Sports History Files: A continuing hold on Mayo’s anguish

While American football fans were awakening to seemingly endless hours of NFL pregame shows Sunday morning, there were a few souls in their midst gathering mainly in Irish pubs to watch the finals of another football code on other shores.

And to see if a long-lamented club could end more than 60 years of agony.

In the All-Ireland Football Championship — the Gaelic code that to these American eyes blends a little bit of soccer with quite a bit of rugby — the betting favorites from Dublin took on the sentimental favorites from Mayo.

One of the few mainstream American media accounts came from Chuck Culpepper, Sports on Earth’s resident globetrekker, taking up the case for Mayo.

The western Irish club hasn’t won a final since 1951, and they wouldn’t on Sunday, falling to Dublin by a scoreline of 2-12 and 1-14 (Culpepper’s lead explains why the numbers are listed this way).

9781845962975He experienced for the first time what Mayo followers have felt for decades, and that was the subject of one of the most celebrated recent books about Irish sports.

Gaelic football writer Keith Duggan’s “House of Pain: Through the Rooms of Mayo Football,” was published in 2007, chronicling the club’s penchant for coming up short, and the effect that’s had on its legion of supporters.

While their wait hasn’t been as long as the 86-year World Series gap of the Boston Red Sox, the suffering has been just as profound.

The appearance in the finals on Sunday was the second in as many years and eighth overall (and seventh since 1989) for Mayo, making the longing harder to bear. And yet, as Duggan writes, this is a perfectly normal and human state of being:

So much time and genuflecting is afforded to the champions, to those who prevail and those who make victory seem like the easiest thing in the world. But for most teams and sportspeople, the opposite is true. Losing is the universal sporting experience. In Gaelic games, Mayo stands at a strange and lonely impasse, in that it seems destined to be the county that almost always nearly wins.

(This theme also was captured perfectly in another sport by my acquaintance, Kyle Whelliston, in his excellent “One Beautiful Season,” an ode to mid-major college basketball and his end-of-season reminder that for schools of that ilk, “it always ends in a loss.”)

A Mayo fan commended Duggan for getting “the whole Mayo thing” when “House of Pain” was published, uttering a sentiment that seemingly endures:

Over the years Keith has shown that he understands perfectly what it means to be a Mayo supporter and has written numerous memorable pieces about us. I recall with particular fondness the one where he compared us and our plight to that of the Native Americans and also his rallying call after the 2004 final (which the Irish Times reprinted after the 2006 walloping) where he warned fans from other counties that we didn’t need their sympathy and would be back beating many of them again soon. Amidst all the other wise-after-the-event pieces ripping us to shreds, Keith’s thoughtful take on our defeat was just what we needed.

Writing on The Classical on Friday, the Irish sports writer who goes by the name Fredorrarci thinks it could be worse for the Mayo legions: Mayo_crest

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.

On Saturday, Duggan penned a hopeful suggestion in The Irish Times that perhaps this would be the year Mayo fans could free themselves from the ghosts of the past:

They just want to win the bloody game of football. They are tired of the sepia image of gallant Mayo, handsome losers. Let them win a notoriously poor game by a single point!

Instead, that extra single point would go Dublin’s way, as Culpepper absorbed his new-found anguish in the final, exasperating moments Sunday:

My insides churned. My insides churned beyond belief for a game I’d never seen and a team I’d never supported, at this whole thrilling, grinding beast of a game that went by so fast. Added time. Four minutes. A point brought Mayo within two. A point brought Mayo within one, right at the brink. The goalkeeper kicked it away. Dublin began celebrating. It had cobbled together 18 points, Mayo 17. That’s 2-12, and 1-14.

And so it goes, the streak, but Mayo’s official club Twitter account remains undeterred this morning:

We will get there. #DreamBelieveAchieve #mayogaa

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