Green and red army pray for an end to 61 years of hurt
And it stings. If you got thrown naked into the middle of a 10-acre field of 10ft-tall nettles and rolled over a few thousand times, you might get an idea of what it’s like to see Mayo get so close and remain so far away.
Because in Mayo, we have nothing else. Everybody in Mayo who enjoys sports enjoys soccer and rugby and all the other games from all over the world now available to us. But they don’t mean anything. They don’t represent Mayo as football represents Mayo.
The Sawdoctors, our neighbours in Galway, got it. They asked themselves what is the fundamental thing about Mayo and realised it was the colours of the football team, the green and red.
Mayo is beautiful, but it’s not easy to live there. It’s not easy to graze cattle on rushes and whins. You can’t eat scenery. Growing up in Mayo, you’re always aware that it’s an odds-on bet that you may have to pack your bag and move somewhere else. You don’t have to go, but you can’t stay here.
And Mayo people hate leaving home. There’s a Mayo Association in Galway, which is hardly that far away. There’s something faintly ridiculous and yet strangely glorious at the notion of being homesick while 30 miles down the road.
The richness of Mayo football exists in contrast to that need and want. There are only 19 counties that have won the All-Ireland football championship. Mayo is one. Sixteen have won more than once. Mayo is one. Only seven counties have double-figure appearances in Croke Park in September. Mayo is one.
Mayo’s history is strong and her present is strong. Down through the years, Mayo have produced artists of the game – Joe Corcoran, Willie Joe Padden, Ciarán McDonald. For Mayo to have waited so long without at least one more title defies rationality.
While playing Donegal at that midlands crossroads is tempting for this weekend, it’s no more than that. A secret All-Ireland mightn’t quite do the trick for Mayo.
People thought winning a league in 2001 would change things. It didn’t.
People thought the under-21 win in 2006, which broke a long spell of losses at every age level, would cause a sea-change. Not quite. Maybe there’s only one way to change this thing.
Maybe the only way to win this thing is to do what’s always been done. To go in through the front door with the chest out. Let emergency green and red paint be shipped to the Plain of the Yews, and sheep prepared for their makeovers.
Hoist the banners high on the chimneys and rooftops. Book that flight home from New York and let the job go hang. Because however bad the sting of loss may be, the void of there being no Mayo at all would be infinitely worse.
ANTHONY MUNNELLYwrites An Spailpín Fánach ( spailpin.blogspot.ie), a bilingual blog on Irish life, culture and sports