Some blame the ‘curse’; others say it’s simply misfortune; many claim it’s a concoction of both, blended together through decades of heartbreak.
It’s all conjecture, the only fact being Mayo have yet to win an All-Ireland title since triumphing in 1951. In that time they’ve appeared in nine finals, pushed two to replays, lost four by a point and have become the ultimate tale of sporting despair.
Talk of the ‘curse’ has evolved from a joke to a rumour to a full-blown conspiracy theory, the details of which have been recounted across the globe. Mayo will not win another All-Ireland title, it is proclaimed, until every member of that 1951 team passes away – the hex placed on them, it is said, as a result of celebrating as they overtook a funeral.
But behind all the chatter about spells and maledictions, is there a reason behind such a stretch of bad luck?
Of all the people with their own respective theories, few people are better placed to speak on the matter than three men who have won an All-Ireland medal since 1951 despite also wearing the Mayo jersey – Séamus O'Donnell, Sean Lowry and Enda Sheehy. (Dan O'Neill was also a member of that illustrious group before he passed away in 2015.)
In the eyes of the trio, where have Mayo gone wrong?
They’ve fallen short with Mayo; they’ve been victorious elsewhere – what differed?
Were the county simply not good enough?
Could anything else have been done?
Surely, the thought of dark forces at play is just as absurd as it sounds?
14 July 1985; Hyde Park, Roscommon
Tension circled the room. Mayo players, minutes away from a Connacht final, were feeling uneasy, the emotional baggage of three successive defeats in the decider so obviously evident.
Galway had ended the county's championship hopes for three years running and although this was Roscommon, the Primrose and Blue still spawned fear for Mayo. Some of the side that had won four Connacht titles in a row only a few years earlier were still hanging around – Dermot Earley, Harry Keegan, Tony McManus et al.
Sean Lowry noticed this.
Mayo manager Liam O'Neill had brought him into the Mayo set-up only a few months earlier, perhaps feeling he could be a stanchion in a side lacking in confidence. The Ferbane man was a member of the Offaly side that put paid to Kerry's five-in-a-row bid only three summers earlier and after he found work at the Bellacorick power station in North Mayo, he relocated.
It was moments like these he was recruited for. He already had that Celtic cross. An invaluable source of self-belief.
“If you had Offaly jerseys on ye,” he told the dressing room, “ye wouldn’t even consider Roscommon beating ye.” With that they funnelled out the door and two hours later they returned with their first Connacht title since 1981.
“Mayo always had that doubt, “ Lowry claims, “behind that swagger there was doubt all the time.”
When he arrived in Mayo he had no intention of playing county football.
Offaly was his county. He had won an All-Ireland with them. The intercounty career was over and it had been a successful one. Why go back?
But O’Neill persisted and Lowry succumbed.
Just before that year's championship he arrived at his first training session in Castlebar, not knowing a great deal about his new teammates. He was surprisingly impressed.
“I wasn’t small myself but, by God, these fellas were monsters. Offaly would have had a big team in ’82 but with Mayo there were about ten fellas bigger than me. They had the skill as well.
“I was very impressed I must say. Of course, Liam O’Neill impressed me anyway. He was into the gym and he was, all the time, researching into the Americans and what they were doing in American football, that kind of stuff. They had everything going for them – they just didn’t believe it.”
Mayo's first day out saw them overcome Leitrim in a Connacht semi-final, as expected, and once they beat Roscommon they were back in an All-Ireland semi-final, attempting to return to a stage they hadn't graced since 1951 – the All-Ireland final.
Despite their semi-final appearance only four years earlier, Croke Park remained terra incognita as they prepared to face Dublin, All-Ireland finalists in 1984.
"Nobody knew where the dressing rooms were. It was so alien for Mayo to be up there. You take that first day against Dublin in Croke Park. Noel Durkin was playing wing-forward and he had never been in Croke Park before. Imagine never being in Croke Park before?"
The Connacht champions were held to a draw and Lowry was dropped for the replay. He wouldn’t wear the Mayo shirt again.
Summer 1953; The Mall, Castlebar
Mick Flanagan was pottering his way across the Mall towards the courthouse. On one side of the large green, Séamus O'Donnell was standing in the doorway of the Imperial Hotel, saluting his older teammate from afar.
