On Sunday, Mayo will play Dublin in Gaelic football’s All-Ireland final, a contest that will grip the nation (apart from the millions it won’t grip, but that’s another kettle of lectures altogether). When Dublin—second on the all-time All-Ireland list with 23 championships—won the 2011 edition, it was their first in sixteen years. Cue much delight in the capital and environs, with the swapping of stories about how they got through the long years since ’95, when a can of flat lemon-style ade cost 2/6, Roy Keane had still only killed three people and divorce was forbidden under the constitution. (One of these is true.)
But Mayo people know what a drought really is. Camels bow their heads in admiration for these poor folk. The team from the Gobi of the west won the last of their three All-Irelands in 1951. They didn’t make the final again until 1989, since when they’ve lost the big one six times. In last year’s final, they were taken apart by Donegal in the early minutes and couldn’t reassemble themselves. Now they have yet another shot at taking home the Sam Maguire Cup, and we’re again reminded of the fact that the streets of Castlebar, Ballina and Westport have been bereft of even a single confetto for over six decades.
Of course, there’s a curse involved. The story goes that when returning home from their ’51 triumph, the team encountered a funeral procession and, in their rambunctiousness, failed to show due respect. Incensed, the priest (or the wife of the deceased, or a passing Haitian voodooist) decreed that Mayo would not win another All-Ireland as long as any of the rowdy players remained alive. And indeed, some of them are still knocking around, which just goes to show. Now you, the educated, enlightened, more or less profoundly gorgeous Classical reader, might scoff at this superstitious rot. But I for one can well believe it. After all, God took a special and personal interest in 1950s Ireland, as the existence of several dozen of my uncles and aunts proves.
Well, okay, then—apart from the usual crowd of friends of the angels, no-one really believes it. Furthermore, much like the Boston Red Sox and their Curse of the Occasional Mishap, tales of the Mayo hex only began to be told decades after the supposed fact, some time during the post-1989 sequence of heartbreak. Some are impatient with such unempirical guff. God knows how the current squad feel about being asked about it. Nor can it be much fun for the survivors of ’51 to be told that their very presence above ground is all that stands between their fellow countypeople and eternal bliss.
But still, in the end, it’s just a bit of fun. In its own small way, it helps to imbue proceedings with meaning, just like painting vehicles in county colours or writing songs in support of the boys. It’s just another indication that people actually give a damn about the whole thing. It’s a sign of life.
Moreover, it’s a sign that things could be a lot worse. The Mayo curse might be founded on a string of near-misses, but at least the misses have been near; it shows frustrated optimism, but at least there’s optimism. This stands in contrast with my own county, which has gone almost as long without an All-Ireland—in fact, we’ve never really come close since. So deep is the consequent pessimism that if anyone bothered to devise such a fable here, it would just be weird. With scant thwarted thrills to pin it on, it would be a cynical misery of a yarn. If it took human form, it would march up to merrymakers in parks, laugh a hollow laugh, and say: “Dunno what you’re so happy about—you’re going to be dead some day. Dead, I tell you. Ha ha ha.”
So I envy Mayo their ghost stories, and I’ll kind of miss them if Mayo win. But it’s about more than just a curse: there is just something fundamentally beautiful about such a doozy of a futile streak.
Allow me to explain. All of us, I’m certain of it, fear deep down that this whole shenanigan we call sport(s) is nothing more than a vast accretion of meaninglessness. What if it doesn’t actually matter what happens? What if all that running around, and us watching all that running around, constitute a howling void hogging vital bandwidth on the space-time continuum? What if all those lists of champions, runners-up and fallers at the first fence are mere litanies of our vanity, of our habit of taxonomizing what is, after all, a squalid and absurd existence? We’ve all felt that at some point, haven’t we?
So it’s a pleasure to see our rational march to oblivion get snagged on a nail, to see the law of averages thwarted, however temporarily. Mayo should really have won a fourth All-Ireland by now. But as the wind of destiny has blown, they seem to have been caught on the leeward side of a hill of false promises and broken dreams. For your sadistic neutral, these are the really fun parts of sport, these kinks in history that put a new light on the non-kinky bits. Or to put it another way, on our steady progression towards the heat death of the universe, these clumps of resistance to entropy give us something to cling to as we try to reconcile our deluded yearning for immortality with the certainty that fate is going to turn us all into a bucket of undercoat for when it finally gets around to doing up its kitchen. They are the Springfield Tire Fires of the soul.
Or to put it yet another way, they make for bloody good stories, and stories about losing are way cooler than ones about winning. In the dry stone wall of sports mythology, Mayo’s woe is one of those hefty bleeders it takes two to lift. It’s a beaut of a thing. It’s a real shame they’ve had to be the fall guys, because there’s no particular reason to wish them ill—unless, perhaps, you’re from neighbouring Galway (whose hurling team, by the way, have lost 18 of 22 All-Ireland finals). But hey, I don’t make the rules. This is a cosmic thing, baby.
Well, there you have it: a win for Mayo is a win for senseless chaos and dreary storytelling. There’s one problem, though: a win for Dublin is somewhat akin to a win for Manchester United or the Dallas Cowboys. So if Mayo win, it’s a meaningless universe. And if Dublin win, Dublin win, and you may as well prepare the spare bed because Satan has many minions and there aren’t so many hotel rooms around these days, what with the economy being the way it is and all. This is more than a game, you know. The managers’ pre-match speeches will be fascinating.