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My memories of McHale Park

Ramblin’ down that old boreen

As the ‘new’ McHale Park is officially opened, we reflect on the good old days there.

Willie McHugh

MY late dad bringing me to McHale Park to see ‘Larry’ play for Mayo was the life defining day. Larry O’Dea was a neighbour from the next village back. He was also my primary school teacher. Through the verses of ‘Pinch and Caoch O’Leary’ and reading the newspapers, Larry the teacher commanded our attention.
But Larry the footballer could hypnotise as he did when scoring at will during my first Shrule Seven-a-Side Tournament. When Kilmaine and Caherlistrane were going hell for leather in the dusk of a July evening, it was Larry the footballer who weaved his magic to score one of his many spectacular goals.
I haven’t a smidgen of an idea how Larry played that day in McHale Park. How could I? The occasion proved all too much for a garsoon to take in. But it turned out a presage of what summer Sunday’s would be forever more.
Walking down McHale Road lights a candle of the soul. All human life stirs in one great melting pot. They’re all there. The wheelers and the dealers, the dreamers and believers, and the legends of the road.
From days of Sunday suits, melting tar, black Anglias, rasher sandwiches, Sweet Afton, apples, oranges and ripe bananas and gabardine overcoats, the Archbishop and the awful throw-in to the emerging of corporate Ireland.
From fog horns, mobile phones (wondering ‘where are ya’ now?‘), tweeting and twittering, and austerity to bodhran ‘baters and panini ‘aters, the great pot of life still simmers. 
Passing the phone boxes at the top of McHale Road, you happen upon John ‘Scallions’ Mannion from Tuam standing under more flags than the doorman at the United Nation’s building. And his repetitive echo a reminder for patrons to get their hats, flags and headbands.
The unfolding street festooned in bunting and the hum of anticipation in the huge throngs making their way to the inner sanctum. Residents at their front door trading friendly banter with passers-by. Those people are a permanent backdrop to a great Mayo occasion.
They’re ever the supporting cast on the wing of a famous football stage where the big box-office names  like Purcell and Stockwell, Morley and Pender, the Keenans, the Dunnes, the immortal Dermot Earley, Connelly and Cahill, Fallon and Joyce are only the passing troupe.
The decent people who occupy McHale Road epitomise everything a genuine welcome, good sportsmanship and the camaraderie of a friendly neighbourhood entails. We are merely trespassers on their dominion.
And somewhere in the echoes of the mind you’ll hear the jingle of coppers dropping into Mick Melodeon’s old shoebox as his ghostly spirit belts out ‘Moonlight in Mayo’ or ‘Galway Bay’ from his well-worn music box.
Inside the ground the ice-cream hawkers pedalling the last of the ‘lukey lukeys’. And the free spoon.
We were ideally positioned one scorching day to take full advantage when an over-zealous entrepreneur orchestrated his own great downfall. Here’s the jist of it.
The late Jack Craddock of Shrule gave him a decent twist just before the throw-in of a senior final between Mayo and Roscommon. He sealed the deal with the reasonable request to suspend further trading until the interval.
Foolishly and impudently the pedlar ignored Jack’s simple ask, thus placing himself on the slippery slope of a steep learning curve. Jack now opted for action rather than words, upending the seller and scattering his wares. “Ye may as well ‘ate them up lads ‘cos he’ll hardly be back,” said Jack and him randomly distributing the melting loot amongst us.

GREAT days in this field will forever crank the millwheel of the mind. Pancake Ward and Paddy Bluett leading Galway and Mayo in the pre-match parade. An apache-like Matt Dowd and his big bass drum setting step and tempo for the Balla Pipe Band.
It was here we looked in awe at the maroon-clad men from Galway who were sporting icons of the ‘60’s, winning three All-Irelands in a row. The late John ‘Tull’ Dunne remarked many years later that Mayo in Castlebar was always the biggest obstacle on those journeys.
In men like Ray Prendergast, Tom Fitzgerald, Des Griffith, Willie McGee and others we had our own red and green draped boyhood heroes too. And none more so than the mighty Joe Corcoran from Ardnaree. With his tight crew cut, his dazzling meandering runs and accurate free-taking he made dreamers dream.
His renowned deeds of yesteryear recently merited a deserved lyrical acknowledgment from the lilting pen of Michael Commins. Join in in the chorus.  
“Here’s to the man that fame never changed, to the legend that brought us such joy; Deep in our hearts we still cherish his name, ‘Jinkin Joe from the banks of the Moy”.
Time passed but the lure of a field at the end of McHale Road never waned.
Memories trigger of a day Mayo and Sligo played beyond the edge and Father Leo Morohan seizing the public address microphone at half-time to lambast both teams for what they portrayed as Gaelic football. His admonishment rebounded on deafened ears. 
Other big milestones like 1971 when David Pugh and Gerry Fagan of Sligo Rovers fame availed of the abolition of Rule 26 to assist their native county against Galway. It was replayed in a constant downpour and even the scoring feats of Mickey Kearns weren’t enough to seize the day for the Yeats men.
Willie Nally raking the sky in ’81; November’86 and Joe Lindsay’s scoring, possibly, the greatest goal McHale Park ever saw in a league game against Down; Willie Joe fetching beyond the ozone layer; Joe McGrath’s scoring spree against Roscommon in 1979; the Macnas day; the mighty TJ Kilgallon; McHale sauntering around but still creating havoc, and Kenny Mortimer’s corner-back display during the dreamy days and nights of 1996.
Other things too. Enon Gavin breaking the crossbar, Shane Curran’s daft mistimed penalty or Derek Duggan’s equalising free in ’91. It lengthens a yard with every telling.
On the yarn’s last overhead swing, he reputedly kicked it from somewhere beyond The Windy Gap. And will we ever again hear a stadium breathe a collective sigh of amazement as it did whenever the gifted Ciaran McDonald put ball in flight.
Such happenings we’ll take to the grave.
The boy allegedly became a man, but the jury’s still out on that one. At least life spared me enough to share with the next generations of football enthusiasts around here the joy of walking down that famed roadway. And on every saunter my mind habitually recalls a summer Sunday long ago when a wonderful dad brought his kid to see Larry play for Mayo.
His spirit still accompanies me. It always will.
First impressions last forever and a day. 

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