For Mayo GAA is about more than just sport
Western People 15.12.2020
As we slide towards the end of a nightmare year and long for the optimism (if not hope) that the spring of a new year bodes, this year of surprises offers us another astonishing scenario – an All-Ireland final on the Saturday before Christmas day. And even more astounding for those who predicted how the GAA calendar would unfold for 2020, Mayo once again taking on the might of all-conquering Dublin – by common consent the greatest Gaelic football team of all time. Yet another adventure on a well-tracked journey to the well.
The GAA, in refusing to cede another victory to COVID-19, kept the faith and refused to allow their diary to show a tooth-gap entry for the year, 2020. And the Irish government, in helping to resource what seemed a hopeless undertaking, took the tide of expectation to relieve at least in part the siege that COVID had laid at our doors.
So here we are. Taking another journey, at least in spirit, to the sacred soil of Croke Park, occupying our imaginary seats in the Hogan Stand, sensing the spirits of former greats like Tom Langan and Pádraic Carney hovering around us as yet another Mayo team runs out on the hallowed ground.
Commentators, most of whom got their predictions for the truncated 2020 championship campaign exactly wrong, will re-heat another version of another outcome, unembarrassed by the ghosts that smile at their attempts to read this sporting COVID year.
Mayo hopes will be that the experts will once again get their prognosis a bit awry. The only people who believe that Mayo will beat Dublin, Keith Duggan wrote in the Irish Times, are the Mayos.
Once more with feeling. Against all the odds, in a Mayo season bereft of expectation, a new (mainly) Mayo team who, with the unquenchable spirit of youth, didn’t know how to lose or even it seemed to contemplate that possibility, played the kind of pure Mayo football that for so long has earned the respect of objective commentators.
Mayo teams are nothing if not surprising. You never know what they will bring to the table.
Starved of footballing success (at least in trophy terms) and so often ridiculed for the naivete of their approach and a seemingly unerring accuracy in finding the self-destruct button in the most promising situations, this unlikely season has produced an unexpected team that has carried the hopes and dreams of Mayo people everywhere into the final match of the championship. What more can we ask for? Well, that too!
But we need to keep a balance here. We Mayo people have a complex pedigree. Deep inside us, in that place where famine and exile have become part of the marrow of our bones, a curious Mayo compulsion for disappointment and failure has knitted itself into our collective consciousness to such a degree that sustained adversity in the face of inevitable defeat has become part of the weather of our lives. Despite Keith Duggan’s comment, part of our problem (and not just in sport) is expecting not to win.
Yet, as we know, in Mayo a passion for Gaelic football is a terminal condition. Somehow, it’s more than just what happens on the field of play. It has to do with a larger vision, how it’s woven into the fabric of people’s lives, the satisfaction it gives, the sense of achievement it provides, the sense of belonging and identity it represents.
After so many disconsolate final days in Croke Park, as we shuffled down Clonliffe Road reliving what seemed another nightmare (not least when failure was cruelly snatched from the jaws of success) on Saturday next as we sit upright in our un-easy chairs, the child in all of us will want to dream again. To imagine, that against all the odds and all the experts that this time the climb to the very top of a footballing Everest may be possible. To believe that after 70 or so years, we will be able to leave the great theatre of footballing dreams without wrapping another defeat in regret, disillusionment and recrimination. To savour just once the sheer, undiluted joy of an All-Ireland senior football success.
A great sports communist wrote once that ‘the Championship’ has romance sewn into its sinews and once again, this time albeit at a COVID distance, Mayo people will feel the texture of that wisdom this week. And in the deepest reaches of our collective psyche we will savour that romance. We will invest it with the kind of surreal hope that is the life-blood of the Mayo supporter. And as the great tide of red and green gathers itself (this time in spirit) to take the road to Croke Park for the umpteenth time in the last decade, who would want to rain on our parade – except possibly Dublin.
A new Mayo team, shaped by James Horan, with a mix of veterans of other battles and a phalanx of enthusiastic neophytes, players with hearts as big as Croagh Patrick, will carry the hopes and dreams of Mayo people everywhere.
After a glorious championship campaign, carrying us so unexpectantly to another final in Croke Park, we wish them well in the certain knowledge that they owe us nothing.
Copies of my new book, ‘A Priest’s Diary’, are now available at €15 from all local bookshops or online from www.mayobooks.ie