First published in the Western People on Monday.
Was it the presence of fair nature and the absence of hard-favour’d rage that denied Mayo respect for years? “Ye’re too nice,” people from other counties would say. Your correspondent watched the Sunday Game of the 1997 Final in a village in Meath where the locals were more than a little bemused by a team that would allow itself to be beaten by one man. Being too nice hasn’t been a problem for Meath down the years.
This year, the pundits are talking about a new steel in Mayo, and there is undoubtedly a certainly solidity to the current Mayo team. But Colm McMenamon was the personification of the Mayo team of the mid-nineties, and there nothing soft about that iron man. Or think back to the second-last time Mayo played Dublin when the team’s march on the Hill turned out to be just an aperitif for the thrills to come – what was soft about those boys?
One thing that is soft, and in more ways than one, is the attitude in Mayo now that there was nothing to be done about some of the recent All-Ireland defeats. That Mayo had as much chance before Kerry in 2004 and 2006 as the frog had before the harrow. But that’s not necessarily true – there is no such thing as an unbeatable team. Ask Pep Guardiola. Ask Brian Cody. Even Jim McGuinness himself may not be quite as sure of a team’s manifest destiny as he seemed to be.
Replaying those lost-All-Irelands in the what-if torture chamber of the mind, people are now coming to the conclusion that you won’t get any of this thing, respect, until you win an All-Ireland. That respect is one of the spoils of victory.
But then, that hasn’t always been the case either. There exists such a thing as the “soft” All-Ireland, in the culture if not in the actuality. Cork’s All-Ireland in 2010 wasn’t soft, but it wasn’t exactly glorious either. How much respect does that Cork team get, really?
When you think about it, this notion of respect is like an eel. The more you think you have it, the more it’s likely to slither out of your hand and back into the river. So let’s ask another question: who’s bright idea was it that whether or not Mayo, either the team, the land or the people, were to judged by someone, somebody or something outside ourselves?
For years in Mayo, the quest for an All-Ireland title itself wasn’t enough. Not only was the All-Ireland to be won, it had to be won by a team playing “the Mayo way” – flashy, stylish, knacky football, if you like. The changes that have overtaken the ancient game in the past decade have made that less of an imperative for people, but the need for “respect” is still there, nagging.
People at matches text the folks back home at half-time to find out what Joe Brolly or Pat Spillane is saying. They rush to the pundit pages of the paper to see what the one-time greats are writing about Mayo in the hope that either the pundits are giving Mayo “respect” or, better again, that they’re not so they can be read out from the high stool later. Who crowned those jokers pope?
What right has king, Kaiser or commentator to pass judgment on the County Mayo, her land, her people or her footballers? Respect comes from deep within the soul and the mind and the heart, and not from without.
Just put the paper down for a moment, take a look around, and take note of what you see. Depending on where you are, you can see Croagh Patrick, where the Apostle of the Irish went to commune with Almighty God himself. You might see Nephin, the most beautiful of mountains, or Lough Conn, most beautiful of lakes.
You may go to Ballycastle, where men worked the land over five thousand years ago. You may go to Erris to hear the most beautiful of Irish spoken, home and wellspring of the true Irish soul, and native heath of such laochra na Gaeilge as the poet Riocárd Bairéad and the scholar Seán Ó Ruadháin.
You may go to Killala and from there to Ballina and Foxford and Castlebar, following the path of General Humbert and the banner of Napoleon, the man who brought freedom, liberty and equality from France south to Egypt and east to Poland, and did his best to bring it here. The liberty tree was planted and the Republic of Connaught declared in Castlebar in 1798 – reader, how many other counties have declared a republic and stood for freedom over tyranny? Very few.
Respect? What need has Mayo of respect, when the county is so bathed in glory? Bedeck the cars, vans and caravans with the green above the red on Saturday night and Sunday morning. March on Croke Park just as Humbert marched on Castlebar, with drums sounding and fifes playing. And when Andy Moran holds Sam high in the Hogan Stand on Sunday remember that winning this cup doesn’t redeem Mayo for past failings – it’s just a very sweet grace note on the long and beautiful melody of Mayo’s everlasting glory.