I had to make an unexpected drive to Dublin on Friday evening. My son needed to get there for early on Saturday and this was the best way to make it happen. I didn’t mind at all. Sam is always fun company in the car and the playlists on his phone are unerringly great. I stayed over for the night and got back on the road home the next morning.
This was Saturday morning. The morning of the All-Ireland Football Final.
I was heading firmly west while meanwhile, over on the other side of the road, everybody from my entire county was heading east. That’s how it seemed anyway.
Looking back on it now, exactly one day after, the drive seemed like something of a privilege. It was a view of something that I might never have otherwise got to see. Not to overstate things, it was a small joy to behold.
A line or two of context. Bear with.
The Gaelic Football team of my adoptive home county of Mayo are, without question, one of the most powerful forces in the game. Few could argue against that. But the team have not won an All-Ireland Final, and thus the coveted Sam Maguire Cup, since 1951. That makes it a round seventy years this year. For many years, the team to beat has been Dublin. A team could do very well against all comers and then face Dublin and find an immovable block wall in their face. Dublin won five in a row and were looking for a sixth this year. Except this year, Mayo beat Dublin in the semi-final. Suddenly, the block wall was gone. The final lay ahead, as it had done so many times before, but this year was different. Dublin would not be there, waiting.
So, as I made the three-hour drive home to Castlebar yesterday, the football faithful were making their way to Croke Park in the hope and expectation of seeing history made.
I had expected something on the road. I silently gave thanks that I wasn’t going the other way, trying to get into the city in all that traffic. I expected there to be cars whizzing past me on their way. What I got, though, I didn’t expect that.
It was a parade. A quite wonderful parade. More than that, it was a legion on the move. The Mayo fans, heading to Croker.
When you’re in Castlebar in the weeks before the big match, you may see little flags attached to a car. You may see a licence plate, illicitly changed out for a red and green ‘Mayo4Sam’ sentiment. Individually, these things look fun and nice.
But when practically every car going the other way is decked out in the red and green, when every car is packed with families and friends, it’s an entirely different effect. Every petrol station along the way was replete with fans and flag-ridden cars. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh they went past me. I couldn’t help but wave and occasionally toot my horn at people I didn’t know. I glanced in my rear-view mirror and figured that the person behind me thought I was a damned lunatic. Who cares? Wave, toot, wave toot.
Even more than the legion of vehicles, there was the people and the gestures that lined the roadway in every county. Tractors sat in the highest point of fields, bedecked in the colours. Cherry pickers raised as high as they go with kitted-out mannequins up on the platforms, watching out. But the people. Ah, the people. They were the best of all. Outside of houses and farm gates, all along the way, entire families in Mayo garb bounced up and down and waved and cheered as the parade tooted past. Rare bridges above, all Mayo clad and cheering. It was like how I imagined the Tour de France might be. It only happened yesterday but I don’t think I’m ever going to forget one man alone on the grass verge outside of his house, easily eighty years old. Beside him, his trusty ride-on lawnmower and, on it, a massive teddy bear in a Mayo Jersey. The old guy bouncing and waving his flag like a good thing, the cars responding in kind.
I smiled all the way home. I felt I knew a little more about the passion and the glory of Mayo football. How it raises its people up.
Mayo fans never give up, never will. It is a key part of what defines them/us. Every year that they can, they will ride in that parade, filled with pride and hope and expectation. All the arid years that have gone before only adding further to the love and respect that the place has for its mighty team.
The parade thought that yesterday was going to be their day and, in truth, so did I. I said it out loud where most townsfolk concealed their hopes and anxieties in endless discussions about tickets. As it turned out, it wasn’t our day. We couldn’t get more scores than Tyrone. Pages will be written. The exact ‘whys’ will be addressed by people much more qualified than me. We will be gutted for a time and then we will regroup and reassess and go for it again, the passion undiluted, the drive undimmed.
I’ve written it before, I think. Ours is a team of superheroes who walk among us every day. They give their everything for so little reward. History and glory and the victory itself being the primary goals. In consistently pushing as hard as they possibly can, they elevate our little place to something so much more than it would otherwise be.
So, thanks for the ride, Mayo. Even if, for me, it was in the wrong direction.
Next year will be great.