United county on high alert again as Mayo continue beautiful obsession
The loyal army of Mayo fans are heading for Croke Park and another date with Dublin – and destiny
Mayo’s Fionn McDonagh surrounded by fans after the victory over Donegal at MacHale Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Mayo’s journey to Croke Park started at around nine o’clock last Saturday night in Castlebar.
Before the gates were locked and the dressing-rooms swept, while a hard rain still drowned the county and all roads out of MacHale Park were in gridlock, people had begun to consider how to get to the next one.
This is Mayo’s seventh game in eight weeks. It has been the usual pilgrimage into the wild unknowable for both team and its supporters. John Prenty from the Connacht council estimated that 25,000 Mayo supporters will be in Croke Park this evening for an All-Ireland semi-final that should, by all prevailing logic, prove to be one step beyond. So they’ll be there in droves.
“When you go to a game on a Saturday evening and you don’t know where you will be the following week, it has almost become a badge of honour for Mayo supporters over the last seven years to just get there,” says Billy Joe Padden, the former Mayo player.
“It’s such a positive thing. Other counties have a similar thing but probably in smaller numbers. They are determined to get to wherever the team is. It is difficult and it does put a strain on people. But they are always there.”
We’re the dreamers and believers and the legends of the road. We’re Mayo
Padden was working as an analyst at the Meath-Kerry game last Saturday night. He is going to this evening’s game as a supporter. Willie McHugh, the long-serving Mayo News columnist, will, to his own astonishment, watch this evening’s game from the Green Goose bar in the eleventh arrondissement.
“My daughter lives in Paris. It’s my grandson’s christening,” he explained.
It was McHugh who read out the celebrated open letter on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland show on the weekend of the 2013 All-Ireland final. It was a genuflection from the people to the team: “Who are we? . . . We’re the girls working the B shift in Baxter, the exiles in London or Long Island. We are the five Ballinrobe lads who took off one morning for Australia . . . we’re the fly-by-nights, the chancers, the sleeveens and all the right sort of an auld character. We’re the singletons, the married, the divorced, the widowers and the widowed. We’re the dreamers and believers and the legends of the road. We’re Mayo.”
It was the first spoken-word acknowledgement that because of time and circumstance and, perhaps, the nature of the people, the responsibilities of being a Mayo footballer are freighted and unique.
“What we don’t really see and what they don’t even realise is the weight of expectation they carry on their shoulders,” McHugh says now.
“Not a burden to win it but the knowledge of so many who just want to see it once in their lifetime. And these lads are going out carrying that on their shoulders. I think that is the unseen pressure that is there. I can imagine that people outside the county might say; why don’t they just go and win the thing and be done with it.
“But we are not out to annoy anyone. There is just a huge pride in Mayo. And we aren’t going to apologise for that. There is a passion for Gaelic football itself. It is the only thing here. You can’t escape football. They still talk about John Morley around here. There are people here who believe they saw the ’51 team playing whether they did or not. And this present team has gripped everyone’s imagination. If you go out for a night to meet a few people you won’t be two minutes sitting before the team comes up. It’s as if the team is us.”
On one level, that may sound fanciful. But during all the television and radio broadcasts of Mayo championship games since 2012, it’s a constant reference point; this telepathic, hardwired connection between the team on the field and the Mayo people in the stands.
“That connection has grown through the dark days,” says Timmie Glavey, teaching and living in Galway but always a Swinford man.
“The more hardship we endure and those defeats have made us more resilient. Since 2012, I have been to every banquet after the All-Ireland final. And by God they are hard but once you are there, you are always like, feck it, I am delighted I came and showed my support. And there has always been this sense after those finals that we would be back.
“Even after 2017, heading out to the Citywest. I was dreading it. But the mood that night was almost upbeat. It is a journey, after all. Sixty-eight years – the number of people from Mayo who have never witnessed this.”
Glavey has been hooked on Mayo since he was a child. He badgered his friend Cathal Kelly and his mother to take him with them to the 1989 All-Ireland final when he was eight-years-old.
“They had no ticket but they brought me anyway and lifted me over the turnstile. My memories aren’t too vivid but I do remember Anthony Finnerty’s goal. I can remember his miss. I remember Cork going four points up. But one really clear memory I have is of tripping over these cemented seats afterwards. I wasn’t hurt but I was relieved that I could use this now as an excuse to cry. Because the disappointment of losing that day was immense.”
