OVER five years ago, a Kiltimagh businesswoman was awakened to the boundless therapeutic qualities radiating from the success of the Mayo senior football team.
While recovering from a serious illness, Marita Shannon was attracted to the rising graph of the team’s performances. She loved their heart and the wild excitement they brought to their football. In no time at all she was hooked. Now Mayo has become her passion and she a ‘raving lunatic’ supporter.
When the wings were down and the future looked bleak it was to those footballers Marita turned for solace. She watched them inch their way to a place among the best in the country. From them she drew strength and with a similarly fighting spirit she overcame her illness.
Formerly Webb from Ballyhaunis, Marita returned from England some years earlier, married Pádraic Shannon, founded the Tigh na Leanaí Crèche in Kiltimagh and – along with rearing five children – became engrossed in developing the business.
Being a Webb, football was in her genes, but her interest in Mayo was secondary to motherhood and the crèche, now with a staff of 11. For 22 years it was her way of life.
All of that focus was to change on April fool’s night in 2012 when her husband Pádraic got out of the speed van he was operating in Islandeady to take a wandering calf off the road. Moments later he and the calf were sent hurtling into the air by a car that failed to stop. Two broken legs was the reward for his selflessness.
That same year Mayo reached the All-Ireland final. And Marita invited Andy Moran, who was fund-raising nearby for Mayo-Roscommon Hospice, to her crèche where she had the children decked out in the green and red.
For the cause and being an ‘absolute gent’ with the kids, she gave Andy a cheque for €100 which he was reluctant to take. She insisted because it was for a good cause. “I hope cancer will never knock on my door, I told him,” she recalls.
A week later in a routine check-up Marita was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her oldest girl Rebecca was doing her Leaving Cert; her youngest, Jack, was four years old. Her other three children – Chloe, Lara and Millie – were also at school and her husband was immobilised.
“Having one’s own business and being self-employed it was a tough time,” she says. “We were not entitled to anything and the business was beginning to struggle.”
She finished treatment the following February, and began to search for a new focus, something to lighten the stress. The Mayo team was her refuge. She would follow them, support them, dream with them.
Together with some of her children, she travelled to their first league match of the season in MacHale Park. “Hat on me, no hair, and freezing, I got the bug. Since then Mayo have become my inspiration. They have put my life into perspective, they have shown me how to live again.”
Thus the high roads and by-roads were traversed, she and her four youngest children through all league and championship matches.
“I have made fantastic memories with my children. I want them to be able to say in years to come there’re still following Mayo. And I will be pushing my nine-year-old to play for the county.”
She dismisses the critics: “Let them walk in the players’ shoes, give up their time as they do. These lads do not go out to lose. Of all the teams in the championship Mayo have played the most games this season. They come back fighting every time. But you’ll always have the begrudgers.
“The players are all gentlemen, everyone of them.” In Ballyhaunis she baby-sat for Keith Higgins. “Andy Moran I love to bits because he was my first introduction to it.”
She says she is not a very religious person. But she prays for the team nonetheless and has gone to Knock to intercede for them. “They deserve an All-Ireland, and if they don’t do it, and I hope to Christ they do, they are winners in our eyes. They are fantastic lads.”
She tries to steer away from the media with all its negativity.
“Negativity gets inside your head. It is like the curse. I really think that people have been going on about it so long it has got inside the heads of the lads, that they really think there is a curse. There is no bloody curse.”
Earlier this year Marita heard of an auction being organised by Breaffy GAA Club to raise funds. She put in the highest bid. Only later would she learn that the bid she made over the phone exceeded one tendered by her daughter a short time earlier.
As a result she got tickets for the Galway match, had lunch, met some of the players and the mother and sister of the O’Sheas. In Limerick they met more of the players and got their autographs on their jerseys. “Absolute Trojans, all of them.”
She is critical of the ticket situation and feels the GAA do not do it right.
“We bought tickets all the way. Always been myself, my son, two daughters and my sister, to all of the games. But when it comes to the All-Ireland it is the glory-seekers that get the tickets and the young kids that have followed them all the way down the line are denied.
“I could never bring them to an All-Ireland. I did not go to the drawn game [final] last year because I could not bring my kids.”
She watched the match in a pub. With ten minutes remaining she left and walked up and down the streets of Kiltimagh crying because she thought it was lost. When it was over the kids came screaming out of the pub that it was a draw and she had to go back to check for myself.
Because of his injuries her husband, Pádraic, cannot walk long distances and cannot go to the games, so he watches all of them at home on television.
“They were playing in Tralee and I watched it on television with Pádraic, but he had to go to the car to follow the game on radio. He could not listen to me screaming and roaring and shouting. I drive him insane. If I’m at home he goes to the car because I’m like a raving lunatic.”
Next step for this woman whose life Mayo footballers have transformed is the All-Ireland.
“We are going to win it and party like mad,” she said. “If they don’t win I might go out and buy these guys an All-Ireland medal each. They deserve it so much.”