Mayo Gott Helfe Uns!

An Irishman’s Diary about how an ancient Irish prayer went global

‘Rather than have them waste money on an overnight hotel stay, pending a bank visit, the railway man allowed Heinrich Böll (above) and family  travel on credit (Angela Merkel, please note). The credit didn’t extend to the dining car, however. Instead, they had to make do with a flask of tea and sandwiches.’ Photograph: Gordon Standing/The Irish Times

‘Rather than have them waste money on an overnight hotel stay, pending a bank visit, the railway man allowed Heinrich Böll (above) and family travel on credit (Angela Merkel, please note). The credit didn’t extend to the dining car, however. Instead, they had to make do with a flask of tea and sandwiches.’ Photograph: Gordon Standing/The Irish Times

Thu, Sep 12, 2013, 17:49

Describing a train journey to Westport in 1954, the German writer Heinrich Böll affected to notice a “strange custom” among the Irish. Whenever anyone mentioned Mayo, he wrote, there was an instant refrain from listeners, ie: “God help us!” It was like a responsorial psalm, or a litany, he thought, if not always as reverent.

Böll was soon saying “Mayo – God help us!” himself. In fact, that’s the title of a chapter in his book, Irish Journal, because by the time he arrived in the west, he had cause to utter the phrase of his own circumstances, never mind Mayo’s.

The trip nearly got off to a very bad start in Dublin when he left the station on a doomed mission to change Deutschmarks into local currency. So doing, in a blackly comic detail no scriptwriter would dare invent, he was almost run over by a truck with a swastika on the side.

On closer inspection, the vehicle belonged to a once well-known and perfectly respectable Dublin business, the Swastika Laundry company, founded in 1912. Even so, it would have been an appallingly ironic way to die for a former German soldier who, despite being wounded four times, had survived the war. Still alive, but still without local currency, he and his family set out for Westport, although only after the station master took pity on the spectacle of “three tired children, two dejected women, and a helpless father”.

Rather than have them waste money on an overnight hotel stay, pending a bank visit, the railway man allowed the Germans travel on credit (Angela Merkel, please note). The credit didn’t extend to the dining car, however. Instead, they had to make do with a flask of tea and sandwiches.

And between hunger and the worry about how they would reach their ultimate destination, Achill Island – all this set against the increasingly beautiful-but-desolate scenery as they travelled west – Böll was soon sharing the locals’ world-view, and able to mutter “Mayo – God help us!” with as much feeling as they did.

The origins of this famous phrase are unknown, at least to me. It is generally presumed to have arisen out of the dire poverty that afflicted Mayo during past centuries, especially the 19th, when famine and emigration hit that county very hard.

But in modern times, it has become more associated with a lesser (if still, in its own way, epic) misfortune: the county’s annual calamities in Gaelic football, as yet another bandwagon gathers speed towards a Sam Maguire Cup, and then always finds a new way to crash.

The invocation at some stage made its way onto the team jersey, whose crest carries the name “Maigh Eo” and the county motto “Críost Linn”, which is as close to “Mayo God Help Us” as makes no difference. To that extent at least, the responsorial psalm has been officially enlisted to football’s cause.

Mayo GAA’s great hunger didn’t feature in Böll’s journal, for obvious reasons. When he first went there, the county was one of the most successful in recent history, having won back-to-back All Irelands in 1950 and 1951, and a National League title in 1954. God’s help wasn’t needed then; or at least not on the football field.

But of course they haven’t won the big prize since. So Heinrich Böll’s Achill sojourn represents yet another measure – not that Mayo fans need one – of this GAA superpower’s epic fall from grace.

It might be even more sobering for supporters if they read the afterward Böll added to the book in 1967. Only 13 years had passed then since his first trip to Ireland. Yet already, he considered the country changed beyond recognition, having, as he put it, “caught up with two centuries and leaped over another five”.

Mayo GAA, meanwhile, was still only settling into the rut out of which it has not since emerged. And it’s largely thanks to the county’s recurring Croke Park nightmare that, if he returned to Ireland today, Böll would still hear the responsorial psalm without going far. Then again, he mightn’t have to leave his native Cologne to hear it. After all, his book was a huge hit in Germany, where it has sold some two million copies. More than Bord Fáilte or Riverdance, it is even credited with turning several generations of Böll’s countrymen into Hibernophiles, or at least Irish tourists.

So it follows that there must large numbers of Germans who have uttered the invocation “Mayo Gott Helfe Uns” at one time or other. Not only that, the book has been translated into at least 17 languages, at the last count. Surely, this multilingual weight of prayers will be heard, sooner or later?

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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