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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


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

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.

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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.

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