Monday, November 05, 2007

House of Pain: Through the Rooms of Mayo Football, by Keith Duggan

Mysteries wrapped in enigmas are child’s play compared to unlocking the riddle of Mayo football. The delicious misery of it, the hopeless ecstasy, the impossible release, the damned divinity of the only thing for which the county is known, and at which the county has fared so badly. In some strange parallel universe, Leonard Cohen must have come from Mayo, not Montreal; to whom else but the Mayo football team could Laughing Lenny be referring when he sings of the heart with no companion, the soul without a king, the prima ballerina who cannot dance to anything?

In his second book, House of Pain: Through the Rooms of Mayo Football, Keith Duggan comes as near as anyone can hope to explaining to outsiders, and to the county itself, why football is such a big deal in county Mayo, a county that has won less football All-Irelands than Tipperary or Wexford, and whose last All-Ireland was delivered over half a century ago, when the other big news of that Irish summer was Judy Garland singing in the Theatre Royal that July.

Duggan casts a cold eye on Mayo football from the blazing welcome afforded the victorious 1951 team as paraffin-soaked hay was torched along the railway tracks to mark the victors’ return, to the bleak and empty years of the 1960s and 70s, to the revival of the 1980s, Pádraig Brogan and 1985 and the 1989 final, to the harrowing losses of the past eleven years when Mayo, like Moses on the mountain-top, were shown the Promised Land and told that it was not to be for them.

Duggan is blessed with a fine prose style – there are many wounds in Mayo football, many backs up and many fires that need little stoking. Duggan is above that. As an outsider, he cares little for the internecine disputes that litter the history of football in county. Instead, what fascinates him is this: why do they keep coming back for more? After the humiliation of last year, cut to ribbons within ten minutes, when David Brady was sent on after eleven minutes, not so much to effect a change as to search for survivors, as Brady himself wryly remarks, not one man retired. They all came back for more. What makes them do it?

Duggan is especially strong in rooting the footballers in real life, the thing that elevates the great sports books from the mundane. Duggan echoes one of his predecessors at the Irish Times, John Healy, when he writes of Charlestown, football, and the mayfly career of John Casey, Mayo’s last full-forward. Ted Webb and John Morley, both of whom were tragically called home to Glory before their time, get a chapter each, and Duggan deals with their deaths with sensitivity, restraint and no little skill. Everyone who has been unfortunate enough to know someone who died young will know what Ted Webb's nephews mean when they say that Uncle Ted has always been with them while they grew up, just like any other member of the family; it’s just that he never comes in of an evening and sits down to dinner with everyone else.

David Brady, a large character in the book, is quoted near the end as saying that football isn’t that important, but we know that he doesn’t believe it. Duggan chooses this year’s county final as a fitting coda to end the book – those who know their Tennyson will hear a familiar echo as Duggan looks down on McHale Park at the old warriors clashing their spears on their shields once more.

This is an age when the GPA are passing their greasy hats, looking for money. Loot clearly doesn’t interest Duggan – no-one who wants to get rich has any business getting involved with following the green above the red. Instead, Duggan saw something in Mayo that can’t be explained in terms of money, and something Duggan thinks worthwhile enough to record for posterity. It’s that unique and delicate fusion of sport, place and sense of identity that is the wellspring of the GAA’s strength and success, that doesn’t fully submit to rational analysis but without which the organisation could not survive. Ultimately, it isn’t about who wins the cups; it’s about coming back next year and always ensuring that the green and red banners are raised aloft to represent their people. We are Mayo. We march on. The people of Mayo, and GAA people in general, owe Keith Duggan a debt. His book is essential reading.

Technorati Tags: , , , ,