Monday, November 12, 2007

Pleasure amidst the pain

It’s over twenty years since an off-hand remark made to me by a Kerryman put me squarely in my place as to the ambitions I should have in following Mayo’s footballers. The year was 1985 and, although well beaten by Dublin in that year’s semi-final replay, Mayo had performed better on the national stage than at any time since the Fifties and we were undoubtedly back as a force to be reckoned with in the championship. It would not be long, I opined, before Sam would be making his fourth trek to the Yew County. The Kerryman wasn’t slow in disabusing me of such notions. “Look it” he said, with the arrogant insouciance that comes from knowing that almost every year the Rose of Tralee festival heralds the imminent arrival of Sam Maguire on Platform 1 in Killarney, “there’ll always be at least one team good enough to beat Mayo in any given year”.

That has been the case every year since 1951 and Keith Duggan’s marvellous House of Pain: Through the Rooms of Mayo Football captures superbly the many false dawns, near misses and shattering disappointments that the county and its loyal followers have endured since then. In one sense, I hate it when Mayo supporters are referred to as “long-suffering” because, down through the years, we’ve had many good days to enjoy. That draw with Dublin in '85, for starters. The six-point trimming of Kerry in ’96. The defeat of All-Ireland champions Tyrone in 2004. And, of course, the Daddy of the lot – downing the Dubs last year. We’ve had great days – and, indeed, nights – out but we just haven’t done enough to close the deal.

Keith Duggan tells the story of this “magnificent idea” through the voices of those who know it best – the men who have pulled on the famous jersey to do battle for the county over the past 50 years. He has assembled an impressive cast – which stretches back all the way to Paddy Prendergast and ends with David Brady, containing on the way cameos from the likes of Leo Morahan, JP Kean, Martin Carney, Jimmy Maughan, Peter Ford, Kevin McStay, Anthony Finnerty, John Maughan, Liam McHale, John Casey and, of course, John O’Mahony.

Through their voices, Duggan gently weaves his story of a half-century of disappointments, focusing in particular on the five All-Ireland finals that we’ve lost over the last 18 years. 1989 was a final which, for Cork, Duggan says “losing would have been unthinkable” while for Mayo “winning was all but unimaginable”. Back then, we didn’t have the tag of perpetual losers hanging around our necks and it was a final we could, and should, have won. I recall so clearly standing on the old Canal End that day, seeing the Red and Green on All-Ireland day for the very first time and feeling almost like being there was enough. It was a great match, we didn’t disgrace ourselves and we’d be back.

Anthony Finnerty labelled the aftermath “the homecoming without the cup” as Mayo partied for days as if we had won it. John O’Mahony desperately tried to keep a lid on events, knowing that it would be difficult for everyone to come back down to earth. The following year, the championship campaign lasted all of seventy minutes and reality bit in hard enough then.

1996 is, of course, where all the regrets reach their crescendo. Duggan tells of John Maughan musing that the outcome of that year’s final “haunts” him still and that he knows “there are plenty of people in this county who think that I have blown All-Irelands for Mayo”. Duggan recounts the “unbearable” pain that the loss inflicted on Liam McHale, whose sending off after the mass brawl six minutes into the replay was a pivotal moment in turning the tie Meath’s way. But the most chilling reflection came from Charlestown’s John Casey, who, by his own admission, played poorly the first day against Meath but who, when subbed with only three minutes to go and Mayo still two points up, was hugged fiercely by Tommy O’Malley who said to him “Case, we are All-Ireland champions”.

What Mayo person that was there that day can forget those moments? My memory is of inhabiting for at least ten solid minutes a serene bubble in the Lower Hogan where I had the certain knowledge that we were going to win the All-Ireland. As the six-point lead with 15 minutes to go dribbled away, that certainty was draining away rapidly but it was still intact until Colm Coyle’s bouncing bomb did its worst.

The three since then can easily be conflated into one gruesome triptych, slashed through with green and gold. Duggan describes Mayo’s return to the final in 1997 as being similar to how “a dog lost in a snowdrift will sense its way home”. He tells of how John Casey sought out Maurice Fitzgerald after the game to enquire how Billy O’Shea – who’d suffered a bad leg break during the match – was faring. Fitzgerald assured him that he was fine. “No offence” Casey said to Fitzgerald “but I wish it had been your fucking leg”. 2004 gets only a cursory mention but the 2006 disaster is told through the eyes of David Brady who, when he took the field with Mayo ten points down after only eleven minutes, says he felt he “was being sent in there to look for survivors”.

It’s easy to use words like “tragedy” when talking about how a football match went but Duggan demonstrates beautifully why such terms should be used cautiously in this context. His understated and gentle evocation of the brief, brilliant life and the bizarre, sudden and untimely death of Ted Webb from Ballyhaunis demonstrates that the loss to Mayo was but a fraction of that suffered by those around him. Garda John Morley’s footballing days were behind him when he died at the hands of the IRA in Loughlynn but, through the voice of his widow Frances, Duggan tells of her memories of her late husband and how "the old head would be down for a few days" after he's played on a losing Mayo team. Mayo were crushed by fourteen points in the Connacht final by Roscommon a few days after his murder but, as Duggan notes, although this meant the county had now gone eleven years without a Connacht title, “this one did not seem to matter very much”.

This is a wonderful book, one that every true Mayo supporter will – despite the fact that the outcome of all those past losses won’t magically change as you turn the page – enjoy, at least in part. Many of the memories are indeed painful but we have plenty to be proud of too and, as Duggan says, the next time – and there will be one, don’t worry – we’re back in there, the supporters will be there too. He reckons we’ll do it one day. I think he’s right and, when we do, I hope he writes another book about it. I’ve already got the title for him – House of Fun.

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