Monday 18 December 2017

Cursed forever by the supernatural powers of famine and failure

From Biddy Early to the Mayo priest, the piseoga have retained their entrancing grip, writes Dermot Crowe

I N a recent comprehensive review of Mayo football, containing multiple recommendations on how to end perhaps the most storied All-Ireland drought, there is one marked omission. No reference can be found to the priest's curse reputedly placed on the county in 1951. The story goes that the team's Sam Maguire cavalcade passed through Foxford while a local funeral was taking place, incensing a priest who duly unleashed his wrath. He vowed that Mayo would not win another until all the members of that expedition were deceased.

Whether the curse has any veracity, or relevance to Mayo's long-suffering plight, is a point worth considering before we go further. But on the 60th anniversary of the last Sam Maguire visit, the county seems to have had more than its fair share of mishaps. When they retained the title in 1951, Mayo had such a prized gallery of stars, a jackpot of bright and ambitious footballers, that the future looked rosy and secure. No one could have foreseen the protracted anguish that was to follow.

Curses and superstition are not uncommon in GAA history and folklore, often feeding on anxiety and despair in places where success dries up. But it isn't confined to the famine-stricken. In 1982, Páidí ó Sé was making his way from Ventry towards the departure station for Croke Park and the pressing business of completing five in a row when he was stopped dead in his tracks. He spotted a red-haired lady and recognised this as a bad omen. The next day Seamus Darby scored a wonder goal to overthrow a team that looked, if ever a team did, unbeatable. It had to be more than football that beat Kerry then. Dark forces had conspired against them.

We are a suspicious, superstitious race. In Kerry, it might seem farcical that a county with a record amount of All-Irelands should be preoccupied with the famous piseoga, the imponderable irrational forces that can conspire against you. But in 1969 the goalkeeper and captain for their All-Ireland final against Offaly, Johnny Culloty, tore up his winner's speech at half-time. Kerry had played poorly and they were to face the wind after the break. Culloty felt the presumption in writing his speech in advance may have brought him and the team bad luck. So he took it out of his sock and shredded it. Kerry went on to win.

While curses aren't phenomena limited to places where the winning is scarce, it is more likely to thrive and feed on the hysteria of prolonged failure and hunger for success. Whether a supposed curse is true or not, in a way hardly matters; it gains currency in the telling and the re-telling. It exists in the minds of the people, whether they treat it seriously or not, and that is enough to lend it some validity.

Fr Leo Morahan was chairman of the Mayo County Board for ten years in the 1960s and '70s. A few years ago he met one of the surviving members of the 1951 team, Paddy Prendergast, at a Connacht final and the issue of the Mayo curse came up but he gave it short shrift. He doesn't believe the curse has any basis in fact. "The story is a myth, a delusion, a kind of old wives' tale," he says. "It was peddled often before, like in Clare with the Biddy Early one, and also the Galway hurlers and the priest who cursed them and now this yarn about Mayo; it's all claptrap. No one who has any real knowledge of football would pay any heed to it."

When Clare's 81-year All-Ireland famine ended in 1995, it was seen to have put paid to Biddy Early's curse.

That she happened to come from Feakle, the homeplace of Ger Loughnane, added some interest to the notion of this nefarious old biddy casting her spell on the tormented and greatly afflicted stickmen of Clare. But it was a fiction. Early, whose herbal medicines were much in demand during her lifetime, died in 1874, before the GAA was even founded. Somewhere along the line she got blamed for the bad run.

But many Clare followers assumed she had some axe to grind. Like Mayo, they endured so much heartbreak and soul-destroying loss that it was tempting to believe some malevolent force was at work.

Fr Leo Morahan says the curse was never mentioned in

his time. "We had genuine concerns about finance and fixtures and teams," he says. "Of course it can be detrimental if Mayo folk would be silly enough to swallow such brainwashing, which it really is, but I don't think many club men would succumb to that; it is sheer pub talk. The basic rule of logic is there has to be a reason for everything and this is based on no reason."

In 1987, when Clare were humiliated by Tipperary in the Munster championship with Loughnane nearing the end of his career, a book about Biddy Early was published by the author Eddie Lenihan. The two events were merely coincidental. Lenihan was aware of the misrepresentation of Early in the hurling context. Loughnane would make the same point when he helped destroy all the old hang-ups and re-defined the county's hurling tradition.

