw me into the mix.
“And she never once gave out to me or benched me if I made a mistake. She was just so nurturing and really helped develop as a player.”
And behind the scenes, Caldwell’s well-known father figure learned about the game over the years too. Daniel Caldwell was introduced to Ladies football by his daughter and is now the Chairperson of the Higher Education Colleges.
“The main thing we bond over is football and it’s great,” said Caldwell.
“But he’s probably the one person that would know what I’m thinking before I even say. “And he knows when I’m lacking confidence, he would know me inside out.
“He’s like my personal therapist, I always say. We are really open with each other. If I think he can do something better, I tell him and if I can do something better, he tells me.
“We have a great bond over football.”