The sacred space

In the guest slot today is GAA journalist and broadcaster Liam Horan, who reflects on the magic of childhood outings to McHale Park.  This article was written by Liam prior to the 2006 All-Ireland final and was read by him on RTE Radio’s Sunday Miscellany programme on All-Ireland final day that year.

The poet Paul Durcan implored “Daddy, Daddy,” to “pass out the moon” on a journey to Mayo.

We were nowhere near as demanding as children. For us, a Connacht final in Castlear was the very peak of glamour, and even if Daddy had this annoying habit of abandoning the car at the faintest suggestion of a traffic jam, we could forgive anything on this day of days.

The four of us arranged in random order in the back, arguing over who would hold the Mayo flag out the window, and making sweeping predictions about the day ahead. Invariably in these circumstances, we seek re-assurance from our elders: “Daddy, who do YOU think will win?”, but those were lean times for Mayo football, and he could never quite deceive his children with promises that might later be cruelly crushed.

On the outskirts of the county town, he would swing the car around on the road with an almost presidential flourish, and park it up on the grass verge. Face her for home. We would disembark and set off walking.

Eventually, other Mayo supporters would join us on route, eyes fixed on the road ahead: pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, or, perhaps more appropriately, the Tochar Padraig just a few miles away.

It was here we first heard the phrase Hope Springs Eternal, for, alas, that was the mantra followers of the green and red consoled themselves with during those unrewarding days.

Up over the bridge at the railway station, down by the Breaffy Road junction, John Hanley’s shop on the left, Coll’s Garage in front of us: young and old scurrying towards the sacred field. The urgency of it all, the quickened steps and the hurried conversations, the need to press on and secure a well-appointed perch from where we could survey the unfolding drama.

Up onto McHale Road itself. We felt that strange surge of emotion, maybe even a tear welling in our eye, as we admired the Mayo bunting draped artistically from every house on the road. Who, we asked ourselves, went to all the trouble? And we wondered what it must be like for the Mayo players – Tommy O’Malley and Martin Carney, Horse Sweeney and John P. – to walk down McHale Road on this day, beneath this ad-hoc green and red sky, with the hopes of a county riding on your shoulders?

Up by O’Malley’s Shop on the left-hand side. Though we were riveted by the scene and the crowd, we would still request essential provisions such as choc-ices and bags of Tayto. “No applications,” our father would have proclaimed on the car journey down, but he would always relent and we would slip in to Mr O’Malley’s and stock up.

Across the road then, and the ticket booth – not quite ticket booth, but a temporary structure crafted from beer barrels and long timber planks. Into McHale Park then, the most beautiful stadium in the world, stretching majestically out in front of us, all the way down to the Bacon Factory End, the entire scene almost alive with possibility.

Here, we were hermetically sealed off from life beyond the walls of the old venue. It was a parallel universe. There was the certainty of great drama on the field, and gripping entertainment off it. We children unfurled our Mayo flags and wondered if this would finally be THE day. Please God, just this once!

Mick Melodeon moving at funereal pace through the crowd, row by row, singing age-old ballads –  “…Those homes are destroyed and our soil confiscated, The hand of the tyrant brought plunder and woe/The fires are now quenched and our hearts desolated, In our once happy homes in the County Mayo…”

Mick was older than time and wizened as an ancient cat. He wore the same dark coat year after year. We wondered where he slept at night, if he made a living from the busking, and we hoped he was doing okay. We were glad no-one stopped him from coming in.

From his accordion hung a rough-and-ready tin can, and it did our heart good when someone threw a few coins into it. On and on he would shuffle, singing of Blackbirds and Spinning Wheels, winking and nodding at the crowd, a timeless addendum to this mighty pageant.

“Ice creams, anyone for the last few ice-creams?”

“Sit down, will you, we all paid to get in.”

Shouts of recognition passing between friends, as if they hadn’t met for years. A nudge from my father: “That’s the great Sean Purcell there,” as a legend of far-off days quietly moved to his seat, thousands of eyes quietly studying his every movement.

Someone says they saw The Flying Doctor Padraig Carney too, he must be home from America for the match. The past and the present mingling together: all channelled into this one crowded hour.

As the minor match finishes, we squeeze together to make more room for the swelling crowd. The riot of noise as the teams emerge and the struggle to drink in every twist, turn and nuance of the warm-up. The rich, traditional Green above the bold, unpredictable Red: those colours that mean so much to Mayo people all over the world, from Clare Island to California, Murrisk to Melbourne.

And then the throw-in, and the permanent possibility of a sensation.

Mick Melodeon won’t be in Croke Park today, but hundreds of thousands of people who claim the western seaboard county of Mayo as their home, will be singing his song. “…so boys pull together, in all kinds of weather, don’t show the white feather, wherever you go – be like a brother, and help one another, like true-hearted men from the county Mayo…”

11 thoughts on “The sacred space

  1. Excellent stuff. Invokes why we go to matchs. Mick Melodian must have taken over from Ballina’s Paddy Blewitt…one of the great mascots.

  2. you for got “St Patrick” from westport he has to be one of the most fanatical mayo supporter at the moment

  3. Brilliant.
    Read this in the Examiner a few months back, while I was back in Cork. It brought a tingle to the spine then, and did again.

  4. ” a free spoon with every tub!!!” Not that u needed it….u could drink the stuff it was so warm . Those golden days always seemed to be sweltering hot too!! enjoyed the read – thanks!

  5. Enjoyed the read, a history lesson for some of the younger supporters of today. Particularly good memories as a Mayo Exile in London. I hope the road to Ruislip is half as enjoyable in May. Heres to a few more like that. Keep up the prose.

  6. Lovely piece of writing. It captures the excitement of game day and the landmarks – Colls, John Hanleys etc.
    Brings back great memories.

  7. Barry – well done on your trawl through the archives.

    An absolute gem, which I remember reading at the time, but it’s great to read it again. And, it’s a reminder, I still can’t believe it, that between 1969 and 1985 (the rebirth of modern Mayo football), we won 1 Connacht title.

  8. Brings back great memories !

    Yes Catcol,correct me if I’m wrong but I believe we only won three Connacht titles between 1955 and 1985 ! An incredible statistic, a famine for a proud footballing county and we had players like Morley, Carey, Langan, Corcoran ( how our current forward line could do with Jinkin Joe) and Magee etc Three titles in 30 years, the same number as we’ve won in the last three years.

    So when we’re full of self pity at our failure to land Big Lugs in the last two years, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that at least we’re getting within striking distance of the big one, that we are a force at National level once again and it’s only a matter of time till we cross that line.

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