Thursday, September 23, 2004

In a Mayo State of Mind

This is a true story. In 1996, in the interregnum between the drawn and replayed finals of the All-Ireland Football Championship, the waiting became unbearable for a group of Ballinamen. Having exhausted all profane methods of supporting the Mayo Senior team on the path to glory in the preceding summer, realisation dawned that it was now time to try the sacred.

As such, that group of Ballinamen piled into a motor car early one morning and drove west with the sun, through Westport, into the townland of Murrisk. There they parked their car, and, as their Mayo forebears have done for generations, those Ballinamen climbed Croagh Patrick, the Reek, to honour God and to ask for His favour.

At the top of the mountain, on one of those gloriously sunny days that sometime dawn in September, they looked out across the Plain of the Yew Trees, which is what the name "Maigh Eo" means. Those five Mayomen stood with the broad Atlantic roaring at their backs, and gazed at the county to which they had long sworn fealty. It all became too much for one of them. "Eli, Eli," he cried, as he fell to his knees, "my God, my God, how can anywhere this beautiful not win an All-Ireland?"

Eight years on, God, in His mysterious way, has yet to answer that prayer. That summer of 1996 ended in disappointment, just as every summer has in the fifty-three years since Sam Maguire last visited Mayo. And now Mayo stands once again on the cusp of a return to what the county regards as its rightful seat at football's highest table, and her people once more can only wait and hope.

Brendan Behan once remarked that neither Irish nor Jewish people have a nationality, they have a psychosis. It would be interesting to know what Behan would have made of the Mayo condition, surely one of the most conflicted identities of all the Irish counties.

What is a Mayoman or a Mayowoman? A person that lives in Mayo? Not exactly. All the great songs of Mayo are written from a vantage point outside of the county: "Far away from the land of the shamrock and heather"; "It was just about a year ago since I left old Erin's isle"; "Take me home to Mayo." Not only is it not necessary for the Mayoman or Mayowoman to live in Mayo, it seems as if Mayo, the real Mayo, is as a Platonic ideal, an imaginary, idealised construct that doesn't exist in reality.

What is this idealised construct, this "Mayo"? Whereas other counties throw out their chests and claim alpha county status - the Premier County, the Rebel County, the Kingdom - Mayo arrives at the feast with her cap in her hand, hoping for the crumb from the rich man's table. People think of "Mayo God Help Us," but it's worse than that. The motto under the Mayo crest reads "Dia is Muire Linn," which can be translated as "May God and His Blessed Mother Help Us" - Mayo needs every dig out she can get.

An Spailpín's father - an Seanspailpín - used to tell a story that sums up the Mayo condition, of being born into a place of tremendous natural beauty but being unable to survive there, and having then to make a living elsewhere. It concerned a man whose few paltry acres could not keep him and his, and, with great sorrow, he had to tie a rope around his prize goat and take the goat to the top of the mountain, where the goat was going to have to make the best of it while his erstwhile master went home alone. "A stór," the farmer addressed the goat before their sad parting, "you mightn't have much to ate, but by God you've got great scenery."

And throughout it all, as every Mayo man in history was handed a ticket to America or England along with his first razor, there was one thing that kept the Mayo head up, and that was Mayo's remarkable prowess at football. We may send our people to tramp the world, but back home, by God, our footballers keep the Green and Red on the map.

Except, of course, that they don't. Mayo have won three All-Irelands in one hundred and twenty years, leaving them behind both Wexford and Tipperary as footballing powers, and neither Wexford nor Tipperary is a footballing power at all. Where did this idea of Mayo football prowess come from? It is certainly not from the statistics, as a return of three Championships from one hundred and twenty goes is not the sort of return that leads to such lofty notions.

Could it have something to do with the nature of Mayo football itself? Few teams that play so attractively, as Mayo always have down through the years, fare so poorly as a result. Could it have something to do with the jersey itself? Mayo's green and red is one of the unique strips in the GAA - Kerry wear the green and gold of Leitrim for instance, while Galway wear the maroon and white of Westmeath. Only Mayo wear green and red, which gives them a unique identity, and gives a correspondingly unique sense of identity to the people of Mayo, at home or abroad. And once you realise that you are elect, that you are of Mayo and no-where else, it stays with you from that first revelatory moment.

There is an ice-cream man in Ballina who trades under the banner of Joseph, even though it's rumoured that Joseph is not his name at all - more of the Mayo dualism, where nothing is ever as it seems. And, when you were a little boy with a hand barely big enough to hold the two shilling bit at which ice-cream retailed in those days, Joseph would always ask if you wanted the Mayo colours on your cone. You'd nod your assent, Joseph would reach for the bottles of green and red syrup that are always next to his taps, and you would walk proudly away under your green and red banner. You now bore the Mayo stamp, and you will take it to the grave, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad.

And now it's all for the better again in Mayo's football world, the heartbeat of the county, the one thing that the Plain of the Yew Trees uses to distinguish her from the rest of the land of Erin. After the horrors and trauma of last year, and the year before that, and before that again, on into the dark past, past Lynch and Lemass back to the time of John A. Costello and old Dev himself, Mayo are back in the big time, seventy short minutes away from a pinnacle that is one half Promised Land and one half Holy Grail to the long suffering men and woman who've listened to their county and colours mocked time and again walking down the vale of tears that is Dorset Dolorosa after Mayo have been beaten out the gates - again - of Croke Park.

And how appropriate it is that this team of John Maughan's, himself a returned emigrant of sorts, is backboned by men like Ronan McGarrity, James Gill, David Brady and Kieran McDonald, men who have left, as so many Mayo men and women have left, only to return again to try and raise a green and red banner in Jones' Road. And how marvellous too that Mayo's return to the big stage is against Kerry, whose thirty-two All-Ireland leaves them at the top of the tree around whose roots Mayo have been so firmly stuck for fifty-three Championships. God? Are you listening this year, God? God?