Massive Mayo diaspora ready to celebrate if west awakes
Emigration is a thread that runs through Mayo life and therefore through Mayo football, writes KEITH DUGGANAT THE GAA ground in Tourmakeady, the spectators’ area is called Ardán na nDeoraí – the Stand of Tears.
It was named for the hundreds of people who left the small townland on the shores of Lough Mask when there was no work to be had.
If the bronze statue in Kiltimagh of a suited man carrying his case and walking towards the train station is the most eloquent salute to the thousands who have departed Mayo down the decades, then Tourmakeady is one of the places most associated with leaving.
Just as the Achill Islanders gravitated towards Cleveland, Chicago was a natural calling point for Tourmakeady families.
In 1981, Tourmakeady made a rare impact on the county football scene by winning the under-16 B championship. But by the time that team reached the under-21 grade, nine of that side had left. The connection was so strong that the club did two tours of Chicago, in 1979 and 1986: when they arrived in O’Hare airport for the second tour, a greeting party of 500 awaited them.
Emigration, put simply, is a thread that runs through Mayo life and therefore through Mayo football. Few bona fide football counties have a narrative arc as clear and dramatic as Mayo.
With Mayo, it is always either the best of times or the worst of times. Average seasons rarely visit there. After the first All-Ireland title of 1936, Mayo established itself as a marvellously consistent football county, and it was the six league titles between 1933 and 1939 (Mayo opted out of the league in 1940 as a mark of respect to their midfielder Patsy Flannery who was killed in a hunting accident. They won it when they returned to action in 1941), as well as the consecutive All-Ireland titles of 1950 and 1951, that created the yearning in later decades for a return to glittering pre-eminence.
For most of the 1960s, several strong Mayo teams were locked in Connacht by the brilliance of the Galway three-in-a-row team.
The 1970s witnessed a series of mishaps and Mayo went from 1967 to 1981 without winning a single provincial title. So the 1980s was a decade of tentative rebuilding against the familiar backdrop of the economic recession and emigration.
First came the All-Ireland semi-final and replay against Dublin in 1985, occasions of huge significance because they once again placed a Mayo football team in the theatre with an establishment team. But when John O’Mahony set out to win an All-Ireland title in 1989, emigration and absent players played a major part in the story.
To begin with, he was missing the player who should have been the natural playmaker of that team. Ger Geraghty from Ballintubber had played centre forward for O’Mahony on the Mayo under-21 team in 1983.
Like many young men, Geraghty headed to America the following year – to Chicago of course.
He was still in O’Mahony’s mind six years later and when Peter Ford, Mayo’s redoubtable full back, returned from a few weeks in the Windy City reporting that Geraghty was still playing scintillating football on the shores of Lake Michigan, O’Mahony was intrigued.
In January 1989, Geraghty phoned to say he was thinking of coming back. “And then,” O’Mahony would recall, “he met a girl who would become his future wife. That put the kibosh on it.”
While O’Mahony always believed that with Geraghty, that Mayo team of 1987-1990 would have won an All-Ireland, he was busy enough hanging on to existing players. Noel Durkin, for instance, had effectively commuted from London, where he worked as an electrician, through the 1988 championship.
Often O’Mahony drove to the airport to pick him up and bring him to training. The following season, Durkin decided to stay and work in the county, even though he would be taking a serious cut in wages.
But shortly before he was due to return, he called O’Mahony, full of apologies. He had received an offer of work in America and had decided to accept. His flight was booked. In fact, he was about to head out to Heathrow. O’Mahony understood how hard work was to come by in those times. But he also knew that Mayo were on the threshold of a rare season.
He persuaded Durkin to come home and talk about it – if he still wanted to leave, then O’Mahony would put him on the next flight to the US. Instead, O’Mahony’s powers of persuasion worked.
Durkin later told O’Mahony that after Mayo beat Tyrone in the 1989 semi-final to reach its first All-Ireland final since 1951, he knelt down and kissed the field in Croke Park. “Getting to an All-Ireland was the real dramatic lift to all that gloom and worry about jobs. And it was unknown,” O’Mahony recalls.
In the 1990s and 2000s, appearing in an All-Ireland final has become a less novel experience, but the long wait for the reconciliation with the splendour of the 1950s continues, at least until Sunday.
And the spectre of emigration has not faded.
Mayo may not have lost players to emigration this time around – although work opportunities in Kenya prompted Trevor Mortimer to call time on his 12-year Mayo career in April – but how many young Mayo people have left the country since their last final appearance in 2006?
PLAY SAFE: TRAVEL APPEAL
Donegal manager Jim McGuinness is supporting a campaign aimed at ensuring everyone gets home safely from Sunday’s All-Ireland final.
Mayo boss James Horan is also backing the road safety campaign as about 80,000 GAA fans prepare to travel from the west and northwest for Sunday’s showdown at Croke Park.
Last month, 24-year-old Donegal supporter Andrew Duffy lost his life in a drowning incident in Dublin following Donegal’s victory in the semi-final.
The two managers have added their support to a campaign launched by road safety officers in Mayo and Donegal.
Motorists and passengers heading to the big match are being asked to make a personal commitment to drive at appropriate and legal speeds.
A focus has been placed on motorists driving through towns, villages and communities on their way to the game and a special appeal will be made at the big match on Sunday for all fans to drive with care.
Donegal manager McGuinness said the final was a day for everyone to enjoy and not be marred by incidents.
“Speeding traffic is a prime concern in many communities and we want motorists to think about their speed and how it might affect others as they pass through communities.”
Mayo manager Horan said: “I am proud to support this worthwhile campaign, and I hope it will help to make communities safer places.” - JOHN FALLON