No divisions as this Rossie town firmly backing Mayo

Sat, Sep 22, 2012, 01:00

Some may usually back Roscommon, others Mayo, but the people of Ballaghaderreen know where their allegiances lie for tomorrow’s final

WELCOME TO Ballaghaderreen, the Rockall of Gaelic football. It’s claimed by both Mayo and Roscommon. Officially, the town is in Roscommon but spiritually it has always been Mayo. As if to underline that, the ubiquity of the green and red flags and bunting has made it indistinguishable from any Co Mayo town.

And yet, scratch beneath the surface and the identity of Ballaghaderreen becomes a little more complex and oblique.

Six years ago Roscommon won the All-Ireland minor football title, a massive breakthrough for a smallish county. Anyone who visited was confronted with a town decked in the Roscommon colours with the iconic Dillon building on the square painted yellow and blue.

The confused allegiances of its 2,000 citizens can be traced back to 1898 when John Dillon, the MP for East Mayo and a member of the town’s most powerful family, tabled an amendment to the Local Government Act in Westminster.

It redrew the county boundaries, pushing Ballaghaderreen from Mayo into Roscommon. The reason? Rates were cheaper in Roscommon – but the GAA club had already been formed and it refused to budge.

The more they explain it, the more confusing it becomes. When you are pointed in somebody’s direction, they’ll either say: “He’s a Rossie” or “she’s pure Mayo”.

In the 1980s, some Rossies in the town tried to set up a rival club that would play in the Roscommon championship. That was quickly shot down by the GAA authorities. However, when a women’s GAA team was founded later, it pledged its allegiance to Roscommon.

The town’s current hero is Andy Moran, Mayo’s captain. Sadly, Moran, a wonderful Gaelic football craftsman, has succumbed to serious injury and can’t play in the final. Everybody here knows how he has dedicated his life to Mayo football, and they feel bad for him. Those who are Rossies tell you in the next breath that his father was Roscommon.

Maybe it is its “contested” status that makes Ballaghaderreen so desperate, so full of longing for success. Everybody will tell you that it’s calmer this time – but it’s frantic too.

John Duffy was on the Ballagh team that won the Mayo County Cup in 1971. A couple of minutes in his company and you know how passionate a Mayo supporter he is. He owns the large Supervalu shop on the outskirts of the town.

Last weekend, he organised a competition where he gave eight match tickets to those who made the biggest effort to show off the Mayo colours.

He was expecting about a score of entrants but 250 turned up. “They came from Westport, Belmullet, Kilkelly, Claremorris, everywhere,” he says. “There were a few cars painted red and green, a painted goat, dogs, donkeys, the lot. We were swamped. An out-and-out Roscommon man picked the winner. It gave us all a bit of a lift.”

Yet the refrain is that it’s low key – with good reason. The team has lost five All-Irelands since the late 1980s: 1989, 1996, 1997, 2004 and 2006. They came close in 1989 (when the great Willie Joe Padden was still playing) and even closer in 1996, losing out to Meath in a replay. That was lost partly because the elegant and rangy Liam McHale got sent off after a schemozzle at the start of the second game.

“The national perception is that Mayo cannot win an All-Ireland,” says John Dillon’s modern equivalent, John O’Mahony. The local Fine Gael TD is also a renowned GAA manager, having guided Mayo to an All-Ireland in 1989 and Galway to the Sam Maguire in 1998 and 2001.

He also played on the same 1971 club team as Duffy (as a corner back) and points out that the 1951 Mayo All-Ireland captain Seán Flanagan (who later became a TD) played for the local club. “This time, I detect a calmer approach from supporters. They are not going over the top as they have done in previous years.”

O’Mahony subscribes to the theory that Mayo have underachieved in the past and had an inferiority complex once they got out of Connacht.

In 1989, in what was then a novel move, he brought a psychologist in to help instil confidence.

In the past Mayo always seemed to be built around enigmatic stars – Padden; McHale; Ciarán McDonald; the McStays; James Nallen; the Mortimers. O’Mahony and others point out that this is a team without stars. “This bunch of players is intelligent, measured and committed. They might just break the duck,” he says.

Frank Kelly is a former player and managed Ballaghaderreen to its last Mayo championship in 2008. The postman sits in the spartan dressingroom of the GAA club, his voice echoing against the concrete walls as he remembers the litany of disappointments over the years.

“In 1989, I was in the Hogan Stand for the semi-final. My brother-in-law turned and said to me: ‘You will be in the final’. I couldn’t believe it. We were not used to that. We nearly celebrated as if we had won. We were so used to coming out of Connacht and getting beat.

“Of all the lost finals, 1996 was the one that hurt most. Over the two games we felt that we were good enough to win both games.

“You need a bit of luck to win anything. I felt that one or two things went against us, like Liam McHale getting sent off when he was our clear leader.”

Kelly believes that the novelty of the final pair, the understated nature of Mayo’s approach, could end a gap of six decades. Two local GAA players, painting the façade of Durkan’s hotel on this weekday, agree. Aidan Roddy and Brian Gordon both speak of a quiet confidence. “It’s a different Mayo team. It’s more of a team this year. Before there were one or two superstars,” says Gordon.

It is the postman Kelly who simply and irrefutably answers why they all still persevere. “We all love Gaelic football. We love Mayo. We keep hoping that the day will come.”