Dad’s grave decked in Mayo colours for the All-Ireland
Dad mightn’t have lived to see it, but Uncle George says this is definitely Mayo’s year . . . maybe
A bloodied but unbowed Willie Joe Padden in action against Tyrone during the 1989 All-Ireland football semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Clan Butler at the Spire on O’Connell Street ahead of 2006 All Back row: Jo Anne Butler, George Butler, Nora Butler, Fintan Butler, Neal Butler, Shane Butler, Clare Butler. Front: Eoin Butler, Barry Butler (my father), Una Butler.
In the beginning, it was my father who lit the match. My father who planted the seed. My father who signed me up for a lifetime of fanatical devotion to a team synonymous (until this weekend, at least) with agonising failure.
He always told me how, as a boy, he cycled to Charlestown to see the great Seán Flanagan line out for Mayo. Flanagan was the last Mayoman to raise the Sam Maguire, captaining the county to consecutive All- Ireland titles in 1950 and 1951.
He described how Flanagan once, felled by a heavy tackle, had kicked a point from his hands, over his shoulders, while lying on his back. As a child, I would slump back in the grass outside, with a football in my hands, staring up at the sky, wondering how in the hell he’d managed it.
My first championship game was the 1984 Connacht final between Mayo and Galway. I was five years old. And as long as I’ve been in Ireland, I haven’t missed one since.
Our local butcher, Micheál Webb from Ballyhaunis, was in goal for Mayo that day. Even before the throw-in, his practice kicks out soared many times farther and higher than I imagined a ball could be kicked.
The man became a giant to me and yet he still lived at the end of our road.
That, in essence, is the magic of the GAA.
Mayo lost that Connacht final, but better days were always coming for us. Victory over Tyrone in the 1989 All-Ireland semi-final was one of the sweetest: Liam McHale rising to catch the ball with one hand, Willie Joe Padden – the Aidan O’Shea of his day, you might say – turning in one of the greatest performances of a storied career.
That iconic image of Willie Joe, battered but unbowed, became so famous in Mayo that younger fans were often disappointed subsequently, when he didn’t take to the field with that bloodied bandage still wrapped around his head.
On the final whistle, in a moment of unpremeditated abandon, I scaled the Croke Park barriers and sprinted out into the promised land beyond. As tends to happen, a couple of thousand other geniuses had the very same idea.
I soon found myself lost, alone, paralysed with fear and desperately seeking out a familiar face.
That experience became something of a recurring nightmare for successive Mayo teams in Croke Park in the decades to come. Yet through those years, I’ve learned a thing or two from supporting Gaelic football’s most famously unsuccessful team.