We did well and kept it under wraps for four long weeks but now the time has come, writes Eavan Murray as loyal Mayo fans share memories of 70 years in the wilderness.
It’s All-Ireland day, and we’re ready. We’ve never been so ready. Generations of families will today descend on Croke Park. Others will come together at home.
Seventy years is a very long time to wait. We’re hungry.
Mayo in 1951 was a very different place.
Few counties suffered the same brutal mass emigration. Families were scattered all over the globe.
But the cry for home is burned into our souls. Today, Mayo fans tell the Irish Independent about the decades of joy and sorrow since last we welcomed Sam Maguire back in 1951.
John McNamara and his twin brother Pat were 16 in 1951. That final changed the course of their lives.
Their father, Anthony McNamara, of Dooagh, Achill Island, left Mayo to work in England in the late 1940s.
His mission was to ensure his children were educated. In addition, he wanted to save them from emigration.
At age 13, John and Pat wanted to go pick potatoes in Scotland. Anthony was having none of it; he insisted his sons go to secondary school.
John, who is now 86 and has never missed a Mayo All-Ireland final since, says: “He saw education as the only escape for us from the emigrant ship. He said, ‘If you go back to school, I’ll send you the money to go to the All-Ireland’. We couldn’t refuse that. We had never been to Dublin before.
“It was just amazing. We had to keep our word and go back to school. And it changed the course of our lives. Pat became a dentist, and I became a teacher. I came back to Achill and taught for 33 years. My father is a wise and wonderful man.
“In 1951, Achill was poverty-ridden. To see how our people have strived and earned their money around the world and built their futures makes me so proud. They didn’t lie down.
“That’s the Mayo spirit. That’s the same spirit carrying the Mayo lads.
“I never once lost hope for Mayo. I was always proud, even coming out of Croke Park when we lost.”
Mary Gray (82) emigrated to New York from Claremorris in 1961. “I left on the Mauretania and sailed to New York, I was only turning 21. I wanted an adventure.”
Mary met her husband, Charlie, and they opened a bar, Creighton & Grays, in Queens. “In the 1960s, New York was full of Mayo people. Our whole family were huge Mayo supporters, but it became like a religion when I moved away.
“We used to host a Mayo day in the pub. People would come from all over New York.
“We would all get together rooting for Mayo. There was no radio or TV back then. We used to call home at half-time, and we’d all be waiting for full time to know the result.
“Rudy Giuliani used to come into my pub all the time. I’d be telling him all about Mayo, and he’d be telling me about his divorces. He used to love the Mayo craic. Who could blame him?”
Johnny Farragher (79) captained Mayo in the late 1960s and early 70s. It was a long time ago, but he still has the battle scars: knee replacement, hip replacement, broken disks, knocks to the head. “I liked to win,” he says.
“I played 12 positions for Mayo. The only position they didn’t put me on was on the gate collecting money.
“Back in the 1970s, we had only a middling team. Great individual players, but that doesn’t make a team.
“There was a fierce – and I mean fierce – rivalry with Galway. It was something else. Beating them was my All-Ireland.”
Johnny sees “serious mettle” in today’s team. “It will be a fight to the death against Tyrone, I think. But our guys have something special, so I’m feeling good.”
John Muldowney (70), from Ballyhaunis, was five days old when Mayo last won the All-Ireland. “We moved near Birmingham,” he says. “During the 1980s, I always came back for Mayo games, which wasn’t as easy as it is now. And Mayo wasn’t as successful back then. We followed Mayo wherever they went. It’s about meeting your friends from all parts of Mayo and good times with your family. I love it all: the post-mortems after the game in the pub, the ups and downs. It’s all good.
“I think I was about five years of age when I went to my first game, against Galway in Tuam. I remember being so sad because Galway beat us.
“I still get the same thrill. There is nothing like a crowd of Mayo supporters.”
Cathal Finucane (61) left Mayo for Dublin at the age of 11. Other than last year, he hasn’t missed a single Mayo match since 1989.
“I went all over the country for the league and championships all through the 1990s. It was one heartbreak after the other,” he says. “Liam McHale was a brilliant player, the height of him. He was like Aidan O’Shea, but he wasn’t inclined to be outfield; he stayed up at the forward line.
“In those days, they didn’t go in for the fitness levels they have now. There was only a few who were super fit, and Liam was one of them.
“Now, I think we have the strongest bench going. They will win it for us.”
Derek Davidson moved to Lahardaun from London in 2000. He and his six children quickly became avid fans.
“It just took hold of me,” he says. “It’s the best sport in the world. I couldn’t believe the physicality and skill involved.
“I’m not born in the county, but I feel like I was born to love Mayo.”
Derek is struggling with his nerves ahead of the throw-in.
“Oh dear, I’m going to bring a defibrillator with me, I think. It’s just too much sometimes.” In 2017, after a devastating defeat to Dublin, Derek packed his Mayo flag and brought it with him to base camp at Mount Everest.
“We stopped at Tengboche Monastery. Our guide was a Buddhist. He brought my flag up to the altar, and the head monk did a special blessing. He picked it up and unfurled it and everything. I was gobsmacked.”
This week, a video clip of Kenny Conway (26) giving a ticket for today’s match to his nephew Cullen O’Reilly went viral. Viewers saw Cullen (8) burst into tears.
“Myself and Cullen, we’re nearly inseparable at times,” Kenny says. “I coach the under-14s, and Cullen comes along with me to all those games. He’s all excited, I just hope he has a great day.”
Kenny, of Kiltimagh, has been going to matches since he was eight. He recalls his father telling him before a match: “Stop annoying me, it’s no good. We’ve no tickets.”
“So I went up to bed, and there it was on the pillow.
“That was the start of me spending thousands going to Mayo matches all over the country. But, it will be all worth it when we see Aidan O’Shea up the steps.”
Cullen O’Reilly (8), also from Kiltimagh, first visited Croke Park for the Connacht final against Galway this year. He was also there to see Mayo beat Dublin in the semi-final.
Despite his tender years, Cullen knows his football. “I’d say they’ll be bad the first half, and the second half, they’ll get good. It feels good when Mayo win. I can’t wait.”