Mayo have been through enough
Most heads say Dublin but a million hearts hope Westerners end their relationship with grief
Published 21/09/2013 | 05:00
Con Houlihan was a wonderful student of disappointment, drawn regularly to quoting Hemingway's line about aspiring fishermen and how enthusiasm was not enough.
And Con would be in his element now watching Mayo, those great undergraduates of the condition, come spilling east again to wrestle with a story that seems almost too much to inflict on the human heart. It surely isn't prejudice to express a hope that James Horan's team might get over the line tomorrow.
It is no more than the declaration of a conscience.
I sometimes think that, when Jack O'Connor strode in off the Croke Park pitch seven years ago to tell a beaten Mayo team of Kerry's uncommon "need" to win that '06 final, he couldn't have imagined how heavily and clumsily his words fell to the dressing-room floor. Kerry's 34th All-Ireland title had just bridged a two-year gap to their last; Mayo still ached for their fourth after 55 years of nothing.
It is said that the grief-stricken find God in small things and there are, no doubt, still those in Mayo who attach credence to that '51 tale of the disturbed funeral cortege in Foxford and an angered priest inflicting his Biddy Early spite upon a then exultant county.
I have attended and written about all six of the county's All-Ireland final appearances since then and would respectfully suggest that, in all but one ('96), they were simply not good enough to win.
And, yet, it has been hard not to sense a county in the claw of something dark and spiritually suffocating across the years, that victory of 62 years ago receding so deeply into the mists of time as to slip into the realm of a gently murmured rumour.
Every county has its tragedies and epochal mishaps, but Mayo's have tended to flow like a river swollen by biblically black skies. So it would be good to see them win now, for a lot of different people.
Mainly for the gentle, fair-minded hordes that have gathered on desolate Monday nights to welcome home another broken team. For gentleman natives like John Maughan and John O'Mahony, who both managed their county to the brink of liberation. For those cruelly stolen from the Mayo story by tragically early death, like Ted Webb and Liam Duffy and John Morley. For those whipped away by emigration (Ger Geraghty) or career-ending injury (Kevin McStay and Maughan again).
There has always been something of a gentle nobility about Mayo people, a quality caught in perfect freeze-frame by the image of Liam McHale's resigned walk to the line when Pat McEnaney pulled two names from a lotto drum after the replay brawl of '96.
McHale was 12 years a county man by then, a big, open personality, known to be scrupulously sportsmanlike. He had dominated the drawn game, which Mayo (to their eternal horror) will remember leading by six points with 15 minutes remaining. To lose McHale was to lose their talisman.
He played on for three years after, but you suspected with a gloomy sense that that had been his defining moment of intersection with the invisible deities that set the course of a human life.
If Mayo chose, they could take a run at any number of those episodes in their history.
Maughan's knee collapsing in '86; Dermot Flanagan's shingles; the two shots that rebounded from posts in '89; Anthony Finnerty's lost glimpse of heaven; John Casey's virus in '96; the equaliser that bounced over a crossbar; the strange opening stupors afflicting the teams of '04, '06 and last year.
You think of the traffic carrying their scattered geese home this week across the Atlantic or the Irish Sea; you think of the multitudes glued to early morning televisions in mildewed American bars tomorrow; you think of the three winsome survivors from '51 (Paddy Prendergast, Padraig Carney and Peter Quinn); you think of all the giddy hope of the '70s and how it became swamped by the perpetual set-backs of the '80s; you think of Jimmy Maughan finishing at 27 and Billy Fitzpatrick being discovered at 42; you think of Monsignor Horan and a wild dream born out of love for place; you think of all these people and stories as a kind of troubled jigsaw missing just one last piece.
This week last year, I had lunch in Claremorris with those two royal sons of the county, John Maughan and John O'Mahony, and both talked of detecting a quiet pragmatism supplant the traditional daftness of Mayo on the cusp of Croke Park. They were hopeful, they said, because the county finally felt moored.
Yet, Donegal butchered that script in 12 brutally direct minutes and, if Mayo more than held tough from that moment home, you couldn't but feel that this was just another episode shot through with innocence.
Horan will understand the world's readiness now to present another thesis on the relationship that exists between Mayo and grief. To this end, he has refined the team's structure and demanded its individuals to be more street-smart and, if need be, meaner.
But, tomorrow, they face a Dublin team that has been playing with beautiful fearlessness, a team whose attacking threat is impossible to codify because it is spread so wide.
To beat them, Mayo will need – as Hemingway said – more than simple enthusiasm. Because all the compacted sorrows of the past won't be worth a bean unless they have (and clinically enact) a plan.
That said, it can be nothing more than human to will them and their ghosts a day in the sun. The head says Dublin, but a million hearts say otherwise, this one included.
Does love carry any truck with the gods?