The Mayo team had been called in for a week of collective training in Castlebar, but since Flanagan was living nearby he continued to work as a solicitor before training in the evenings. As the twice All-Ireland winner reached the courthouse, the caretaker burst through the front door, kicking a leather ball at Flanagan.
The two men tackled and kicked and wrestled in the sun, Flanagan soon gesturing to O’Donnell to join in the folly. Suddenly a black car pulls up close by. The district judge hops out. Approaching the trio he takes the ball, he pauses briefly and the games resume.
Flanagan, O’Donnell and the judge grappled and tussled for possession, indifferent to the preposterous scenes playing out, while the caretaker was happy to watch on as goalkeeper, diving on any balls coming his way.
Eventually, the men picked up their blazers from the ground and headed back towards the courthouse.
“I went in to sit at the back of the court to see what was happening,” remembers O’Donnell, the only member of the quartet not working in some capacity.
“The judge came out with a big red face on him, perspiring like a bull. Mick was there with his jacket on but the jacket was mud-stained as a result of leaving it on the ground.
“The solicitor, the judge, myself and the caretaker all out on the green belting each other for the ball – it wouldn’t happen nowadays.”
The 1950s were heady days for Mayo football, the prospect of more All-Ireland titles seemingly imminent. 1952 had been a poor year for the county’s footballers, but many of the back-to-back All-Ireland winning side from 1950 and 1951 were still knocking about while young players, such as O’Donnell, had been brought in to provide a spark.
Unlike the 1980s there was no shortage of confidence. Not only that, they had conviction, a desire to be the best, the experience of being the best – traits that were evident straight from the outset for the young Ballaghaderreen man, called up to the senior squad as a teenager.
"I always remember going out to my first match in Ballina against Kerry. Pádraig Carney said to me: 'You're fortunate today, the great Jas Murphy you were to be playing on is not available. He was in a car accident'.
“Carney felt that I would be nervous at the thought of playing against this great Kerry footballer. That time you wouldn’t know the players very well. You’d see the odd photograph on the paper and that was it.
“At half-time when the Kerry team came back out I realised I was playing on a different guy and I said, ‘Where did you come from?’
“He said: “I’m on in place of Jas Murphy.’”
The mainstays of the side had that calming influence, enabling a minor to excel on his first day out. O’Donnell was playing against his heroes and yet the shackles were off. Even as players the side knew how to foster belief.
Along with the late Dan O’Neill, who followed O’Donnell into the senior side a few years later, they became the next Mayo men to get their hands on that fabled chalice in Croke Park. It just wasn’t with Mayo.
After training to be a guard and transferring to the Border region to deal with a brewing Border Campaign, a common portfolio for unmarried men in the Garda, O’Donnell called time on his Mayo career in 1956.
“I wanted to sow my wild oats in other ways than playing football.”
Eventually, however, he threw his lot in with Louth later that year and waiting for him in the Louth camp was his former teammate, O’Neill. A year later, the pair delivered a tour de force from midfield to lead the Wee County to All-Ireland glory
Despite achieving the biggest result of his career in 1957, it was the Mayo side who left the indelible mark on O’Donnell, now living in Wexford.
Telling those players that the county would still be waiting for another All-Ireland title, nearly seven decades later, would have been scoffed at, if not ridiculed. They had sown the seeds for great days.
“That wouldn’t have been believed and it wouldn’t have been accepted. They felt it was only a matter of time until they won another All-Ireland.”
A stark contrast to Lowry’s experiences three decades later.
“Whenever there was a park to be opened in any part of the country, Mayo were always the first team invited to take part. Everybody had great regard for them.”
Instead, unwelcome elements permeated the county psyche through the decades and, by the time he was preparing for an All-Ireland semi-final with his adopted county, Lowry was flummoxed by the reaction.
“We had training sessions and there were thousands of people at it,” he recalls. “And we were collecting money at that gate going in.
“I was thinking at the time: Why do we bother with this?
“There would have been a lot of outside influence as well, people who wouldn’t have been happy seeing me playing a leading role.
