Galway-Mayo: A sporting rivalry that has never neatly fit in any category

The counties become like siblings who cannot sit in a room without squabbling

A few weeks ago, Ger Bowens made the short journey from his home in Milltown to collect his son in Claremorris. He happened to be wearing a Galway jersey. Almost as soon as he set foot on the street, he heard someone growl at him, "Mayo's Year." He turned to see a boy of about eight years old fixing him in the boldest stare he could muster.

The Milltown man laughs at the image. “He thought that it was his right because I was walking around his town in a Galway shirt.”

Galway-Mayo: As a sports rivalry it has never neatly fit into any category. For decades, Galway city has been a natural magnet for people from both counties, gravitating there for college, for work, for life. There's a census to be done on the number of Mayoites transplanted in Galway and vice versa.

The majority of my best buddies are from Headford, three miles from me. And, of course, I got stick since the league final

It's not uncommon to see green and red flags fluttering through the Galway suburbs in those frequent years when Mayo have been preparing for All-Ireland finals. But at this time of year, when Mayo and Galway are setting into a Connacht championship weekend, feelings are thorny.

The counties become like siblings who can't sit in the same room for five minutes without squabbling. There's an edge there – and it's at its most ragged along the border lines of the counties. Near Irishtown lies a small stone footbridge that crosses the Dalgan river on the quiet R328 that takes motorists towards Garrafrauns.

During the heightened summer of 1998, when Galway came storming into the reckoning, “artists” from both counties fought to mark the bridge in their county colours. The faded maroons, greens and reds can be seen yet.

"When Galway went and won that All-Ireland in 1998 I remember being so disappointed not because they won it but because it felt they waltzed into the party – uninvited from a Mayo perspective," says Ger Brady, the former Mayo footballer. "And it was as if they got the girl and Mayo are walking home empty handed."

Brady lives in Annaghdown, Galway football heartland. His in-laws are the traditional music family the O'Connors and although they aren't massively into football, they still feel obliged to get a rise out of him whenever the counties meet. Brady grew up in Ballina, cocooned within the Mayo interior so that he never much thought about Galway until he began to play minor for his county.

One game stands out: a Connacht league final played in Clonbur. The atmosphere felt different: a bigger crowd and an emotional charge he hadn't felt before. JP Kean was the coach and Brady remembers the look of acute disappointment after Mayo had been beaten: it was different to other games they might have won or lost.

“That was my first experience of it. And I didn’t really understand it until later.”

It's still a tricky relationship to define. Mark Ronaldson is the last Shrule-Glencorrib player to have lined out for Mayo. His lineage is typical of the area. Both his grandfathers hailed from Galway. His mother played camogie for Galway. His father Declan managed Mayo minor and U-21 teams in the late 1990s.

"Tuam was closer than Castlebar so we would often go there to watch club or county games. There is something attractive about Galway football. My Dad often said he thought I was like a Galway forward because I was light and fast. There was a respect for Galway football and I am intrigued by it.

But when it came to playing against them, you really hate them when you are playing them and you want to beat them even more. I wouldn’t say it was a conflict but in the house you almost had a foot in both camps – until we played each other. Because you would hear about it.”

Gibbons pub in Shrule has served for decades as a meeting point for GAA aficionados from both sides of the Mayo-Galway border.

"The Galway crowd come in from Headford when the match is on and if things are going bad for them, they slip out the back door and you mightn't see them again for a fortnight," says Mike Flynn, whose postal address is in Galway even though he lives on the Mayo side of the border and is a steadfast supporter.

Heated rivalry

“The rivalry is good. It can get a little heated when people say things out of context and it is taken up the wrong way. It is hard to describe. You’d nearly want to be living here. I have a habit of putting Mayo up on a pedestal. Most of the time I am getting the knock. But when I don’t get that knock, I really sink it home.

"The majority of my best buddies are from Headford, three miles from me. And, of course, I got stick since the league final. But I keep telling them that means nothing when it comes to championship: that Mayo are a championship team. And they’ll fire at me: if ye are that good how come it ye haven’t won the All-Ireland since ‘51. And that’s a hard one to answer.”

When Galway came screaming out of history to claim the 1998 All-Ireland final after a Croke Park display which was so good that it bordered on haughty, it left Mayo people in a quandary. In 1996 and 1997 they had come desperately close to winning it all. Instead: an historic year in maroon and the first time the Sam Maguire crossed the border since 1966. Mike Flynn owned a truck and if he would chauffeur the new champions on their homecoming celebration in Headford.

"I said I would. So I had Pádraic Joyce and Derek Savage and Michael Donnellan and all these lads on the back of my truck going around Headford. But I had the Mayo flag hung in the cab behind me and the doors locked. So I was happy."

Mark Ronaldson was just 11 then but has a distinct memory of the Sam Maguire itself coming to Shrule at some point during what was an emotive tour of the interior. He can’t recall the circumstances of how it came to be there but he was among the Mayo kids who held it for a photo outside one of the pubs.

