Mayo GAA & mythology in the Irish imagination

Sean Flanagan holds the Sam Maguire cup after Mayo win the 1951 All-Ireland final

Irish people love a good ghost story.

From the púca to the banshee, fairy forts to changelings, all things unsettling have occupied a special place in the Irish psyche going back centuries. Throughout pre-Christianity times, Irish folklore told of fairies, druids, and giants, and the threat of black magic, curses and prophecies of death permeate the mythology of the time.

Many stories that originated in Celtic mythology have endured through generations and the Irish oral tradition certainly plays a part in the lingering presence of ghost stories, as does the parochial nature of Ireland. Irish people are natural storytellers, and tales big and small travel fast in tight-knit communities.

The Banshee

With the arrival of Christianity, the iron fist of British imperialism, and the following tyranny of the Catholic Church, scary stories and odd myths continued to hold great power as vehicles through which Irish people could make sense of dark and difficult times, both past and present.

For example, the banshee and the death knell related to this entity’s crying was intrinsically tied to the ritual of keening in bygone eras — an act of lamenting the dead in an outward process of wailing. This loud expression of grief could be viewed as an omen of death in a society that was constantly under the threat of death from disease and hunger.

In times of national peril, ghosts would often emerge strongly in Irish life. In 1879, during a period of famine, emigration and eviction, people claimed to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary at Knock, Co. Mayo. Just over one hundred years later, more stories of apparitions and moving statues began to come about in the 1980s, coinciding with another spate of mass emigration, continuing violence in the six occupied counties of the north, and the beginnings of a national discourse around women’s sexuality and the institution of marriage. The anxieties of a society drifting evermore towards secularism manifested themselves in the form of these peculiar stories one might hear by a fireside.

Superstition and ritual have often lived side-by-side scientific approaches and other features of modern life too. It would not have been unheard of for ‘cures’ or superstitious remedies to be administered alongside penicillin, for example, or for busy roads to be built fairy forts rather than them so as not to invite any misfortune. Even the continuing prominent role of wakes and funerals in Irish culture speaks to a shared sense of ritual around death.

However, by and large, the prevalence of actual scary stories - black magic, mischevious ghosts, fairies — has largely begun to fade from Irish life over the last generation or so. The greatly diminished power of the Catholic Church, the influx of external cultural influence from other countries, particularly the U.S, and the general rapid economic and social growth over the last twenty five years has left many of Ireland’s old ways in the rear view mirror.

However, one avenue of Irish culture that still holds some reverence for the Irish fondness for a dark tale is the GAA. Having played a pivotal role in the Gaelic revival and Irish identity in general down through the years, myth-making often continues to be tied up in sporting occasions and sporting figures.

Gaelic games, as national and amateur sports, have played a leading role in the cultural and political life of Ireland. Hurling, Gaelic football, and camogie have served both as mere entertainment for the Irish public down through the years, and as an expression of cultural identity. They have also stood as a political statement in times of colonialism and revolution. The game of hurling appears frequently in the mythology of the country, most notably with the figure of Cú Chulainn using a hurl and sliotar to kill a wolfhound, and it holds a special place in the psyche of the nation as a game with an unbroken lineage to an ancient culture.

Cú Chulainn after he has slain the hound with a hurl and sliotar

The formation of the Gaelic Athletic Association in the 1880s, moved the game to the forefront of Irish nationalist myth-making and revolutionary messaging.

Many GAA members would take up arms in the fight for Irish independence, and in the early 20th century, Gaelic games were often targeted by police. Pitches became sites of resistance to British rule in Ireland. British forces often viewed the games, their participants and their spectators as covert rebels. The guerrilla nature of the War of Independence in Ireland spooked them and the fear that the seemingly harmless civilian who played Gaelic football on a Sunday was also secretly an armed revolutionary was very real and shaped the attitude of groups like the Black and Tans.

The creeping feeling among British forces that things were not as they seemed in the Irish countryside was beginning to take hold by the end of the 1910s and added another layer to the narrative developing around the games and their organisation. A staunchly anti-imperialist type of mythology began to form — one that found its roots in the very real ways in which Irish culture had been suppressed since the arrival of British colonialism centuries before, and evolved as the spirit of insurgency began to take hold in farmhouses, clubs, and markets across the country. The games became viewed as a tangible expression of Irish defiance in the face of imperialism, both to British forces and to Irish people themselves.

