Friday, December 27, 2013

Being from Mayo is Just Great

The Palace Bar, Fleet Street - the south-western
corner of the Mayo triangle, September 21st, 2013.
First published in the Western People on Monday.

These are days of magic and wonder in the county Mayo. It’s not always obvious to us, just as it’s not always possible to see the wood from the trees when we’re in the wood. But in time, when the world has turned a little more, and the young have grown up and the old have passed on, it’ll be clear as crystal to those who can look back just how great these recent years have been.

Twenty years ago next summer, the Leitrim Observer was the butt of some cruel jokes when that newspaper published a map of Dublin with directions to Croke Park prior to Leitrim’s 1994 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin. Ho, ho, ho, thought the bigshots. God love them down in Leitrim, lost in the big city.

But it hadn’t been so long since Croke Park was a mystery to the County Mayo as well. It took twelve long years between 1969 and 1981 for Mayo to win the Nestor Cup, and the win over Tyrone in 1989 was Mayo’s first summertime win in Croke Park in thirty-eight years. Cities change a lot in thirty-eight years; we could have printed a map ourselves, and found it useful.

Now? Now, the people of Mayo know Croke Park as well as we know Croagh Patrick – backwards. We know where to park, where to eat, where to stay, where the good seats are, why it’s not wise in an age of austerity to buy from the concession stands inside or from the hats, flags and headbands men outside. We can spot a ticket scalper from fifty paces, and a man with a spare ticket from one hundred. We meet the same faces in the same places, tell the same jokes and dream the same dreams.

And we’re dreaming yet, of course. The ashy taste in the mouth come five to five on those third Sundays is something we could do without, and you can read better informed opinion on the finer points of the football side of things in the sports pages. But on the social side of things, on the cultural side of things, on what it means to the people of Mayo, at home and abroad – these are days of magic and wonder.

By the time August rolls around, three quarters of the counties in Ireland have resigned themselves to watching the Championship on telly, with no shouting interest. Not us. Mayo are consistently in the first division of the League, and consistently in the final eight of the Championship for the past twenty years. How many other counties can say that? How many other counties carry their banners to the capital, year after year, summer after summer?

For who knows what reason, the stars seemed to align on the Saturday night before the All-Ireland this year. There are two approaches to the All-Ireland Final always – either have a settler or two at home and travel up in the morning, or travel up on Saturday and do your settling in the city on Saturday night.

As your correspondent is currently exiled in the city, this isn’t an issue. Normally, the plan is to have one or two in town and then get home at a Christian hour, the better to rest for the trials ahead. This column made the same plan this year – town, few pints, home on the last bus.

But, for whatever reason, there was something happening in Dublin city that night. Something Mayo. Thanks to the Mayo GAA Blog, the best Irish sports resource on the world wide web bar none, it’s become a thing to assemble in a bar called Bowe’s, on Fleet Street, just south of O’Connell Bridge, before big Mayo matches. And on this particular night, it seemed like everybody in the county was in a transplanted Mayo triangle, formed by O’Connell Bridge, Bowe’s on the eastern side of Fleet Street and the famous Palace Bar to the west.

In Bowe’s, I met my cousin’s daughter, a child in my mind, a clever, chic and sophisticated young woman in reality. In the Palace, I met another cousin, home from Northampton for this most Mayo of events.

We sometimes forget how big Mayo is, and what a distance there is from north to south, from east to west. On that Saturday night, the plain of yews seemed to shrink to that one triangle in the capital, as we compared townland pronunciations, memories of past teams and dreams of the future.

After the disappointment of the All-Ireland Final, Keith Duggan wrote in the Irish Times that it isn’t that Mayo people don’t care about football; it’s that we care too much. And Duggan had a point, up to a point.

We do care too much. Football in Mayo isn’t just football. It’s everything we were, are, and hope to be. Everything that has gone wrong in our lives, everything that we regret, everything that we wish for, is wrapped into the fabric of the jersey that features the green above the red, and that’s an awful lot of weight to carry in one jersey in any one year.

And when Mayo do with their fourth All-Ireland we’ll find that it hasn’t solved everything. That regret is still real, that what’s done can’t be undone, that not all wishes come true. But when that small disappointment subsides, we’ll realise that what we want is what we had all along – the togetherness of it all, the adventure, the having something to look forward to all summer, the camaraderie under the green and red flags and banners, and the heady and thrilling pride of being from such a place as the sweet County Mayo.

Happy Christmas, one and all, and especially to yet another cousin whom I met high up with the eagles on the big day itself and who told me he enjoyed the column. See you next year, Mike. Up Mayo.