"There was mass hysteria because Clare hadn't won in so long but cooler heads would tell you, they are all dead now, old fellas in their 90s at the time over in east Clare, in Feakle and thereabouts, that the curse on Clare came later," says Lenihan. "If you believe what the old people say, when the Clare team was going to the All-Ireland final in 1914 there were two from the team from the Sixmilebridge side, they were religious men and wanted to get Mass but they were afraid they'd miss the train and, if they did, maybe their only chance of a medal.

"They decided what they'd do was get Mass at Cratloe because the train stopped at Cratloe, you'd put up your hand, and the church was near the station and you'd hear the puff-puff-puff of the steam train coming. They stayed at the door with their gear ready to go quick. It was near time for the consecration and the priest, he was facing away as it was the old Latin Mass, turned around, as the train was coming and the boys made a run for it. The priest shouted to come back; he said 'ye'll win today but by the time Clare win again there won't be one of you alive'. There was no survivor (in 1995). It might only be a fancy story. It had nothing at all do with Biddy Early but she got the blame."

Paddy Prendergast recalls being in Foxford the night his county was supposed to have been cursed. But he doesn't recall any funeral or fulminating priest. "At that time we were travelling on the back of a lorry, it went from Ballaghadereen, Charlestown, on to Swinford and arrived in Foxford on the way to Ballina. Apparently there was a funeral and the story was we didn't attend the funeral and the priest said while these fellas live they will not win another All-Ireland. I don't remember it at all. The way we have behaved in the meantime it might have been true!

"What I do remember about it was Sean Flanagan was captain at the time and making speeches in every town. I do remember that particular stop en route to Ballina, he was saying a few words, and he said there was one thing warmer than a Foxford rug and that was a Foxford welcome. It (the curse) is something we never discussed. I think it is an invention."

Prendergast recognises something of the superstitious in the Irish psyche and appreciates how the storytelling tradition could be exceedingly creative. "The haunted house and all the ghosts that were knocking around till the electric light came," he says laughingly. He came from a team stuffed with "positive thinkers" and exceptionally well-qualified men in their working lives. But he says he is deflated from years of repeated failure and the construction of a tradition alien to the one he had grown accustomed to as a player.

"I suppose we were all a bit superstitious really. It was a big part of rural Ireland anyway. In many areas, if a stranger crossed the road in front of you, you would be thinking about it."

Galway hurlers went without an All-Ireland hurling title from 1923 to 1980. The writer Breandán ó hEithir deals with the curse allegedly put on their hurling teams in his book Over the Bar. He refers to a disputed winning point scored by Cork in 1944 in Ennis and various other setbacks, including witnessing Galway lose a seven-point lead in Birr in 1945 in the All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny, who won with a late free. He cycled to Birr with his father and recounts the disconsolate journey home.

"In those years the roads were always full of groups of men cycling to and from matches on a Sunday and it was in one of these groups, somewhere between Portumna and Loughrea as night fell on our sad journey west, that I first heard the story of the curse. In the circumstances it was easy to believe. We swore we would never again follow the Galway hurlers."

In case you think it is strictly a west of Ireland craze, there is also a story of a curse placed on the Kildare footballers around the time they won their last All-Ireland in 1928. "TP Clarke, the county secretary before me, used to always talk about it," says Seamus Aldridge. But Aldridge confesses he hasn't much more detail. His fellow Round Towers clubman Mick Leavy, a former football board chairman, is summoned to give aid.

Was a curse placed on Kildare, Mick? "If it was, it's working," he says mischievously. "I've heard that on and off. But I'd not heard it from any (players) of that period. The local club had five on the team. A priest put a curse on the county, said they'd never win another All-Ireland. I don't know if there was anything in it. I never heard the name of the priest."

Some curses stay until the last member of the offending team passes away. The Kildare curse is more severe. "We've all said acts of contrition since to see would it clear, we were very sorry, but maybe we are not getting through. A bad line," Leavy says lightly. "I don't believe in curses, it's a bit of a laugh as far as I am concerned."

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