While pondering the development of his origins, Gay Talese – an American prose writer of extraordinary talent and scope – assessed that he came ‘from an island that reinforced my identity as a marginal American, an outsider, an alien in my native nation.’ It is fair to say that because of Ireland’s relatively small geographical stretch, the notion of any group of people representing an alien percentage of the population is likely to be a self determining decision.
In this regard, it is quite simple to see how certain people – generally from Cork or Dublin from my experience – will pontificate their superiority, but never suggest an ounce of inferiority or even a parallel set of differences. In the general run of things this system works fine. We accumulate friends and have many family members whose origins are rooted throughout this land. I am not for a moment suggesting that Ireland is not without its distinctions, more so that its distinctions are so well defined that conflict is often nothing more than banter.
However, Talese, perhaps America’s greatest sports writer – all you have to do is read his essays ‘The Loser’, ‘Ali in Havana’ or ‘The Silent Season of a Hero’ to render compliance with this statement – understood the value of alienation when it came to approaching the art of journalism. To remain inconspicuous remains the half the battle it seems. To be looked on cautiously or expectantly is second only to being completely overlooked. There is a reason why on Sunday last Mayo could do to the All-Ireland Champions what they did. Similarly, there is a reason why this is the third time in three consecutive years that they have beaten the respective All-Ireland Champions. Finally, there is also a reason why each year they were playing a new set of winners where they had missed their own chance to be such Champions. Mayo comes from Connacht, and Connacht is nothing if it isn’t overlooked.
We, the Irish, may be a communal people day-to-day, but, when it comes to the GAA it appears second nature in Ulster, Munster and Leinster to disregard and overlook those who originate in the West. Occasionally it has been to a team’s peril that they fail to estimate the full potential of this threat; more often though they are wholly vindicated. Mayo is no longer playing for Mayo alone, until the end of August at least, they represent all of Connacht – although as idealistic as that may sound, I highly doubt any Galway man, woman or child would take pleasure in witnessing Mayo lay claim to Sam. I guess it’s left up to the rest of us.
If you were fortunate enough to have even a passing interest in GAA at the beginning of the 21st Century, then Sligo was an exceptionally exciting place to be from. Although my interest has waned in the fortunes of my locality on a Gaelic pitch, to be in Croke Park on July 21st, 2002 was simply unforgettable. In beating Tyrone, a team that would go on to win the All-Ireland the following September, Sligo vindicated the introduction of the back-door system as a means of instigating wild dreams in the battered imaginations of Gaelic’s staggeringly high number of fans who consistently witness more defeats then they do successes. On the upcoming 25th of August, Mayo will go toe-to-toe with a Tyrone now the other side of three All-Ireland successes since Sligo surprised them in 2002. Like Tyrone, Mayo also has been in three All-Ireland finals since 2002 – however, they are looking back instead at three humbling defeats.
To focus on Mayo’s demolition of Donegal is a reductive act. Perhaps the only thing worth mentioning is the fact that their winning margin of 16 points almost doubled the combined tally by which they beat All-Ireland Champions Cork and Dublin, in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Given the defensive nous of Donegal since the introduction of Jim McGuinness in 2010, Mayo’s 4-17 scored was a notable feat. Of course, notable feats outside of an All-Ireland final are something Mayo’s following are well used to. As such, this match, regardless of how truly excellent Mayo’s performance was will mean nothing unless they find themselves over the curse by September 22nd.
Coming from an area such as Connacht, it is not until you step outside it that you realise what it is you miss. ‘The savage loves his native heath’ however and this lament is one most people face regardless of where they originate. What one can uniquely take from Connacht though – apologies to Kennedy – is the very definite sense that nobody who comes from outside it could ever truly appreciate what exists within. When Winston Churchill discussed the situation and feeling toward English people in Ireland in his The Age of Revolution, he understood how the ‘Curse of Cromwell’ still afflicted the English population even hundreds of years later. While such trivialities like a disliking for the English are thankfully becoming redundant, it still bears mentioning that Churchill recognised the ‘To Hell or To Connacht’ terms that Irish Catholics were served by Cromwell. While it seems insulting, the practicalities of inferior land left Connacht looking like a hopeless inferno. I am not aware of any sociological or anthropological insight that determines what this kind of existence has on those whose generational backdrop filters through this land that Cromwell damned. Furthermore, it is no secret that proportionately Connacht suffered most in terms of deaths as a result of the Great Famine. While things like this are not wholly relevant today, one cannot but assume that the brunt of every misfortune that befalls Ireland seems to land at Connacht’s door.
All of this and more – Connacht certainly garnered the benefits of 20th century modernisation later than any other province – means very little in the contemporary outlook. We are for the best part all equal now. Yet, when Mayo takes to Croke Park on August 25th, it is not just their sporting tradition that they are seeking to improve. There is no indication that a successful Mayo will generate success for the weaker Gaelic counties of the province, but then, success is something not expected but cherished in Connacht. Naturally this all sounds very idealistic, the padded cries of the victimised. However, I assure you that nobody is looking for pity here. It is our understanding that more often than not the odds on a sporting field are stacked against those figures emerging from Connacht. Yet, this only serves to make victory all the sweeter.
From a practical point of view Mayo are genuine contenders. What they did to Donegal, first half and second was simply ferocious. Although Tyrone – no doubt inspired by the usually cognitive, occasionally conveniently controversial Joe Brolly and his Sean Cavanagh rant – will probably now pose a far tougher test than Donegal did. It will only be when they play Tyrone that we can truly assess how on the ball Mayo were, or how severely depleted Donegal were when they met last Sunday. Ideally at this point, given Dublin’s performance on Saturday night – which just as easily as Mayo’s could have resulted in a humiliating night for Cork – an All-Ireland football final between Mayo and Dublin will be highly sought after. Could Mayo beat Dublin in an All-Ireland final? Certainly. Would they? I am not so sure. If they do, Sam will have little consideration of Hell when he sees the smiling faces of thousands waiting for him in Connacht.