I was sitting in the world’s largest shopping mall, surrounded by people from every corner of the world, speaking a multitude of tongues and all I could think about was a field in North Dublin city. I said to myself: “I don’t care what it takes, but I’ll be in Dublin on the third Sunday in September.”
East Mayo in the early 1980s was grey, in my mind’s eye. Glamour was sadly absent and most summer days had a low sky, glowering and dirty, like sheep’s wool caught on barbed wire. But, whenever I think of the championship back then, I see searingly hot summers days; when I would tramp the hay on the back of a trailer, while the neighbours didn’t so much throw the hay up as forcibly suggest it should make its way up.
While the men sucked on tepid bottles of beer, I would listen to the distorted crackling on the wireless of Mayo’s latest foray into the Championship. In those summer days, buoyed by the disconcerting enthusiasm of the commentator, I thought Mayo would beat anyone. Padden, Kilgallen, Brogan – who could resist them?
Sadly, it being the 80s; Galway and Roscommon could. And did. The few trips back to Castlebar (only home games, mind – what was the point in wasting precious petrol going any further?) sent us home as tattered and forlorn as our crêpe hats with the soggy cardboard peak.
The air of resignation was all pervading; not even the thrill of seeing the lads on TV in 1985 made up for it. Although, to be fair, it helped – the exoticism of men from down the road in colour, with the vainglorious red and green wrapped around their chests, was almost impossible to take.
But, for me and for most of the country, Mayo was a land of rocks and bog; useless and pointless, belonging to another world. Then college arrived and it dawned on me that Mayo was not only as valid, worthwhile and deserving as the rest of the country, but immeasurably more so in most cases.
A summer in New York, where my introduction as a Mayoman to the older emigrants elicited the invariable response “Mayo, God help us!” It was with a jolt that I realised that we had been known for years as a cause for pity – admittedly, more for our desperate battle to survive famines and poverty than our inability to kick straight – but one that seemed wholly fitting.
Then, no more than how an Irish accent became a blessing rather than a curse around the world, so Mayo too became a hipster. Trainloads of boozy Dubs, braying stale jokes as if they had personally crafted them with Brendan Behan, and a blight of bungalows told its own tale.
But still. We discovered that we weren’t the poor baby-aytin’ cousins any more, and put the majority of teams to the sword – or, at the least, coaxed them into imitating our own bad habits. Some stunning victories followed – Kerry ‘96; Tyrone ‘04; Dublin ‘06 and ‘12; only for us to almost inevitably drown publicly. The public evisceration was one thing – the badly hidden confidence (in Donegal’s case) and outright smug assuredness (in Kerry’s) was harder to take. Because they were right. I always knew they were. Hope they weren’t; but that’s all, hoped.
I won’t say this year is different. Just that when the rest of the country say that they want to see long-suffering Mayo finally get their just rewards, they have no idea what it would mean to the people of the county itself.
This isn’t just a game. This is the most public expression of who we are. We’ve taken the blows and the Brollys and we haven’t backed down. At last, an opportunity to look the country in the eye; and say that we, more than anyone, prove that if at first you don’t succeed…
And when the levee breaks, as it will; I intend to be there, heart swelling and voice croaking, to say I kept the faith.