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.
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…”