One way of thinking about how individuals live their lives – it’s certainly a method I often use to frame my own existence – is to parcel the single contiguous existence into discrete chunks. Childhood and adulthood are obvious divisions, the individual decades are, of course, a handy means for carving up bits of what might be a long life into more manageable episodes. But a simple linear apportionment doesn’t lead me to the point I’m getting at, which is that at certain points in everyone’s life, different priorities come to the fore and consume more or less of a person’s time and often it’s these concerns – rather than the time itself – that come to denote particular periods in life. College years, time spent in a particular job, becoming a parent for the first time. As the major events in each of our lives unfold so too do the interests that we have wax and wane, as issues that were once of enormous concern to us no longer merit a passing thought while others appear out of nowhere to occupy a predominant place in our thoughts and in our actions.
So it was for me in relation to my attitude towards and my support of the Mayo footballers, my adherence to which was never constant or undying. My love of the Green and Red was always conditional and for quite a long period of my life – more than fifteen years – I fed that desire on extremely meagre rations. I recall only a few anecdotes from my school years but I do with precision remember a Religion teacher once make the point to our class that the opposite of love isn’t, as is widely assumed, hate but is instead indifference. I don’t remember when the teacher said this or what year I was then in but her words still echo around my mind, because what she said that day had the unmistakable air of truth about it. It’s also a way of illustrating the conditionality of the affection I felt – or, more properly, didn’t feel – for following Mayo in those years after I emigrated in the late Eighties, a state of mind which continued to persist long after I’d returned to live in this country. While I liked seeing Mayo play – if it suited me, given everything else I was doing – and would have loved to see them succeed, in those years how the county fared on the football field wasn’t close to being of central importance to me. I was, in short, rather indifferent about the whole business.
It may surprise you – and it did, to an extent, startle me at the time – that when we returned to Ireland and put down firm roots in Dublin that I didn’t become more emotionally invested in the cause straight away. But we cannot – none of us – retrace our steps precisely. It’s impossible to jump into the same river twice. Time moves on and we – unbidden or not – move with it. So it was with me and my interest in the Mayo football team.
The rather lengthy lacuna that exists for me between when I first followed the team with passion and then resumed doing so again several years later serves quite a useful purpose for me in recounting my story. For this is not my life story, still less an autobiography, but instead a tale of how my own story has become so hopelessly tangled with Mayo and football and the long pursuit of Sam and all that. Central to this is how, in early middle age, my interest in and devotion to the county team was piqued anew and, when it was, where it led me. The journey towards this destination – following that traumatic replay loss to Meath in 1996 – contains as staging points three further All-Ireland final losses, all to Kerry each of them worse than the one before. Mercifully, though, there’s no need – and it would serve little purpose – to delve too deeply into the pain I felt, and I did, albeit briefly enough, following those final losses to the Kingdom in 1997, 2004 and 2006, nor is it necessary to describe any of those campaigns in great detail. They were bad, deflating defeats, the final one the worst of the lot but, strangely, by then the course I was soon to embark upon was one I’d already staked out, even if I hadn’t yet taken a single step in my intended direction.
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As the county’s fortunes on the football field declined leading up to and in the first few years after the turn of the Millennium, so my already skin-deep interest in following them waned still further. When they managed to get to Croke Park – as they did for the All-Ireland semi-final against Cork in 1999 (which they lost), the League final against Galway in 2001 (which they won, the first national title I’d ever seen a Mayo senior team win and the only one until the team managed by James Horan repeated the trick in 2019) and the All-Ireland quarter-final against Cork in 2002 (which they lost) – I’d bestir myself and would go and shout for them. But I’d do this in a half-hearted way, without really knowing much about the players or what they might be capable of. It was a stretch to call the tepid backing I gave the county in those years support at all. I may have been there at those few games in a physical sense but I wasn’t there at all emotionally.
I can, with certainty, identify the day when the bug finally began to bite anew. This was on 27th June, 2004, the day that Mayo unexpectedly defeated reigning Connacht champions Galway at the semi-final stage in that year’s provincial championship. The match was played at MacHale Park and, needless to say, I wasn’t at it but it was a match I was looking forward to in the days leading up to it and one I was relishing watching on television. John Maughan was back at the helm, and in its match preview the previous day, the Irish Times suggested by that another Maughan-inspired “long and emotional summer” might well be in prospect for us. That was a good call.
Mind you, five minutes into the game – one that I watched on TV from home while also keeping an eye on my two small daughters – this seemed far from the case. We suffered a nightmare start, falling 1-3 to 0-0 behind, and it looked then that we might suffer a right pasting. In fairness, though, the team – a blend of experience, in the form of David Heaney, James Nallen, Ciaran McDonald and David Brady (who joined the fray from the bench after half-time that day), and youth, including the likes of Ronan McGarrity, Alan Dillon and Conor Mortimer – never panicked and by half-time, only a point in arrears, they were nicely positioned.
Up until that juncture, I’d adopted a relatively stoic demeanour as I watched the action unfold on TV. From half-time onwards, though, my manner became increasingly unhinged as point after point flew over the Galway bar at the bacon factory end of the ground, the same end into which Ger Feeney had curled that game-clinching score in a Connacht semi-final between the same two counties all those years previously. My two little girls alternated between giggling and staring in open-mouthed wonder as their father underwent this strange metamorphosis, one that seemed to be related in some fashion to the spectacle being shown on the television. My eldest daughter clapped her hands, enthusiastically joining in the fun, the younger one – still only a babe in arms – looked on askance at this unedifying performance. As the final whistle sounded, signalling victory for the home side by 0-18 to 1-9, I let out a full-throated roar. Mayo were back and, after a fashion, so too was I.
The above extracts are taken from a chapter entitled ‘Lost and Found’, which forms part of a book I’m writing that lies unfinished and untitled, as it awaits the perfect Mayo GAA-related ending to happen.