The Curse

The first GAA Football match I ever saw was on my first trip to Ireland in 1972.

My sister and I stopped to visit our cousin Mary at her small farmhouse in a crossroads town in County Mayo. While Mary bustled about making tea and ordering her daughters and son Sean to “look after the cousins from America” and put out the “good china” her husband Henry sat in a corner of the kitchen watching a football match featuring the Mayo team on the telly.

It was the smallest television I had ever seen, measuring at most 10 inches diagonally. A wire ran from the set out the window of the kitchen to a metal coat hanger hanging from the sash. The picture, when you could make it out through the static, was in black and white. The commentary was in Irish.

Henry was well into his eighties at the time. As he stared at the TV, he juked this way and that, running and kicking and passing the ball along with the players on the pitch. I couldn’t make a thing out on the screen, but Henry made every play and I followed along by watching him. I fell in love with the game that day. And with the Mayo team.

But Mayo, I came to learn, is cursed.

The last time the Mayo team won an All-Ireland Football Championship was in 1951. As the team processed back to Mayo after the win at Croke Park in Dublin, they came upon a funeral in the town of Foxford. In Ireland, when you come across a funeral procession, you stop walking or driving and pay your respects. A discreet sign of the cross would be in order.

The Mayo team did not do this. Instead, with horns blasting and flags flying, they passed by the funeral procession. The widow was not amused. She set a curse on the team, declaring that Mayo would not win another All-Ireland until every member of that team was dead. There are two men from the team still alive, and Mayo has not won since.

Now, some forty-five years after seeing my first match, I am watching Kerry play Mayo in the semi-finals of the All-Irelands and I am torn. I live in Kerry but my people are from Mayo. I have half-heartedly put a Kerry flag on our gate in a show of neighborly camaraderie.

The commentators on TV are brutal about Mayo, questioning their fitness and dedication:

“This Mayo team was out of puff against Roscommon last month,” they say.

“Mayo’s defense is shambolic,” they add. “The defense has to get their arse in play.”

“Wrap a bandage around his head and get back in there!” they demand when a Mayo back is gashed.

“Mayo’s defense is at sixes and sevens out there!”

The match is tight, with lots of rough play from both sides, which the commentators like. “Sure, they’re only getting to know each other.”

Back and forth the two teams go. Mayo up, then Kerry up, then Mayo, then Kerry!

Mayo kicks back-to-back goals by the same player. “He’s so hot Kerry cannot hose him down,” we’re told.

Up Mayo!” I’m shouting.

But now Kerry comes back, showing “style and panache in their play!”

Kerry ties it up with just seconds to go!

“Up the Kingdom!” I scream.

The final seconds of regulation time tick off and the game is tied.

“Now we go on to overtime,” I think to myself.

Wrong. There is no overtime, no sudden death, no shootout. They play the entire match over again the next Sunday.

Sadly for Kerry, the replay does not have any of the drama of the first meeting. Mayo wins handily, by far the better team. They will go on to meet the Dublin team in the final at Croke Park on the third Sunday of September. The end of the curse is in sight.

Now you would think that the people of Kerry would be somewhat bitter over the loss. But Dublin is the New England Patriots of Irish football. Perennial winners. The hated Dubs.

“Sure, I hope Mayo wins,” Jerry, our butcher tells us. “Don’t they deserve it after all these years?”

Our friend Grainne observes, “If they win, there won’t be a cow milked in Mayo for a week!”

Even the priest, in his sermon at Mass on Saturday evening, says, “I know that 31 of 32 counties will be praying for Mayo.”

The next afternoon, with our nieces Olivia and Abigail in tow, we repair to our local pub to watch the match, fortified by a few pints.

It’s a replay of the Kerry-Mayo match. A tight, back and forth game, with the lead changing hands constantly. Mayo up. Dublin up. Mayo! Dublin! Dublin! Mayo! Then, in the waning minutes, a goal by Dublin! They are up by three points. The air goes out of the room. The last seconds of the game tick away, and then a miracle occurs.

Goal! Goal! Goal! Mayo scores. Tie game! Only seconds remain.

We go into injury time, which is time added at the referee’s discretion at the end of a game for delays in regular time.

