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.