CROKE PARK EXPRESS The train tickets Paddy Collins and his new wife Margaret Canavan used to get to Croke Park to watch Mayo's last All-Ireland win in 1951.
Colmán Ó Raghallaigh
It’s September 1951 and my uncle Paddy Collins and his new wife, Margaret Canavan are home from England on their honeymoon, Paddy a native of Glenmask, Tourmakeady and Margaret from Brocagh, Co Tyrone.
They’re spending part of their honeymoon with my mother in Claremorris and their honeymoon offers an opportunity to be at a historic game.
Paddy had also attended the All-Ireland Final of the previous year and so, on the morning of September 23, 1951, he and Margaret duly boarded the GAA excursion special from Claremorris to Westland Row and were in Croke Park to see Seán Flanagan, the Mayo captain, raise the Sam Maguire as Mayo won their 2 in-a-row.
Little did they think that in 2021, that would remain Mayo’s last All-Ireland win and that in this year’s final it would be Margaret’s native Tyrone standing in the way.
Among my most treasured possessions is a pair of train tickets from that final of 1951.
In 2002, following my uncle’s death, my Aunt Margaret gave me one of those precious tickets as a present and following Mayo’s disastrous defeat to Kerry in 2006, my cousin Edwina sent me the other, to ‘cheer you up’ as she put it.
Prior to that 2006 final my Aunt, still a loyal Tyrone follower to this day, had written me a beautiful letter informing me that she and my uncle would have been married 55 years on that September 8 and reminding me that, ‘We were there on that glorious day. It’s time for a repeat’.
And so it is.
For years we have travelled to support our team, borne along on waves of optimism, sometimes bordering on self-delusion but often too in fear and trepidation. The sad fact of the matter is that despite some glorious victories in quarter-finals and semi-finals we have not managed to attain the summit of All-Ireland glory since 1951.
The litany of disappointments is one that would break the spirit of many a rational person and yet there remains the extraordinary sense that no matter how often we are defeated, no matter how often we travel down from Dublin on that well-worn trail of tears, the Mayo supporter will always rise again at the first sign of progress by the Green and Red. Indeed, such is the depth of this phenomenon that it has even inspired a book, Keith Duggan’s beautifully written but ultimately heart-breaking ‘House of Pain’.
As we now look forward to another All-Ireland final appearance I am prompted to think of days long ago when Galway were at the height of their pomp in the mid-1960s and yet could barely master their neighbours here in Connacht.
Mayo, it was widely believed, were the ‘second-best team in Ireland’. As the Galway cars streamed through Claremorris, en route to Castlebar, we vehemently waved our green and red flags and shouted, ‘Up Mayo wherever you go, down Galway they’re a holy show!’ Sadly however, the results invariably told a different story. As the games ebbed and flowed on the crackling radio fervent prayers offered up on our knees in the sitting room seemed to fall on deaf ears. Nor was the blessed candle lit by my mother in the back kitchen any more effective.
In such memories are the origins of today’s fatalistic attitudes to be found. Twelve times in the modern era (including replays) we have contested the All-Ireland final only to come up short at the final hurdle. Yet the pride in the green and red endures and, as Teddy Kennedy once famously said, ‘the dream will never die’.
Once again as we enter the final days before the great occasion we feel the pride surging through the whole county, the highways and byways bedecked in green and red, the hush of expectation and the familiar knot in the stomach.
This time, le cúnamh Dé, the shackles will be thrown off and the memories of the bad old days will be banished forever. In truth, no one can adequately put into words what it would mean to win… just once.