Mayo and Donegal tribes united by blood
By John Harrington
Mayo and Donegal have always had a special sort of connection.
There’s long been a tradition of migration between the two counties and a cross pollination of footballers and football ideas.
Mayo natives Paddy Prendergast and John Forde played Championship football with Donegal in the 1940s before winning All-Ireland titles in 1950 and ’51 with Mayo.
Padraig Brogan played for Donegal in 1991 before he returned home to Mayo and, by a quirk of fate, then played for his native county against Donegal in the 1992 All-Ireland semi-final.
Martin Carney moved the other way, playing for his native Donegal for nine years and winning two Ulster titles before his job as a teacher brought him to Mayo and he eventually declared for his native county.
He still lives in Castlebar and when he drives through the town he sees plenty of evidence that the Carney household isn’t the only one that will have split loyalties ahead of Saturday’s crunch All-Ireland SFC Quarter-Final in MacHale Park.
“There's huge inter-connections between Mayo and Donegal,” Carney told GAA.ie.
“You'd be amazed the amount of Donegal and Mayo flags you'd see together in front gardens outside houses in Castlebar. One of the spouses would be from Mayo and the other from Donegal.
“There has always been that link. When Mayo and Donegal people emigrated, a lot of time they would have both emigrated to the same parts of Scotland.
“There's always been that interaction between the two counties going way away back in time. It's a strong link and next Saturday this place will be hopping.
“It might be hopping for the wrong reasons in some respects, but you'll find too that there will be a huge natural camaraderie between both sets of supporters even if it doesn't quite extend to what's happening on the field for the 70 minutes.
“There's definitely a healthy respect among both sets of supporters for one another.”
Carney’s father had played for Donegal in the late 1940s even though he was from Mayo, and his uncle Jackie won an All-Ireland with Mayo in 1936 and trained the 1950 and ’51 All-Ireland winning teams.
Carney had a strong blood connection with his adopted county, but that still didn’t make his decision to transfer his allegiance from Donegal any easier.
“It was anything but,” said Carney. “I loved playing football in Donegal and I loved Donegal. My game had gone to pieces, I found the travelling up and down from Mayo very frustrating.
“I felt I was getting nowhere and contributing nothing. So I started playing club down here in Mayo. I kind of got a little bit of form back and then took up playing county here and I enjoyed it.
“I probably got a new lease of life in the sense that I started playing most of my football in defence.”
He went on to play for Mayo for 11 seasons, winning four Connacht Championships, so by any reckoning his decision to declare for Mayo was well-rewarded.
The flip side of that coin is that back home in his native Donegal they were left wondering what might have been if his considerable energies were still available to them during that time.
“There's no dout about that,” said Carney. “There's no doubt about and I understand that perfectly.
“But I made a decision at the time based on where I had permanent employment and based on where I had settled with my wife. Basically I stayed here and I've been here ever since.”
And very happy he is to be an adopted Mayo man too. He has put down deep roots there, which is why he found the 2012 All-Ireland Final a difficult experience when his native county went head to head with his adopted one.
“I did co-commentary for the 2012 All-Ireland Final with RTE and I found that tough. A lot of my neighbours here in Castlebar were playing with Mayo and I would have known a lot of the Donegal people.
“Not so much the actual players, but the people they came from. For example, I would have known Jim McGuinness' two brothers, God rest their souls, they're buried next to my grandparents in Glenties.
“It might sound ridiculous, but those small little things establish connections, so to speak. I found the whole thing to be difficult.”
He’s not the only person in Croke Park that day who would have experienced swirling emotions.
The three Mayo men with sons playing for Donegal – Mick Murphy, father of Michael, John Durcan, father of Paul, and Terry O’Reilly father of Martin – were either in a no-lose or no-win situation depending on your viewpoint.
All three men were part of the long-established tradition of Mayo men working in Donegal as Gardai and settling there.
Nowadays, Donegal and Mayo people are most likely to come into contact in third-level education institutions.
It’s fair bet that the occupants of those houses in Castlebar and beyond with Mayo and Donegal flags in the front gardens first met in College.
Sligo IT, in particular, is not just responsible for many Mayo and Donegal unions, but has also been a nexus point for the respective footballing traditions of both counties.
They’ve been consistently strong performers in the Sigerson Cup, and in any given year their team-sheet is heavily speckled with both Donegal and Mayo men.
The Sigerson Cup winning teams of 2002, 2004, and 2005 featured star players from both counties like Andy Moran, Aidan Higgins, Pat Kelly, Austin O’Malley, Michael Moyles, Alan Costello, Keith Higgins (all Mayo), Karl Lacey, Kevin Cassidy, Christy Toye, Paul Durcan, Eamon McGee, Neil McGee, and Brendan Boyle (all Donegal)
“I was only talking to someone the other day about the impact of Sligo IT,” said Carney.
“I saw Eoghan Bán Gallagher a couple of years ago play an FBD League for Sligo IT and it was the first time I'd seen him play.
“I had never heard of this boy, but I'd always have a keen interest in anyone from Donegal who was playing for a College team.
“I couldn't get over the athleticism and natural football talent this fella has. There would have been Mayo lads playing for that particular Sligo IT team too.
“There is that natural interaction between the two groups of people through their time in College in Sligo IT.
“They've been drawn together closer by Sligo IT and also other institutions.”
There will be many family ties and friendships in the stands of MacHale Park on Saturday evening but recent history has taught us that when a ball is thrown in between Mayo and Donegal all bonhomie goes out the window.
The fact that the stakes are so high on Saturday – a win secures an All-Ireland semi-final berth, defeat means Championship exit – should hone the edge between the teams all the more.
On recent form Donegal look the more likely winners, but only a fool would write off a Mayo team with a long record of confounding their doubters.
“That's it in a nutshell,” said Carney. “If you take the barometer of the Donegal-Kerry game as Donegal's footballing health, then Donegal are deservedly hot favourites for this.
“But Mayo have had this sort of stubborness over the years in recent times to rise to a challenge when it's put to them.
“But, at the same time, Mayo will have to find an extra bit of form and get displays right throughout the field that haven't happened for them up until now.
“If that improvement in form doesn't come then Donegal will win it.”
Carney will be commentating on the game for local radio which will help to detach him emotionally from the contest.
But if the game is in the melting pot in the final few minutes which team will be tugging his heart-strings more? His native county or his adopted one?
“I can't lose, but I can't win either really,” he says.
“I suppose my children will always tell you that when Donegal are playing there's only one team that's being supported, and that's Donegal.
“It's where I was born and reared and it's the place that I basically love.”