“If Galway were to win it now, there is no chance of that happening. It is strange thinking back on it. I remember holding the Sam Maguire outside one of the pubs in Shrule. It was definitely the week they won it. I just remember a massive crowd. At the time it seemed normal, but I am sure there were many diehard Mayo fans in their kitchens, the curtains twitching, looking out and really resentful about this happening. And I am 100 per cent sure that it wouldn’t happen now. I am not even sure how it happened at the time. The Sam Maguire hadn’t come to the West in 30 years so it was tied in with that.”

The big distinction between the counties is that if you drive anywhere in Mayo, you can start a conversation about Gaelic football. But swathes of Galway are devoted to hurling. Connacht rugby attracts a growing fanbase. Galway United has its core constituency. And there are thousands of people in Galway city who live blissfully unaware of sport full stop.

“It is all we have in Mayo,” says Ger Brady. “We follow the team to the ends of the earth. In Galway, you will meet people who are passionate about hurling or rugby. But when you come to north Galway and the football strongholds they are just as passionate about Galway football as Mayo is.”

Brady was invited to coach the Milltown senior team over the past few seasons. They organised a challenge game against Castlebar Mitchels last year and the hosts fielded a strong team. At the huddle just before throw-in, one of the players issued final instructions and finished with a rallying cry. “Go out there now and there’ s no way we lose to those Mayo f***ers.” Immediately, all eyes turned to Brady. “Sorry Ger,” someone said. “That’s just the way it is.”

Carnival of rivalry

This weekend, in places like Milltown and Shrule, the near-annual carnival of rivalry and bragging rights will be at its most intense. The Indian sign that Mayo have had over Galway at provincial level has meant the gloating has been one-sided. But Mayo’s succession of All-Ireland disappointments has led to choice retorts.

“It is good natured to a point,” says Ger Bowens. “Obviously Mayo have had this cross on their backs for a long time and we don’t help them by pointing it out. The slagging goes as far as you can push it. Both sides: don’t get me wrong. Mayo’s support is fanatical. Galway don’t have that, if I am very honest. All the focus in Mayo is on football. Some people around here, the thoughts of you ever supporting Mayo, no matter how bad you feel for them would be taken as heresy.”

Press any Galwegian living close to the Mayo border and they will probably concede that they couldn’t begrudge their neighbours – who are often their colleagues, their friends, their in-laws – an All-Ireland. But they are in no rush to see it at the same time. The endless cycle of gifs and memes about Mayo’s failure to complete the deal is the gift that keeps on giving. And for Mayo, the big fear is that some summer soon, Galway will yawn, rouse themselves and put together a spellbinding few performances and win another one.

As Mayo people try to pinpoint the missing ingredient, there may be something to learn from their neighbours.

"I think there are more similarities than differences," says Ger Brady. "But if you look back at personnel over the last twenty years – they have produced Michael Donnellan, Pádraic Joyce, Ja Fallon. Or now, Shane Walsh. There's a certain amount of class these guys have naturally – that real marquee class. Do we in Mayo produce enough of those? Ciarán McDonald certainly fits in that bracket and you can make an argument for a few more.

“But I am not sure if they roll off the tongue as easily as some of those Galway guys. Mayo’s games have been epic in their nature and brought us on an amazing journey and it has given us great heartache. People ask what is the problem and why we can’t get over the line.

“The reality is that All-Ireland semi-finals and finals are won by doing a lot of things right. Usually there is not a lot between teams. It can be that little bit of class that gets you over the line. We do have class in Mayo, absolutely. But maybe we have lacked just that little bit extra at times.”

Mark Ronaldson was probably the perfect age to enjoy the coup that Mayo executed against Galway in 1999, ransacking John O’Mahony’s team in Tuam and knocking them out of the championship when they were All-Ireland champions. It was lashing rain and the mood among the Mayo crowd was ecstatic. In one way, the end of the knock-out championship has diluted the significance of those derby wins. But in another way, the stakes have never seemed higher over the past decade as Mayo established a local ascendency.

“Mayo, rightly or wrongly, it is like a religion,” says Ronaldson.”And that may have hindered us. It wouldn’t surprise me all that Galway would come and win an All-Ireland before Mayo. Galway are just that type of mercurial mavericks that could come and win one and go away for a few years. Whereas Mayo, we are there every year, but we are nowhere. It isn’t as big a deal in Galway – and maybe they are right. But in Mayo, it is just intense. It is passionate.”

All of that stuff will swirl around Castlebar on Sunday. 122 years of this crack and still it burns with the fossil fuel of inherited feeling. They are neck and neck. Mayo have 48 Connacht titles, Galway 46. Of their 89 meetings, Galway have three more victories. And it is 21 years and counting since Sam Maguire visited either side of the border: too long for such proud and high-achieving football counties.

All to play for, as ever.