House of Pain can be kicked into his­tory

Mayo fans have been stalked by the Curse for 66 years, but all bad things have to come to an end, writes life-long fan Tom Row­ley

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Viewpoint -

OVER a life­time fol­low­ing Mayo foot­ball, two odd, re­veal­ing mo­ments stand out.

The first was last year when I went to the funeral of some­one I had been at na­tional school with. As the coffin was car­ried out of the church a friend nudged me and said: “We’ll have to be care­ful, they’re start­ing to take them off our shelf now. Jay­sus, I’m wor­ried, will we ever live to see Sam back in Mayo?”

And that was when it dawned on me what he meant.

I was born three years af­ter Mayo in 1951 last took the Sam Maguire Cup across the Shan­non and deep in the West, onto the plains of the yew trees, Maigh Eo. I grew up on 16 acres of land, stud­ded with whins and rushes, pity­ing men and women in the parish I then con­sid­ered ‘auld peo­ple’ as they longed, hoped and prayed for Mayo to again win the All-Ire­land.

That day at the funeral I re­alised I was now edg­ing into their ter­ri­tory, wait­ing, long­ing and yearn­ing, age creep­ing on, and year af­ter year, the decades-old quest, the Sam Maguire Cup, ag­o­nis­ingly just slip­ping from our grasp.

The other re­veal­ing mo­ment was a few years back when I stood be­hind a mid­dle-aged cou­ple as they dis­cussed a book on dis­play in a shop win­dow. It was en­ti­tled House of Pain.

The woman said it sounded like it might be full of dis­turb­ing im­ages of sadis­tic go­ings on and the man qui­etly re­as­sured her that he didn’t like books that were full of mis­ery, an­guish and suf­fer­ing.

In fair­ness, they were not too far off the mark. The book, by jour­nal­ist Keith Dug­gan, is about Mayo foot­ball.

House of Pain is sub­ti­tled ‘Through the Rooms of Mayo Foot­ball’. And like hun­dreds of thou­sands of others, I have been in and out of those rooms, one minute bright with ex­pec­ta­tions, the next warm­ing in the glow of an­tic­i­pated vic­tory and then, too of­ten, shiv­er­ing in the claw­ing chill of damp de­feat.

I think my mother must have sensed all of this ages ago. Back in the 1960s, when with my older brother Sean we would be strik­ing out with red and green flags to sup­port Mayo in a Con­nacht fi­nal, she would am­bush us at the front door and fling slashes of Holy Wa­ter over the colours.

If we trudged back in the evening, ban­ners ly­ing low, we would be greeted with her same, con­sol­ing re­frain — “ah sure, maybe it’s for the best, at least now your mis­eries are over for another year”.

Agony and ec­stasy, twinned and en­twined, year af­ter year, through the rooms of Mayo foot­ball.

The years turned into decades and the decades stacked up, as tri­umphs, to a point, and dis­ap­point­ments all sloshed about and min­gled. Great names, heroic games and still no Sam Maguire.

Mayo en­dured, sens­ing deep down that foot­ball is about more than win­ning and los­ing. It’s about a sense of iden­tity, a cer­tain dig­nity, and the lay­ers of his­tory that have shaped the county and its peo­ple.

And, yet, al­ways lurk­ing be­hind the high no­tions, is the bloody Curse. If you are chat­ting about Mayo foot­ball with any­one not from the county the chances are that the Curse will el­bow its way in.

I call it the curse of the Curse, be­cause ev­ery year it crawls out of win­ter hi­ber­na­tion and sets about stalking Mayo peo­ple.

The story goes that Mayo’s vic­to­ri­ous cav­al­cade in 1951 when they last won the All-Ire­land passed through Fox­ford while a funeral was tak­ing place. The priest was in­censed at the fail­ure of the team to show re­spect for the de­ceased and mourn­ers, and vowed that Mayo would not win another All-Ire­land un­til ev­ery player of that team was de­ceased.

By all ac­counts, it’s a load of hokum and balder­dash. Yet three score and six years later it per­sists, its age­ing, brit­tle claws are still daftly blamed by some as the rea­son Mayo can­not fi­nally clasp the Holy Grail, the Sam Maguire.

To­day, Mayo can put an end to all that grat­ing, cling­ing su­per­sti­tious non­sense about curses and spells.

One foot­ball pun­dit last week dis­missed talk of the Mayo team that take on Dublin to­day as an age­ing ‘Dad’s Army’, in­sist­ing they were more like the Dirty Dozen, bat­tle-hard­ened gun­slingers who have no time for non­sense and no no­tion for play­ing nice.

The Dubs would do well to re­mem­ber that in the 1967 rip-roar­ing war film the leader of the mot­ley bunch, tough, bat­tle-weary Ma­jor John Reis­man, played by Lee Marvin, snarls: “I never went in for em­broi­dery, just re­sults.”

And so, as the drama un­furls this af­ter­noon in Croke Park, I will be re­mem­ber­ing way back to when, as a boy, I played out my Mayo foot­ball fan­tasies in our Acre field, af­ter the hay was tossed and piled into cocks. Tear­ing down the field, solo­ing the ball, bend­ing and weav­ing as imag­ined de­fend­ers, in re­al­ity static cocks of hay, loomed close.

The sce­nario was al­ways the same. All-Ire­land fi­nal day. Croke Park. Michael O’ He­hir’s voice swirling in my head, “the sec­onds tick away, the sides are level, Mayo launch one fi­nal at­tack”. John Mor­ley combs the shy, brings down the ball, passes to Joe Cor­co­ran. Now I was Cor­co­ran, cut­ting in-field, jink­ing past de­fend­ers, steady­ing my­self, tak­ing aim, shoot­ing, the ball swirling high like a thing pos­sessed and drop­ping between the posts. In my case, just in­side the ESB pole in the mid­dle of the hay­field and the imag­ined other up­right.

To­day the many faith­ful Mayo le­gions, ban­ners on high, will merge into the red and green army and con­verge on Croke Park. And maybe, this time the door of the House of Pain will creak open, a red and green tinted light will creep in and, bit by bit, light the rooms.

And maybe, just maybe, a young boy’s foot­ball fan­tasies will fi­nally be­come a re­al­ity. The fi­nal sec­onds tick­ing away, Mayo and Dublin locked on level scores. Then a player in red and green cuts in­side, stead­ies him­self, aims, shoots, the ball soar­ing, swirling and drop­ping… drop­ping… into Gaelic sport­ing his­tory.

Photo: Mark Con­dren

THE AGONY AND THE EC­STASY: Daithi Mo­ran at New­port Na­tional School, Co Mayo, get­ting ready for to­day’s All-Ire­land Se­nior Foot­ball Fi­nal.

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