Michael Foley describes in his book, ,how the GAA and its members used the games to defy the rule of law imposed by British forces:

This relationship between sport and rebellion eventually came to its zenith with Bloody Sunday in 1920, when British forces opened fire on a crowd attending a Gaelic football match between Dublin and Tipperary. Fourteen civilians were killed, including Tipperary player, Michael Hogan. The massacre would be etched into the memory of the GAA and Irish society itself, and would cement the organisation and its games as something bigger than just sport. They were now representations of the struggle for independence.

Tipperary footballers gather at the spot where Michael Hogan was shot, 1920

And so, as the GAA became a symbol of revolution and Irish identity itself, a close relationship between the organisation and the Catholic Church also developed. Members of the clergy already held an authoritarian influence over the lives of many, and began to exert this influence further through the GAA. Bishops would throw in the ball at the beginning of big games and players would kneel before them to kiss their ring beforehand. Priests were often deeply involved with local GAA clubs, becoming chairmen, driving appeals for funding and giving out details of matches from the pulpit. As the clergy were already prominent and powerful members of society, they naturally became intertwined with the games, and mythologies around teams and players began to take the shape, sometimes in the form of Catholic-based fears. Peculiar superstition and rumours of curses began to follow teams around. These myths are perhaps best exemplified in the stories of the Clare hurlers, the Galway hurlers and the Mayo footballers.

After the Clare hurlers reached the pinnacle of their sport in 1914, they went on to experience an eight decade drought. Their frustrations were pinned on the strange figure of Biddy Early. A local healer who was rumoured to have clairvoyant powers, Biddy was criticised by the Catholic Church and was defiant of landlords and local authorities who tried to prevent people from availing of her insight. Shrouded in lore, Biddy was alleged to have placed a curse on the Clare hurlers that would prevent them from winning another All-Ireland. However, Biddy died ten years before the foundation of the GAA and forty years before Clare won the All-Ireland, so the timeline of this supposed curse does not add up (Biddy was a woman ahead of her time and worth reading about regardless). Nevertheless, the story grew legs over the years, and her connection to the Clare hurlers reared its head once again in 1995 — the Clare manager, a man from the same parish as Biddy Early, raised the cup and became a key figure in breaking the eighty year curse.

There was, however, an alternative version of this rumour that swirled around the Clare hurlers. A priest who said mass for the team on the morning of their 1914 victory was said to have cursed the team as they left the mass early to play the match, hence their decades-long drought. This version of events would come to be replicated in the lore of other counties thereafter.

Clare hurlers, 1914

In 1923, the Galway hurlers experienced their first All Ireland championship win, after which they suffered a series of losses. This was attributed to a curse placed on them by a local priest who caught mass-goers sneaking out of the church early. He condemned the Galway team to a drought, which was only eased in 1980 when they finally won again.

When the Galway captain, Joe Connolly, lifted the cup, he delivered a speech entirely in Irish which spoke to the emigrant experience that had affected so many Irish families and communities, particularly in the west of the country, and his teammate Joe McDonagh led the crowd in a rendition of ‘The West’s Awake’, a nationalist anthem — cementing, once again, the relationship between sport and nationalist mythology.

There is a version of these stories that endures to the present day and perhaps carries even more mystique than those that preceded it. That is the story of the curse on the Mayo footballers. Like the Clare and Galway hurlers before them, the Mayo footballers were rumoured to have been cursed by a priest. The story goes that after winning the 1951 All-Ireland, the team refused to slow down for a funeral as they travelled back to Mayo with the cup, and the priest condemned them to a drought that would last as long as any member of that 1951 team remained alive. Mayo have not won an All-Ireland since, and have in fact lost numerous thrilling finals in the intervening years.

Mayo footballers, 1951

So why did these myths crop up around these teams and what significance do they carry?

The obvious answer is that the pain of defeat demands an easy explanation. The margins between winning and losing are fine, and sometimes the reasons for losing are manifold. It can be tempting to explain away defeat as something that was always out of our control.

However, there is nothing to suggest that people earnestly believe in these myths and curses, but that rather they are an extension of the Irish propensity towards ghost stories during times of hardship, and indicative of a long-standing storytelling tradition.

In 1914, the time of Clare’s first All-Ireland win, Ireland was on the brink of revolution that would eventually culminate in the independence of 26 counties and a bitter civil war. By the time Galway won their first All-Ireland in 1923, that civil war had just reached its conclusion, with much blood spilled and families torn asunder by political differences. In the early 1950s, when Mayo won their last All-Ireland, the Free State had been established and within it a theocracy in all but name had been formed. As the Catholic Church was deeply entwined with the state, controlled institutions and dictated the moral and social mores of society, it was already well down a dark path of committing unforgivable crimes against vulnerable women and children across the country.

