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
“Events in Tralee last Sunday have banished our indecision, however, and we feel the time has come when something must be done before football disappears completely in Mayo - unwept, unhonoured and unsung,” read the defining line in that letter.
In the years after 1951, there was little danger of football ever being unwept or unsung. Fortunes in the county oscillated wildly, from the nearly decade of the 1960s when Mayo was forced to play second fiddle to a near-invincible Galway side and the unaccountable low from 1969-1981 when no Mayo team won a county championship. There were genuine tragedies – the death of Ted Webb, the killing of Garda John Morley.
There was gallows humour of the infamous Connaught Telegraph blank space where the team photograph should have been after the 3-17 to 0-10 humiliation by Galway in 1982. There was the gallant scene after the 1985 Connacht final when Mayo players, minutes after the county had won just its second provincial title in 16 years, chaired Roscommon great Dermot Earley around the field in honour of his retirement after that game.
There was Pádraig Brogan‘s supernova goal in the All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Dublin that year, the three goal comeback by the minors in the All-Ireland final of 1978, Willie “four goal” McGee in the U-21 final of 1967 and, at last, a return to the senior final under John O‘Mahony in 1989. You think about how Kevin McStay recalled landing in Knock airport on the Monday evening when the team flew home after being beaten by Cork in that game. In the twilight, the players could see that many hundreds had gathered at the wire fence.
“The crowd got to us all. There was something very sad and very rural about it. It almost had the look of a massive country funeral.“ Or David Brady on the black night when the 2006 side returned to the Welcome Inn: “These were strangers standing in the pissing rain to greet a team that had been destroyed in the biggest football match of the year. I won‘t ever forget that.“ The touchstones are manifold: McHale‘s sending-off in the All-Ireland final replay in 1996, Ciarán McDonald‘s deathless winning point against Dublin in a gripping semi-final a decade later, the redemptive victory against Galway, the reigning All-Ireland champions, on a hot day in Tuam in 1999.
Through it all, it could never be said that football didn‘t matter in Mayo. If anything, it has mattered too much. In the worst of times, black comedy reigned supreme. The barnstorming tour of the county in 1989, when emotions were still feverish in the days after defeat was labelled “the homecoming without the cup”.
A few years later, with the All-Ireland as far away as ever, the squad were instructed to run across the field leaping for an imaginary football as they went. The drill was probably ahead of its time but some of the players were uncomfortable. Anthony Finnerty, famous for goals scored and missed in the 1989 final, saw a chance for devilment. He broke away towards the dressing room and when someone shouted at him to find out where he was going he replied: “I‘m going to get me gloves. The ball is wet.“ The moment lived long after the season had died.
Years after the 2004 final defeat to Kerry, big Liam McHale was able to recall the cosmic joke that day played on him. On the Saturday of the match, the odds on Alan Dillon scoring the first goal were unaccountably large so he phoned home and asked his wife to lay a handsome wager on the Ballintubber man. Dillon duly scored and McHale, a selector on the sideline for Maughan, jumped into the air. He was certain it would be Mayo’s day. George Golden, the other selector, growled at him to calm down. The moral order reasserted itself: Kerry won and Mayo traipsed home. That evening, Liam’s wife Sinéad confessed that she had completely forgot to place the bet.
These are the memories will swirl around the head of every Mayo fan from aged ten to 100 and of the hundreds of former players –including the surviving men from the 1951 side – who will gather in Croke Park tomorrow.
“Baggage“ is the convenient term for it. It is not baggage: it is merely a consequence of having lived. For the Mayo players participating in the pre-match parade tomorrow, the trick is to believe that none of that matters. All year, they have done a marvellous job of that.