‘For people my age in Mayo, this is all it’s been, losing every which way’

Mayo don’t always come back from the big show empty-handed.

Two years ago, Colin Barrett collected plenty of silverware for his first collection of short stories, Young Skins, including the Guardian First Book Award and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.

Judging by his Twitter activity alone, the Mayo native takes a keen interest in sport:

“It’s a different headspace, if you’re writing you’re living in your head to a great extent, so it’s good to have something else you can be passionate about, something you can be invested in.

“I keep interested, I tweet about sport a bit and I play five a side once or twice a week.”

Before that, going to school in Ballina, he played plenty of Gaelic football:

“I’ve come back to it in the last couple of years in the sense I’ve been following it a bit more than I was. When I was a teenager I played U14 and U15, those age groups, but then I drifted away from it, really, particularly when it was time to head off to college. My interest is a passing one — I wouldn’t claim to be an expert, certainly.”

Like a lot of expats, living in Dublin tends to strengthen county affiliations which might otherwise be relatively loose.

“I really like living in Dublin,” says Barrett. “It’s a great city and I have my life here, I’m really happy here, but in the last few years, I was writing the book (Young Skins) and much of that was set in the west of Ireland.

“Before that, I wasn’t interested in writing about Mayo or the countryside or anything like that — I think sometimes when you’re young, you’re keen to leave a place and see other places. You leave a small town and go to college, you’re keen to do that.

“But you get reconciled to where you’re from when you get a bit older, too. In the last few years, I see what’s great about Mayo, I really accept and embrace the fact that it’s part of my heritage. It’s where I’m from.”

The county team is part of that heritage, of course.

“Last Sunday week, I was getting very emotional, certainly — if they’d actually done it, I’d have burst out crying, I think.

“Even for someone like me, it would be very, very moving. I totally have re-embraced it. When you’re a teenager you want to get out, go to college, all of that, but as you get older you come back to where you’re from, that identity becomes part of you again.

“We had a little girl this year so you’re going back home a couple of times and you’re more in touch with where you’re from, probably.”

Well, how does a man who’s won prizes for his imagination envisage his county celebrating a first All-Ireland title since 1951, then?

“I was tweeting half- jokingly that Mayo people are always prepared to lose, but I don’t actually know what would happen to the county’s psyche if we won the All- Ireland final.

“I think it would be a massive catharsis, a massive outpouring of emotion — and a huge shift in how we see ourselves because we have that record, and how statistically improbable, almost, that it is. If you flipped a coin six or seven times, you’d think your side would come up once, anyway.

“I thought it was a strange game the last day, they got so close… I really felt the momentum was with them, they were doing so well in the second half but they just couldn’t get it over the line.”

The sense of pressure focused on getting over the line is something the whole county is aware of, he adds.

“It is a huge mental thing, a massive pressure. And everyone feels it — you know the team has pedigree, it has everything, but that weight, that pressure is there, and it’s almost supernatural at this point, the curse and all of that.

“The whole county… it’s like a lot of sports in that rationality has nothing to do with it, really.

“It means a huge deal, obviously, to a huge number of people, but even to the likes of me who have a passing interest, you’re aware of the history the whole time.

“It’s not the same as in other counties which won five years ago or 10 years ago, when they’ve seen All-Irelands won and lost; for people of my age in Mayo this is all it’s been, losing every which way, heroically and so on. It would be an extraordinary thing to happen.”

The good news for friends and acquaintances of the writer is that he’s not hunting for a ticket, so they can accept calls from his number.

He has a fair bit on: “I’m working on the next book, a novel. It’s going well at the moment and hopefully I’ll have it finished before the end of the year.”

Be nice if there was a cup in Mayo at the same time.

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