“When I went to Mayo for instance, I was an All-Star from ’79 at full-forward; corner-forward on that team was Joe McGrath.
“I went down to Mayo but Joe was history. And Joe was only 28 or 29 years of age. If we had him in Offaly we would have nurtured him along.”
Mayo had lost their way.
June Bank Holiday Weekend 2003; Ballyfermot, Dublin
Every couple of months Enda Sheehy would answer the phone to Mattie Heffernan. Heffernan, a stalwart with Crossmolina Deel Rovers, was a close friend who had been jokingly pleading with the Dubliner to join his club. The pleas, Sheehy could detect, were laced with sincerity.
Crossmolina had won an All-Ireland club title in 2001 – names like Ciarán McDonald, James Nallen and Peader Gardiner within their ranks – but they felt another big name could drive on progression and, as a 19-year-old, Sheehy had won an All-Ireland title with Dublin in 1995.
Since his mother had hailed from the North Mayo town, he had spent numerous summers in the place growing up. It was like a second home.
When Sheehy was dropped from the Dublin panel before the 2003 championship, Heffernan picked up the phone again. This time the midfielder couldn’t resist, and after the last day of term teaching in Ballyfermot, he hit the road west.
When word got out another call came – this time from Mayo manager John Maughan – and within days, before he had even kicked a ball for his new club, he was settling into the Mayo camp.
“It was a thing I wanted to do for my mother; she passed away in 1985,” says Sheehy. “I possibly wanted to prove a point, that I was still able to play intercounty football.”
So Sheehy followed Lowry, O’Donnell and O’Neill as Mayo players with an All-Ireland medal – the latter two having left the county to achieve the goal, Lowry and Sheehy arriving in the county with the luxury.
The weekend he arrived, Sheehy played a number of challenge games and on the Bank Holiday Monday Mayo headed for Clare in preparation for their opening game of the Connacht championship.
Disaster. He twigged his hamstring, he thought, but it turned out to be a little more serious than that; a cyst had developed behind his knee and he missed the entire Connacht campaign. He was back, nevertheless, for the knock-out tie with Fermanagh in the qualifiers.
Alas, on a wet Saturday night in Sligo, Mayo exited the championship – going down by one point against the Ernesiders.
"That was a team in transition. Andy Moran was in the panel, Alan Dillon was there, and sure we all know about their careers.
“And, I must say, I was made feel very welcome in that set-up. I remember John Maughan saying to me before that Fermanagh game: ‘You’re a Mayo man now’. When I put on the green and red of Mayo, I gave everything and I was from Mayo.
“I would have done a disservice to all the great players if I didn’t give 100 per cent. It was my mother’s county and it was a great opportunity to do something in her memory.”
Sheehy briefly considered moving permanently to the county but with jobs hard to come by he was back in Dublin the following year.
In his short stint with the county however, he had witnessed enough to take a different perspective to Lowry. The swagger was buttressed by self-belief, despite the paucity of success.
“From my point of view I didn’t detect a lack of confidence. They were all very driven men. I played with a lot of those Crossmolina men. These guys were winners.”
Yet the wait goes on, the list of fine Mayo footballers without All-Ireland glory always growing. Thirteen different counties have claimed success since the beginning of the 1950s, a time which promised to be a seminal period of unprecedented success for Mayo.
Things just seemed to conspire against them, sometimes it was of their own doing.
“Mayo, for me, was only a short thing and it didn’t end well,” says Lowry. “It kind of left a sour taste. I’m probably one of the only people to play for Mayo and never play on a losing team. We should have won the All-Ireland in ’85.”
O’Donnell returned to Mayo briefly at the dawn of the 60s. He togged out once but the same fervour wasn’t there, they had lost their bite.
Sheehy played just once for Mayo in 2003, helped Crossmolina reach the county final and returned to played with St Jude’s in Dublin.
Sixty-eight years on Mayo continue to live in hope – the men with the experience of both All-Ireland medals and playing in red and green equally as perplexed by Mayo’s misfortune as everyone else
“If someone told me Mayo would win no other All-Ireland,” asserts O’Donnell, “I would have thought they were mad.”
“They’ve just been very, very unlucky,” says Sheehy.
The wait continues.