Ciarán Murphy: Born on the right side of the border for Mayo, Colm Boyle will be missed

A thunderous footballer, the Devitts clubman hails from a curious part of the GAA world

Colm Boyle has become the latest Mayo stalwart to confirm his intercounty retirement. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Colm Boyle has become the latest Mayo stalwart to confirm his intercounty retirement. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

Colm Boyle has retired, and another great from the last decade of football is gone. He leaves with four All Star awards, a record for Mayo which he shares with Lee Keegan and Keith Higgins.

He was a thunderous footballer, a man who played with the sort of ferocity that defined this Mayo team. He might not have been their greatest player, but he might just have been the most perfect iteration of what a James Horan-era Mayo player was. He was, put simply, a great bit of stuff.

Since the news was announced in the Mayo News earlier this week, glowing testimonies will have rung in his ears, similar in some respects to those that greeted the retirements of some of his storied teammates - men like Tom Parsons, David Clarke, Donal Vaughan, Chris Barrett and Seamie O’Shea who all stepped away within days of each other last January.

But this one hits differently for me, because Boyle grew up just a few miles from where I grew up, on opposite sides of the Galway-Mayo border.

The border between the counties couldn’t have a more spectacular western-most starting point, on either side of beautiful Killary Harbour. Leenane looks across at Aasleigh and the mountains around Delphi, and as the border moves east, along the Loughs Nafooey, Mask and Corrib, it moves into the rather more understated visual charms of the footballing heartlands of south Mayo and north-east Galway.

And that’s where the border issue becomes personally fraught. Boyle grew up in Ballindine, which along with Irishtown, is the home of Davitts GAA Club, named after Michael Davitt, the founder of the Land League. And if Davitt was not a man to back down from a fight, then the club that bears his name does him no disservice.

Colm Boyle dives to block Galway’s Gareth Bradshaw in the 2016 Connacht SFC semi-finals. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
Colm Boyle dives to block Galway’s Gareth Bradshaw in the 2016 Connacht SFC semi-finals. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

I remember playing one or two challenge games at under-12 level against them, or maybe younger, but playing them in adult football seemed to be off-limits. There was obviously something about the arrival of puberty which necessitated we be kept apart - an excess of testosterone across the board perhaps. I tried to find out from the village elders if there was one incident in particular that led to our tribes being separated like this, but a veil of silence fell and I hastily dropped the matter.

It might have had something to do with a certain long-standing tradition in the vicinity on the evening of Galway/Mayo games. If Galway won, we in Milltown would send our most diplomatically-sensitive emissaries to Ballindine and Irishtown, in a spirit of friendship and comity of course, to discuss the game with the locals.

If Mayo won, the favour would be zestily returned in the opposite direction. Keeping the lines of communication open was deemed very important, at least on Connacht final night.

Complications

It being the GAA, there were complications. Ballindine lies flush up against the Galway border. Milltown lies five miles inside the county. So if your nearest school was in Ballindine or Irishtown, then it stood to reason that you would attend that school, and, in time, perhaps play football for the local club with your school friends. . . even if your house was actually in Co Galway.

So there are isolated tales of All-Ireland-winning underage Mayo footballers (not Colm Boyle, I hasten to add) who were actually born and lived in the county of Galway. That may not make sense geographically, but it is at least intellectually consistent.

More baffling to the naked eye is the Gael, born and living on the Galway side of the border, who is a rabid supporter of Davitts, a club lest we forget affiliated to the Mayo county board, but who then also shouts for Galway, against Mayo.

One such individual was so vocal in his celebrations of Galway’s 1998 All-Ireland win that his jawing precipitated a mass walk-out from a pub in Irishtown that night and the local publican, it is said, had to retire to his bed, heartsick at this affront to his sensibilities. The man in question, who was so raucously rejoicing in Galway’s win, had been a manager of the Davitts senior team, and his son had even worn the Green and Red with distinction. The mind truly boggles.

Sabina Higgins, pictured in 2014, was born on the Galway-Mayo border. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Sabina Higgins, pictured in 2014, was born on the Galway-Mayo border. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

And lest you think that such petty border squabbles are of no concern to you, this controversy goes all the way to the top. Sabina Higgins, wife of our current President, has similarly divided loyalties. I quote here directly from the President’s official website - “Sabina Coyne, now Higgins, was born. . . on the Galway-Mayo border and went to school in Ballindine and Claremorris, Co Mayo.”

Any reasonable person would be inclined to infer from this that she is a Mayo woman. But we in Milltown know different. Mrs Higgins, you can no longer run from this. Even now, for the good of the country, admit the error of your ways, return to the fold.

If there was a way for us to claim Boyle as one of our own, we would - but there has hardly ever been a player whose pride in his native county was more plainly, obviously seen. He will be missed.

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