READING THE SIGNS Mayo fans hold up a banner during the pre-match parade before the All-Ireland SFC Final between Mayo and Tyrone at Croke Park back in September. Pic: Sportsfile
2021 will be remembered for Mayo losing another All-Ireland Final
IT is impossible to contemplate a review of the year 2021 — in the context of anything —
without considering colourful language. This has been a year which promised little by way of joy, and delivered less, save for one glorious rain soaked evening in August.
It seems apposite to mention this disclaimer at the top so as to avoid surprise or offence later. Anyway, there’s always the editor to blame. No harm for them, I say.
Editors, you see, are curious beings. Theirs is a world filled with crocodiles, the most important being those closest to the canoe they are perched in, frantically sending ravens to contributors - both regular and highly irregular, all cursed with fragile egos and even more fragile bank balances, and encourage them to get their shit in on time, regardless of the quality. To that end, they have my sympathy.
Putting together a newspaper sounds about as much fun working on a hospital ward during a pandemic. Whatever pity I have, however, gets exhausted each December, and this December in particular; “All well? We must meet up for that long overdue coffee? C’mere…will you drop us an end-of-year review? Ta.”
Honestly, it’s like saying to one of the ‘Birmingham Six’ the day they got released, “You might drop us a few words on what you’ve been up to the last sixteen years when you get the chance? By Thursday, ta….”
Yup, that’s editors for you. Cold as eskimos balls. And so it comes to this. An end of year review for a year that does not deserve to be reviewed. An anti-review if you will.
ALL happy families are alike, Tolstoy told us, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The same goes for joy and it’s counterpoint; crippling disappointment.
Like happy families, joy is straightforward and easy to understand. Pure and beautiful, if a little predictable. Disappointment, however, can be visceral, violent, and malleable.
It is a fiendish shapeshifter that wears many sinister faces. Disappointment is the only child of a single mother, that old madam called Hope. We trust Hope. We fall for her every summer, surrendering objectivity and rational thought at the first flash of her ankle.
But, each inevitable descent into her comforting bosom is a further deviation from cold reality. We fall hard for Hope, until she transforms into Medusa. One look into her cold dead eyes and we are turned to stone.
The seduction is always epic. The fall is always some new kind of cruel. We should know.
It seems to happen a different way every year. It’s never boring, and this year was no exception. At this point, I think we’d all take boring. Just for a summer.
Instead we’ve had more drama than a Boris Johnson Christmas party.
In Mayo, we have sat shiva since Tyrone’s Pádraig Hampsey hoisted Sam Maguire above his head on that early September evening, and nothing about that shiva has been normal, nothing about the shiva has been like it was before.
Take your pick of any of our eleven All-Ireland final losses of the last 32 years, and you’ll find a near-dozen iterations of disappointment. 1989 was painful pride. 1996 brought crippling heartbreak. ‘97, ‘04 and ‘06 an amalgam of all different shades of torment.
2012 was bitter regret at a missed opportunity, ‘13 frustration at the naivety of performance on and off the field. 2016 & 2017 were studies in defiant denial. 2020 a meditation on acceptance. Which brings us to the emotional Hindenberg of a year that became 2021.
Where to begin? Better still, how quickly will it bloody end?
There was anger this year, which was novel and disconcerting. The anger was not at a ref’ or a gloating opponent, but at ourselves. We were angry because, once we bet Dublin, we traded in Hope for a younger model called Expectation.
And boy, did Hope make us pay for that betrayal.
From the moment we realised it would be Tyrone we would be facing, and not our old foe Kerry, there was a seismic shift in our collective mindset that this would indeed be our year. That, being favourites for a final, it was less of a burden and more a recognition of our status. We had gone from being the nation’s darling, always just falling gallantly short, to dragon slayers in one fell reach of Diarmuid O’Connors boot.
The Wicked Witch of the East was dead. You're welcome, Ireland.
Few anticipated that Dublin defeat. It would be our apex. The totem of that apex was that outstretched leg of Diarmuid O’Connor, a man, who like the county and its people, had spent the last season looking for form. And boy do we love a totem in Mayo.
Almost as much as I love a metaphor. And with that desperate but valiant act of defiance, we forgave ourselves a plethora of crimes and misadventures.
That victory was a tonic for our tortured souls, and we drank deep that night and refused to be silent. We drank to remember who we were, and we drank to forget the same thing.
We woke up the following morning to again realise the world loved us for who we were, and in the case of Dublin, who we were not. For a day or two we even told ourselves we didn’t care about the final. How utterly daft. That was the start of it.
Hope giving way to Expectation.
EARLIER in the summer, long before we knew where any of this was headed, I wrote a piece facetiously lamenting the ease with which Galway won their All-Ireland in 1998.
This was a defining moment of my youth, as it signalled the end of innocence.
Sure, I had already lived through three All-Ireland losses by then, so I knew something of sorrow, but the Galway victory was more of a shiv to the kidneys.
There was the pain of losing, and then there was the pain of watching your enemy win.
The fiendish shapeshifter with many faces.
In the course of the undoubtedly forgettable piece, I suggested Galway’s win needed an asterisk to acknowledge they ONLY beat Kildare in a final.
You never know who reads what, however. Moments after the final whistle of this All-Ireland past, my worst fears realised and the crippling disappointment settling in, I received the first of what I assumed would be commiseratory messages .
Instead, it was from a friend, himself a member of that Galway team which won not one, but two All-Irelands, lest I ever forget. The message was the shortest I have ever received. It contained no words. No letters either, Just a single, solitary asterisk. *.
Cahapeau sir. There were no arguments.
SALLY Rooney from Castlebar is one of the world’s best-selling authors, yet Paddy Durcan will always be more famous around the town.
Colin Barrett from Knockmore had a short story published in the New Yorker last month. I’d argue that’s harder done than winning an All-Ireland, but it’s Kevin McLoughlin’s face that adorns the gable ends of barns in Calladashin.
The funny thing is, though their respective talents deserve far more credit than they’ll ever receive in their towns and parishes, I dare say they somehow get it. In Mayo, we fall in love fast and hard and we get burned. Then we fall in love again.
The first thing I ever wrote about Mayo football — about anything — I disingenuously debated whether winning an All-Ireland was actually worth it.
Like, would it change us?
I used the great city Boston as an example of a city and a team that lost its way, it’s soul even, in the excess of success, from the Red Sox breaking their curse in 2004, through the Brady/Belichik years with the Patriots, to the Sox completing a third World Series in 2018.
It was bullshit, and I knew it. I was trying to convince myself that there was some honour in constantly coming up short. And as Christmas arrives like an executioner’s song, I wonder still. What did we learn from this battered bastard of a year?
What would winning do? Our kids will still get sick. Our parents will still get old. Celtic crosses stop none of these things. They don’t slow them down. They don’t put groceries in the fridge or pay the bills. What does our collective journey justify?
The answer has never been less binary. The waters were never so muddied.
What’s the point, you’d almost wonder? I think it’s fair to say that winning may not change our lives, but it may enhance them, just for a winter. A week. A day. An evening. .
Winters are long enough. Would ya not give us even that. Something? Nothing ?
It’s as if we learn nothing from our burnings, it should be that it’s worth going again.
Just for that.