The Mayo curse, like the Clare curse and the Galway curse, finds its roots in the intersection between Ireland’s sporting life and its religious life; between its historical national identity and its evolving landscape. The fear instilled in the general population by members of the clergy in the 19th and 20th century was very real. People who lived in poverty and were poorly educated were browbeaten by the church, and Christian Brothers and nuns often became agents of a very dark power that turned ordinary people’s lives into living nightmares. It is only natural then that these same religious figures would crop up in local lore as antagonistic characters.

And so, stories of curses became a useful outlet for festering anxiety about the past, present and future as the country rumbled through revolution and bitter division, and tried to process the ongoing trauma inflicted on regular people by the hand in glove powers of church and state.

Timmy Ryan of Limerick kisses the bishop’s ring ahead of the 1934 All Ireland final

However, in the last decade, the Mayo story has taken on a life of its own as their team come back time and again from final losses to try and win the big one. They have repeatedly come up against a Dublin team that has been called the greatest Gaelic football team of all time, and have brought them to the brink on several occasions, only losing out on the finest of margins. Many of their games against Dublin have been referred to as some of the best games in GAA history, games Mayo would have won if not for the metropolitans.

The near-misses and the steely resilience of the current Mayo team feed into the intrigue around them. Their chaotic, heart-on-the-sleeve style of play is high-risk, and stands in contrast to the methodical and mechanical approach of their Dublin counterparts, who seem to operate within a carefully constructed system.

However, perhaps most crucially, it is a story of an underdog trying to halt a juggernaut. Dublin GAA have been awash with money since an injection of funds into their set-up during the Celtic Tiger years of the 00s and through subsequent lucrative sponsorship deals. The financial boost has awakened a sleeping giant in the capital city, providing clubs, schools and underage teams with significant resources to cultivate talent from an early age, and harnessing their already-existing population advantage into a conveyor belt that shows no sign of slowing down.

The financial issue has created a considerable gap between themselves and their opposition over the last decade, with differences in fitness levels and squad depth noticeable in every game they play. Their dominance became indisputable when they became the very first team in the history of the GAA to win five All-Ireland titles in a row (and have since won their sixth just last Christmas).

While other teams in the country have had to make do with their ‘once in a generation’ teams genuinely coming along once in a generation, Dublin have had more than one ‘once in a generation’ team in just the last decade. They routinely dispatch opposing teams with minimal fuss, and frequently win games by double digits. Many teams are beaten before they even take to the field to play Dublin, such is their stranglehold on the game.

One of the All Ireland winning Dublin teams this decade

The only team that hasn’t cowered at the sight of the blue jersey over the last decade is Mayo. They do not have the same level of funds or resources that are available to the Dublin team. There is no conveyor belt of talent churning out ready-made replacements for retired players in Mayo. While Dublin have noteworthy individual talents in every position on their team, Mayo have perhaps only a handful of comparable individuals. And yet, they have repeatedly pushed Dublin to the limits since 2011, often coming within a whisker of defeating a team that has been referred to as unbeatable.

Their story captures the imagination in a way that seems to rankle some who think of the Mayo team as psychologically weak and view the fascination with them as a celebration of losing. But that simplistic view does not engage with the contextual and cultural issues that make the story interesting in the first place.

Mayo is a county that was hit hard by recession and emigration. Like many counties in rural Ireland, it experienced minimal economic recovery since the death of the Celtic Tiger, and many who are born and raised there are forced to leave the county to find work or to attend college.

Dublin’s Jonny Cooper grips the jersey of Mayo’s Andy Moran

While the origins of the story of the Mayo curse reflect the anxieties of an Ireland that was under the thumb of the Catholic Church, the way in which that story has evolved in the last decade reflects the friction between an Ireland that prospered and partied as the Celtic Tiger roared into life, and those who languished after it inevitably perished with a whimper.

Watching a wealthy Dublin slowly strangle the life out of rural, under-funded and under-resourced counties year after year is in its own way a sporting representation of how unfettered capitalism has left so many behind. The constant refrain of “it’s up to others to catch up” from Dublin loyalists and apologists alike only echoes the outlook of capitalists who believe that everyone gets what they deserve, and deep down do not wish to see the fall of a system that benefits them.

The fascination with Mayo’s repeated attempts to overturn the Dublin machine speaks to the anxiety of a society that wants to believe that capitalism can be somehow reined in or even dismantled, and on a deep level wishes to see it happen. Watching some version of that played out in our sporting stadiums and on our screens provides catharsis.

So in many ways, the Mayo story that found its roots in religious and cursed origins has shaken off those shackles, and instead has become a secular legend for a 21st century Ireland trying to come to terms with its capitalistic dark heart.

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