And that’s when the penalty is called on Mayo: a free kick for the Dubs from midfield.

The Dub player carefully places the ball and steps back. He eyes the uprights as he takes a few steps forward. His boot makes contact with the ball. Up, up it goes, soaring through the uprights. Time runs out. Dublin wins.

The Curse continues.

“We’ll get them next year, Henry.”  I promise.

Dingle’s Garden

There’s an old woman who lives in a small cottage at the end of our lane.

When we first met her she was wearing heavy wool stockings and a mid-length wool skirt. Over that she wore an old-fashioned housedress and a thick cardigan to ward off the chill. On her head was a round cloth cap and beneath the cap three or four sponge rollers adorned her hair, hanging disconsolately as she walked. She wore sensible, black old-lady shoes. In her hand she carried vintage pruning shears that seemed at least as old as her.

At first I thought that she resembled a character out of Dickens, but Sara pointed out that she was dressed exactly like my cousin Mary, who we used to visit in Mayo years ago. And so she was, but Mary would never have left the house with curlers in her hair.

The woman’s flower garden is remarkable, occupying the territory between a rock wall and a perfectly preserved stone outbuilding next to her cottage. Earlier in the year, lilies lined the wall. They’ve faded now, but yellow roses and magenta morning glories have replaced them. In baskets in front of the three bright red doors of the outbuilding oxeye daisies and asters preen. The crowning glory, though, are the hydrangeas. Massive banks of pink and blue and white flowers tower over the garden. They must be thirty or more years old and every day the old woman lovingly tends them, her trusty shears in hand.

Each time we see the old lady in her garden we stop to pass the time. Conversations in this part of the world often revolve around stories, so we tell her about our life down the lane and she tells us about hers. She talks about her son who moved away and her daughter who teaches over the hill in Tralee and how hard it is for them to get back to visit. And she talks about her garden.

All of Dingle is a garden right now. As we drive along the roads, the tall hedgerows are ablaze with fuchsia and montbretia, mile after mile. They follow the rock walls up the hills and the mountains, red and orange slashes dividing the green fields. It is magnificent.

But, like most things in life, it’s only when you slow down and look closely that you can discover the full glory of the display. So we walk down the lane toward the old woman’s cottage.

Fuchsia is the queen of the hedgerows around us, blooming from June into early November. The flowers mimic delicate ballerinas dressed in crimson tutus and purple petticoats, with long, slender legs dangling below. Even a slight breeze sends them floating through the air, dancing to the music of the wind.

Montbretia closely resembles a daylily, with spikes of reddish-orange flowers the color of a Buddhist monk’s robes. They stand against a backdrop of delicate green fronds. Their time with us is briefer than the fuchsia, blooming only in July and August, but what they lack in time they make up for in glory.

The Fuchsia and Montbretia are the royalty of the hedgerows, certainly, but when you look closer you find the court.

Tucked here and there in the Montbretia are tall spikes of Purple Loosestrife, nodding like sage advisors. Wild Parsnip and Ragwort add a dash of yellow to the mix. Primroses peek out from their hiding places. A few hardy Foxglove flowers hang on in the protected nooks of the hedges, their glory rapidly fading. Lovage, Cow Parsley and Queen Anne’s Lace float like cumulus clouds above it all. In among the Fuchsia, ancient cottage roses still thrive, with red and yellow blossoms. Overhead an occasional apple tree is starting to bear fruit.

And where there are no flowers, wild blackberries grow. Their pale pink petals turn into hard red buds before the sun ripens them into luscious berries. The plump blackberries stain our fingers as we gather them for our after dinner bowl of fruit. We eat as many as we collect.

Bees and butterflies fly drunkenly from flower to flower and birds flit from branch to branch, sharing the berries with us. Rabbits hide in the under growth, dashing out when they think we aren’t looking.

We slow our walk to take it all in, knowing the glory is fleeting.

Soon the days will grow shorter, the winds will pick up, and the temperatures will drop. Fall will be upon us and the flowers will fade and fall. Our thoughts will turn to simmering stews on the hob and roasting lamb in the oven and whether we should light the fire in the lounge to take the chill off the room.

But we’ll still walk down the lane to talk to the old woman and tell our stories. And talk about the flowers we’ll plant next spring.