TJ Kilgallon and Martin Carney were teachers in the local secondary school; Fr O’Mahony, the school principal was John O’Mahony’s brother. Mayo football figures and reference points were everywhere.
As he got older, Timmie found himself showing up to league games, home and away, to FBD games on bleak afternoons in January, when he’d scan the local papers and forums for news to check out who was leaving or coming in.
Ask him to pick a moment from particular period of Mayo football and he returns to the 62nd minute of the 2017 All-Ireland final.
“We were two points up after Cillian O’Connor kicked a free. And for about two seconds I let myself believe. I remember catching the eye of two friends of mine and tears welled up. I had this overwhelming feeling: Jesus, we are going to do this. And then that feeling immediately went again. It is a very moving thing. And I remember thinking about what it must feel like at the final whistle, if Mayo could do that. It would be ... phenomenal.”
Cathal Kelly runs the Gateway Hotel in Swinford town. There’s a family function booked there for this evening. The time of the meal was changed by the family within minutes of Mayo beating Donegal. The food could wait; nobody wanted to miss this. In summer, the football team dictates the pattern of weekend life in Mayo.
Last summer, when the team was gone by the end of June, there was no question but that there was a bigger spend in the local towns.
“The previous year we had been up and down to Croke Park six out of eight weekends,” says Kelly.
“People, I suppose, had to budget around that. It never ceases to amaze me how people manage to do it week after week. But it’s a family thing. Everyone is on board.”
It wasn’t always that way. Willie McHugh sometimes thinks of a 20-year-old afternoon in Scotstown. January 4th, 1996. Nothing was expected of Mayo that year. A pre-Christmas league game against Monaghan had been refixed for the first Sunday of the year. About 300 made the journey. That Monday, someone asked McHugh if he had seen the big Premier League match. McHugh told him he had been in Scotstown and a look of grave concern crossed his friend’s face. “Ah Jaysus, you’re mad. You’ll never get sense.”
The following September, McHugh was in the hall in Shrule to collect his All-Ireland tickets.
Lads like Keith Higgins, Andy Moran, Boyler maybe ... there are four or five there that it could be their last hurrah
“And of course there were more people than tickets. The same guy was sitting in the row behind me and he leant out. ‘By Jaysus Willie, I didn’t see many of them the day we were above in Scotstown.’ I think by that September, thousands believed they had been there.”
But in the James Horan era, the numbers have just kept growing. This team have engaged its people in a rare way. There’s been a keen recognition throughout this summer that every outing might represent a final bow for some of the most distinguished servants in Mayo football history.
“Lads like Keith Higgins, Andy Moran, Boyler maybe ... there are four or five there that it could be their last hurrah. It is not being said too loudly but there is that sense,” says Glavey.
So this latest roll of victories, this journey that started in the Bronx and has now taken Mayo to every province in the Ireland, has felt like a bonus.
“And the intensity and tempo the boys brought to the game, the tackling was phenomenal. All of a sudden you were like, Jesus, we have not gone away. These boys are where they have always been.”
That they could defy time and fatigue and the limits of human endurance and beat Dublin this evening seems to touch on the fantastical. That they will possess the chutzpah and bloody-mindedness to attempt just that is beyond question.
The Mayo minors are also in the semi-final; the next bunch are pushing through. Glavey is excited by what he has seen in Matthew Ruane and Darragh Coen. Every time he goes home, he is struck by the number of jerseys on youngsters, by the numbers on the fields.
“It is just growing all the time.”
Deep down, they know it’s not real life. It is easy to say that winning the All-Ireland would mean “everything”.
Cathal Kelly sometimes wonders what would happen in the county if the impossible thing happened.
“It is very hard to sum up. Could we cope? You know, you lose people and you lose friends and there are tragic circumstances in life. And they may have been part of this journey and you think of them on days like this. So it is a distraction. Absolutely.
“But is a beautiful distraction to have. Of course winning it would be beautiful. But getting this from the team every year has been fantastic. Every year has been new. They don’t follow a script. Mayo are a bit like life in that way. You just go along with what happens.”