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


“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.

“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.

Unaccountable low
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.

Cosmic joke
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.

There is no question that the decades of expectation and frustration, the dashed hopes and boozy aftermaths and Mayo mantras – “Kenneth Mortimer lost 10 All-Ireland finals, ya know” – will be present in the atmosphere in Croke Park. There is no question that the Mayo team will have to acknowledge and absorb some of that nervousness. The big unknown concerns whether it will liberate them or weigh them down. All the week, the popular talk has been about Mayo getting a “good start“, as if the concession of an early goal to Dublin would bring about a mass LSD flashback of the nightmarish opening chapters of 2004, 2006 and 2012. What all Mayo people want above all out of tomorrow is not to have to utter the words, “Not again.“

But they want more than that. They just want to win the bloody game of football. They are tired of the sepia image of gallant Mayo, handsome losers. Let them win a notoriously poor game by a single point! They are tired of yarns about the curse, of the six o‘clock news footage showing Mayo folk streaming out of Croke Park before final whistles, of the Sunday Game inquisitions into the soul of their county, of the lachrymose homecomings, of the “coulda-woulda-shoulda” reasons why it didn‘t happen and most of all, of the maddening fact that every new season offers strong reasons to suggest that their team are good enough to be genuine All-Ireland contenders. They are tired of swearing they will never go to see Mayo play again and then not missing a match the next season.

The novelty of being contenders is over for Mayo. All-Ireland champions is the only thing left for them to be. Ireland was a different country when the Charlestown writer John Healy recorded the mood for the Western People as the 1950/51 side moved through the county with the Sam Maguire.

“As the train sped by, the hay was set ablaze and proud farmers and supporters held their beacons aloft as the train sped on into the night. At Ballyhaunis, fog signals exploded and as the train came to a halt eager and frenzied supporters ran down the platform with blazing torches and hoisted the cup aloft.“

Free those ghosts
It is not to get back to those nights that Mayo want now. It is to escape from them. It is beyond time to free those ghosts.

The scene is perfectly set; city against country, the West against the metropolis and seated in the Ard Comhairle a Mayo Taoiseach – the son of Henry Kenny, midfielder on the first Mayo team to win it all in 1936.

There may well be a handful of Mayo children tomorrow who get to see their team win the All-Ireland at the first time of asking. If they do so, the whole business will seem like the most easy and natural thing in the world. But the elders know how much has been invested in this. And the minutes after half past three stay with them all, one way or the other.

This All-Ireland final is almost impossible to call with any accuracy, it is so evenly poised. And yet Mayo people watching, from Chicago to Bangor-Erris to Hong Kong, must believe that deliverance will come. Any mongrel of a win will do.

For if not now, then when?

And if not now, then how?

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