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Martin Dyar: This Mayo journey has been a life-giving and celebratory thing

Not so much the losses, as the freshness of each successive experience of defeat

The long-suffering Mayo fans will be hoping the 70-year wait for Sam Maguire will end on Saturday night. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

The intense build-up to Saturday’s All-Ireland final between Mayo and Tyrone has included some familiar curiosity about the Mayo mind. Our colourful saga of footballing disappointments at the men’s senior level remains an irresistible story.

What makes us tick? What makes us lose? What has it been like to be so close to ultimate victory, so often, and so worthily, only to fail again and again? And what is the deal with the Mayo supporters’ famous love for their teams? When it has mattered most, after all, as if wickedly mirroring each other across the decades, they have fallen short.

There’s fodder for speculation in the curse. But the idea that the 1951 team brought the supernatural anger of a Foxford priest upon themselves, though we like to hear it repeated, has never been taken terribly seriously in Mayo.

Certainly, the suspicion that the Sam Maguire might be perpetually out of reach has been fed by awful defeats. The loss by a single point to Meath in the 1996 replayed final is a standout. In Swinford, my hometown, even the most nostalgic don’t like to look back on that match. It remains a kind of taint on innocent days.

Some like to ease their regret by remembering that the Swinford and Killasser man David Heaney emerged around that time. Down the line he would captain Mayo in the cathartic 2006 semi-final win against Dublin. The image of Heaney’s uncannily calm silhouette has lingered, the way he moved, his arms out like a drover when the Mayo team came out on to the pitch before the Dubs and began to warm-up in front of the bright-eyed seething Hill.

That signal of rivalry connects directly somehow to Ciarán McDonald’s late winning point, the beauty of which might have altered the Mayo accent. You may have heard it, that note of festivity in the expletives we use in our chatty Atlantic way.

Meath and Mayo players scuffle during the 1996 All-Ireland final replay at Croke Park. Photograph: Inpho

We’ve looked to such memories for comfort, and we’ve needed big doses: 1996 was bad, but the currency of the curse started in the 2000s. It’s not so much the losses, as the sheer imaginative freshness of each successive experience of defeat. Few, in fairness, would say that the loss to Kerry in 2006 was the worst they experienced. Kerry were a better team. When the final whistle was blown, that was understood.

David Brady caught the essence of it. On the point of retiring, he was brought from the bench early in the first half to try to bring a midfield scope to our full-back line, and soak up some of the floodwater of Kerry’s excellence. Some years later, he looked back in conversation with Keith Duggan and remarked, ‘I felt like I was being sent in there to look for survivors’.

That was rough, but the more recent close call matches have been worse. I spoke to some Swinford diehards this week, the men behind the iconic red and green banner which reads ‘Citius Altius Fortius Mayo’. Conceived by a Swinford GP as a play on the Olympic motto (faster, higher, stronger) and stitched into being in a Castlebar printing shop for £20 in 1996, those words have since been held aloft at dozens of Mayo championship matches.

A fixture in the Canal End at finals, across all those summers, when Mayo were doing well the question was asked: where is the banner, and who’s bringing it this time? Occasionally it featured at Australian and US sporting events, when immigrant Swinford men and women were having a day out. In 1998, the banner flashed across global screens from a World Cup match in France.

The diehards are a courageous and innately grateful lot, but since the losses to Dublin in 2016 and 2017, acknowledged as the hardest to bear, the banner has been neglected. It has spent one summer balled up in a shed. More than once this past year a Mayo fan has brought it to a big match and kept it like a private relic in their pocket.

We’ve been jumpy this week, and superstitious, but we can be rational about the curse. If the first two decades of the 21st century gave us a sense of an invisible barrier to victory, they also abandoned us to the raw facts of our losses. We’ve seen ourselves falling short. We’ve recognised our shameful slips and flaws, mixed in with our bouts of genius and near glory.

Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea and Séamus O’Shea sit on the Croke Park pitch after the All-Ireland final replay defeat to Dublin in 2016. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

There is no curse. There is only the long road of achieving, year to year, generation to generation, the greatest kind of collective experience that we can imagine. There’s an irony for us in the fact that this journey has been a life-giving and celebratory thing.

And there’s a power in the thought of a win in the midst of a pandemic. Countless people, in and away from the county, as the throw-in approaches, will feel that they are somehow fully at home. They will suspect, too, that there’s a fund of healing in this game. If the diehards can manage to bunk down for a few hours, they’ll wake on Saturday morning and feel blessed.

I asked my excited long-suffering friends, all of whom think last month’s semi-final comeback win against Dublin was Mayo’s finest hour, what will you do if we win? The first answer was: ‘We’ll relive it forever’. The next was: ‘We’ll frame the banner’. They will, but not before they are catapulted to a kind of heaven that will be, for all its magic and newness, a homecoming.

Martin Dyar is a poet, and the editor of Vital Signs: Poems About Illness and Healing, which will be published next year by Poetry Ireland.

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