‘I’d rather the agonies and ecstasies of Mayo fandom than nothing at all’

There’s always hope following Mayo. A vicious type of hope that leaves you writhing in your seat, jamming your fists into your eyes as if you’re watching a horror movie, but it’s hope all the same, writes Caitriona Lally.

As we watched an early championship match this year, I asked my father and my older brother: If Mayo won the All-Ireland, what would be the highlight of 2017, the birth of my first child or the win?

Dad wisely remained silent but Steve said, “The All-Ireland of course, you can have other children.”

I didn’t have to make that choice this year.

My parents are Mayo people, and although I’m a first-generation Dub, I support Mayo.

When your background is two-pronged, you can choose which county to follow, but growing up with the legend of Willie Joe Padden and the myth of the 1951 curse, the choice was already made, even if I’d have plenty more chance at Sam at the blue end of the spectrum.

I was swayed by memories of summer Sunday afternoons on Mayo beaches: my dad and the other dads sat in cars with the doors open and one leg out, multiple car radios blasting out the match, Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh jumping the octaves to get to the goal. The quiet tension in the house on match-morning, getting the farm chores done by throw-in, the thrill of hearing your usually mild-voiced parents curse during the match.

My partner supports Dublin, and after a close-fought semi-final in 2012, we agreed for the sake of domestic harmony to put at least a few walls between us next time we watched our sides play.

The battle on the pitch was nothing compared to the tension in the Upper Hogan Stand that day. My feral side emerges, and I lose all reason or ability to step into the blue shoes and see it from their side. There are few enough places you can scream green and red murder in public, can unhinge, let rip, bellow, shriek and wail.

Some years ago, my younger brother brought some English friends to a Mayo match in Croke Park. The visitors sat between us: from him they could learn the rules of the game, from me, some original Irish swear words.

My mother gets so het up about Mayo’s performance she can’t go to the matches. She can’t even watch them at home: instead, she spends most of the match in the garden, taking her fret out on a patch of soil that needs digging or a lump of wood that needs chopping, sneaking intermittent peeks at the telly through the kitchen window.

I was determined not to hope this year. It didn’t look good early in the championship and I thought it might be wiser if I pulled back a bit, but as Mayo slunk through the back door, hope came creeping over me like a fungus.

I had planned on hogging the hospital TV to watch the Mayo v Clare game in early July, but less than 24 hours after I gave birth, I couldn’t feel my legs and hadn’t the will to ask the other women on the ward if they minded. Plus, there was the possibility of doing my battered body a mischief if the going got close, or of a Clare patient taking umbrage at my ferocity. I followed it live online instead.

The baby was three weeks old when I walked the half hour to Croke Park to watch the first quarter-final against Roscommon. It wasn’t a straightforward birth, pain had become my new normal and I was struggling to remember who I was or what I did before bottles and nappies and medicines ate up all of my brain-space.

It lashed rain in Croke Park, Mayo barely scraped a draw, but it was pure magic. To feel that there was nothing else in the world but which direction that ball was going in. To be so utterly consumed by the game that I could feel no physical pain, was back in myself but at the same time was completely out of myself. It felt like I was back even though I’d never really been away.

I watched the Kerry semi-finals through slatted fingers. I could barely make conversation, only chew gum ferociously to settle myself. The amount of gum chewed is directly proportional to the tension of the game; in the closing minutes of several matches this year, the wad was the size of a golf-ball.

I watched the final in my sister’s apartment. Dad got a ticket and headed to Croke Park, after being advised that a shirt and tie under a Mayo hoodie was not a good look. Mam sat on the balcony and we shouted the scores out the window at her, when they were in Mayo’s favour.

She came in for the last 10 minutes, which was probably unwise. There was screaming and howling and clawing at hair; there was writhing and squirming and chewing of nails. We must have lost near as many calories as the players; we certainly came off as women possessed. But, as every Mayo fan is morbidly sick of hearing, it wasn’t our year.

The morning after the final I woke up feeling sunken. I know that it doesn’t make sense to take the loss so hard. It seems self-indulgent to feel so strongly, as if you’re writing yourself into someone else’s story, someone else’s more legitimate pain. It wasn’t my game to lose, I’m not related to any of the players, and as Sonia O’Sullivan’s father said when she missed out on a medal, nobody died.

But hope is a brutish thing. You tell yourself that it’s only a game, you shouldn’t go so berserk over something so trivial, but it doesn’t feel trivial when you’re thick in the sweat of those 70 minutes, Andy Moran gunning ahead with a ball in the shape of a goal.

Defeat would be easier to take if it was thorough, swift and brutal. If there wasn’t the whisper of a chance, if Mayo were annihilated by Dublin, beat rotten, wiped off the face of the pitch.

If you’re not in the running, you barely hit the nerves. But to come within a sniff of a win several times in recent years would leave you questioning the wisdom of putting so much of yourself into it.

When there’s only a point in the difference, it’s hard not to imagine the what ifs, the what might have beens, the would it be ok to cancel a hospital appointment and travel to the homecoming instead. And it’s harsh to lose to the county you live in.

It’s not logical to be so obsessed with how many times 30 men succeed in putting a ball past a bar. It would do wonders for my blood pressure if I got into TV series instead of these annual agonies, but I can’t forget that I’m being manipulated by scriptwriters, or that other people know how the programme will end. A match is a story not yet written. Who could have predicted we’d have plurals of so many Mayo matches, and that the final against outright favourites would be so close?

And that’s why there is always hope. A vicious type of hope that leaves you writhing in your seat, jamming your fists into your eyes as if you’re watching a horror movie, but it’s hope all the same.

Every summer, when the occasional green and red flag appears among all the navy and blue in my part of Dublin, the itch takes hold of me again. And as friends from counties that don’t make it to Croke Park remind me, Mayo fans get plenty of days out.

Its clichéd, and it’s hard to escape the clichés when you talk about Mayo fandom, but I’d rather have those agonies and ecstasies and everything in between, than not have them at all.

I went to last year’s final replay with Dad. Before the match, we drank pints in the sunshine and hunted for cousins and famous people in the crowd. No matter what happens in the game, Dad said, we’ll just enjoy this part. And that’s just it. I tend to see each game as a stepping stone to the final and then write the whole thing off as a dead loss if we lose. But the sheer joy of championship season is something special.

Most children, when they pick a team to follow, run their fingers along the top of the scoreboard, and despite my heavy-handed indoctrination efforts with Saw Doctors songs on repeat and personalised jerseys, chances are my girl child will support Dublin. Either way, I hope she gets to experience the excitement of the build-up: the predictions and debates beforehand, the discussions and analysis afterwards, the shorthand between fans in the lead-up to the final. You can put chat on anyone in Mayo gear and ask ‘Will they do it this year’, no need for preamble or proper nouns. I can’t imagine summer without it.

  • Caitriona Lally is the author of the acclaimed novel Eggshells

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