Three days after Dublin ended what was generally regarded as a too-long wait for their first All-Ireland title since 1995, I got to see the capital’s newly-minted heroes (and Sam) in the flesh when they turned up en masse at the local clubhouse following a charity game they’d taken part in at Parnell Park earlier that evening. As they mingled with the locals in the hall at St Vincent’s, accepting all the congratulations and signing autograph after autograph for the kids, what immediately struck me was how frighteningly young these new All-Ireland winning heroes all looked. Some of them were barely into their twenties but despite this they had already secured their place in Dublin GAA folklore.
We have a high regard for our current crop of young footballers too and we’ve lionised many great players down the years but it’s only natural for Mayo GAA supporters to value especially those heroes who brought the county to Gaelic football’s summit. Our heroes were young then too – the average age of the 1951 team was a tender 25 – but decades have now passed since those triumphs and the titans who led Mayo to the top, many of whom are sadly no longer with us, belong to an Ireland that now appears impossibly distant from the 21st century world we currently inhabit.
Because of time’s passage and in light of the county’s inability to add to those three All-Ireland successes, it’s easy to look back on that sepia-tinted era as some kind of mythical aberration, a fantastical fairytale that our parents or grandparents may still be able to tell us about but one which anyone under the age of at least 65 would have no direct memory of. As time marches on, that period becomes ever more like another world to us and so it’s the vivid way that James Laffey brings to life this era – which telescopes the reader back across the decades to that distant place that was Ireland in the first half of the 20th century – that makes his wonderful The Road to 51 such an enthralling and satisfying read.
As James says in the introduction to the book, while we may keep banging on about how far we’ve travelled away from 1951 (which I think I’ve just fallen into the trap of doing so again), far less thought has been given to the coruscating ride the county enjoyed in the tumultuous period that led up to that fateful year. In his book, James sets out to correct this anomaly and in doing so he employs a generously sized canvas in painting his picture of the road to ’51. He starts way back in 1916 – the year we first contested an All-Ireland final – and then takes us through a memorable 35-year period which saw us reap a bountiful harvest of three All-Irelands, eight National Leagues and 18 Connacht titles.
As he makes his way through the years, all the familiar staging posts come into view – the daylight robbery of 1925, the emergence of the ‘League Specialists’, the breakthrough All-Ireland by the supreme stylists of 1936, the players’ rocket to the county board in 1947, the despairing way we lost the ‘Big Wind’ final of 1948 and, finally, the winning of the back-to-back All-Irelands of 1950 and 1951 – but what makes all these events fresh and interesting is the sheer amount of detail presented in the retelling of these tales. Contemporary news reports are widely used but so too are the reminiscences of many of the principal characters who witnessed or took part in these events. James does this by the extensive use of interviews already on the record as well as from the series of interviews with surviving members of the 1950/1 team that he undertook in researching the book.
Early 20th century Irish history has been an area of abiding interest to me for longer than I care to remember (for which I largely have my maternal grandmother, who lived through that tumultuous era, to thank) and so I was hugely taken by the way that James broadens his vision to include plenty of non-GAA material about the period which, by its inclusion, helps us to better understand what those years were really like. Of particular interest in this respect is his discussion of the impact of the Civil War on GAA personalities within the county and the way in which the footballers’ qualification for the 1921 All-Ireland final (which wasn’t held until June 1923) helped to unite those on either side of the divide behind an unlikely common cause. Other period pieces covered in the book that add colour to the story include the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, the demise of the country house dances in the Thirties, the privations of the war years, the Big Snow of 1947, the modernising impact of rural electrification and the scourge of widespread emigration.
But this is no historical monologue either as the narrative is peppered with colourful characters that enjoy walk-on parts as the story develops, among them the ‘Baron of Broadway’, ‘Kipper’ (aka John Healy) and the legendary Paddy Bluett. The depiction of the latter accompanying the hearse carrying the remains of Tom Langan as it made its way through the streets of Ballina in September 1974 is particularly poignant, echoing a very different day many years before then when Langan and Bluett marched together on the famous Croke Park sod.
Although the book’s focus remains solidly on the chosen time period, James can’t help swinging his lens back in the direction of the current county team but, in doing so, he makes a number of pertinent points. One that I hadn’t fully appreciated before now was how the men of 1950/1 had within them a burning desire to emulate the achievements of the great 1936 team. As such, the gap they were determined to bridge was only a 14-year one, which, viewed from this vantage point, seems so different from the chasm facing the current crop of players.
But, as James makes forcefully clear in the book’s conclusion, while the county’s past achievements are ones to be treasured, we cannot allow ourselves to become – as we often do and as every lazy journalist always type-casts us to be – imprisoned by them. The great double All-Ireland winning side of 1950/1 and their dashing predecessors of 1936 simply weren’t prepared to play second fiddle to any team and it was this indomitable will to win that went a long way towards ensuring that the summit was reached. The way in which this kind of unitary sense of purpose can reap spectacular rewards has been demonstrated repeatedly down through the years by a number of other counties. Mickey Harte’s Tyrone had it, Pat Gilroy’s fresh-faced Dublin lads showed back in September that they have it too and there’s no reason why James Horan’s Mayo can’t also shake free of the shackles of the past and write a fresh and glorious new chapter in the history of Gaelic football within the county.
If this happens, it’ll be one for another book but any future history of Mayo GAA that is written will surely now be penned in the shadow of this sublime account of what truly was a golden era for the county. Wonderfully researched, beautifully written and generously endowed with close on two hundred photographs (many of which have come from private collections and so have never been published before) and a complete archive of results for the 1916 to 1951 period (the team details of which I’ve already started to plunder to fill out the records in my own results archive), this is a big, uplifting publication. It’d obviously make the ideal Christmas present though I can see why many simply won’t want to wait that long before tucking into what I’m sure most will regard as a particularly satisfying feast.
James Laffey’s The Road to 51 is available in Castlebar (McLoughlin’s, Castle Bookshop, Eason’s), Ballina (Eason’s, Clarke’s), Westport (McLoughlin’s, Seamus Duffy Bookshop), Belmullet (Carey’s), Claremorris (Smyth’s), Ballinrobe (Martin Murphy Newsagents), Swinford (Joe Mellett Newsagents), Foxford (McGloin’s Gala, Gannon’s Post Office, Foxford Woollen Mills), Charlestown (Ireland West Airport Knock), Ballyhaunis (The Gem), Galway (Charlie Byrne’s, Kenny’s) and Dublin (Gus O’Hara’s Spar, Clontarf). It’s also available online from www.mayobooks.ie and from Kenny’s or on request by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Price €20 plus postage.