Mayo: A county and a people seeking liberation from past
It is beyond time for Mayo to free themselves from the ghosts of past defeats
Mayo’s Ciarán McDonald tangle with Eamonn Fitzmaurice of Kerry in the 2004 All-Ireland football final, one of Mayo’s painful defeats over the years. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
“Win lose or draw – and let it be recorded that the players will not hear of defeat – the team has done the county proud. They have restored the faith in the old county, they have given the young heroes to emulate, they have generated new confidence, a confidence which has transcended sport into business and other sectors, they have shown that despite massive emigration fuelled by a constant and wilful neglect of the West by successive governments, the heart pounds with a pride that cannot be quelled.”
– 1989 editorial in
The Western People on the week of Mayo’s All-Ireland final against Cork.
OVER the past year, two videos were posted on YouTube which reveal much about the character of Mayo. Both are essentially japes but nonetheless valuable for that. The first, titled He’s Out Of Sorts, was filmed on a camera-phone in the back of a late-night taxi somewhere in downtown Hong Kong where the front seat passenger, clearly a Mayo man, gives a squiffy if hilarious rendition of Pee Flynn’s infamous turn on The Late Late Show over a decade earlier. He clearly has the whole recital by heart and riffs on it for the amusement of his companions – “She‘ll leave me shtandin! She‘ll leave me shtandin‘ below in the square in Claremorris.”
The other features a few intrepid Mayo mountaineers who decided to drive to north Donegal with the sole intention of planting a green and red flag at the summit of Mount Errigal before last year’s All-Ireland final. The wind is bitter and the view obscured by a low mist but the Mayo flag presides over the landscape in hostile country. Like the appearance of the “Mayo for Sam” sign painted onto the road during the last climb up Alpe d’Huez in this summer’s Tour de France, both snippets illustrate that Mayo is nothing if not a “world” county and nothing if not blessed – or cursed – with a flair for the dramatic.
Tomorrow, the Mayo football team appears in its seventh All-Ireland final since the county re-emerged in 1989 after almost four decades without making it to a September. The six finals of 1989, 1996 (plus replay), 1997, 2004, 2006 and 2012 were lost in different ways by different teams and for different reasons but as a collection, they form the main acts to one of the most gripping and unforgiving dramas in Irish life, let alone Irish sport.
“My via dolorosa,” was how Paddy Prendergast, one of the three surviving members of the 1950/51 Mayo All-Ireland winning teams, has described those disconsolate return journeys from Croke Park. Tomorrow is the latest chapter in a romance badly in want of consummation. Mayo’s “wait” for Sam has had elements of magnificence, of genuine heartbreak, of comedy, of embarrassment and now, almost a quarter of a century after that comeback summer of 1989, it has become exhausting. It has taken its toll on an entire county.
That is why the manner of Mayo‘s progression to this year‘s All-Ireland final has been so heartening for supporters. It has been a procession of fiercely impressive and purposeful victories. There has been a marked impatience about their stride through Connacht and the rapacious destruction of Donegal, their victors in last year‘s All-Ireland final. They have played with the style and conviction of champions-elect and on most ordinary years would be strong favourites by this stage. But, of course, this is no ordinary year. It is just Mayo’s luck that they are coming up against a freewheeling Dublin team whose score lust has been welcomed as a perfect antidote to the measured, tactical game of the past few years. Containing Dublin is like trying to contain a litter of cocker spaniels. Mayo has a strong chance of winning this final. Equally, the county and its vast body of support might be about to witness what would arguably be the most painful loss of the lot.
Since James Horan took over three years ago, there has been scant mention of the past. The Mayo team walking around in the parade tomorrow will be intent on playing as if the past does not matter. And on the surface, it doesn‘t. But deep down, that is like expecting the younger generation of American Kennedys to behave as if their glamorous predecessors did not matter.
Mayo‘s football past is too grand and too complex to be ignored. The place has been defined by its football past just as pointedly as Kerry has by its habitual winning. As a football county, Mayo is much bigger – in importance and spirit – than the three senior All-Ireland titles it has claimed. Because two of those came back-to-back, the 1950/51 team has become literally unforgettable. Their appeal was magnified by the fact that they were a dashing team led by smart and exceptional men: Seán Flanagan, one of the leading west of Ireland politicians of the day, Pádraig Carney, who jetted in from his medical work in California for the last of those finals, Eamon Mongey, Fr Peter Quinn. It is often forgotten that the beginning of their All-Ireland dominance can be traced to the letter sent by several of the team during the shambolic winter of 1948 when they demanded more from the county board. The low point came when just 15 players turned up for a match against Kerry and they had to coax the bus driver to act as substitute.