Mayo supporters - A Passion Play
By John Harrington
To understand the psyche of a Mayo supporter, you surely have to be one yourself.
The rest of us observe from a distance, admire their passion for football and unwavering loyalty to their team, and empathise with the tragic and unrequited love-affair they've had with the Sam Maguire Cup in recent decades.
But we’ll never truly know what it feels like to be a Mayo supporter because none of us have been tested and tortured in the same unique way.
Most supporters are from counties that rarely if ever get to the business end of an All-Ireland Championship which is a different sort of cross to bear.
Some are from counties that have reveled in the glory of a rare All-Ireland title in the recent past, and some are from counties with a success-rate bordering on gluttony.
But no other county’s supporters know what it’s like to genuinely challenge for the Sam Maguire Cup on a consistent basis and just as consistently fall short, often by an agonising margin with a dollop of bad-luck thrown in for good measure.
For many Mayo supporters, that trial by fire has hardened within their souls a strange, stubborn, sort of resilience.
Take Michael Maye from Swinford for example. Known to many in the County as ‘Mayo Mick’, he’s a fanatical supporter of the county football team.
Mayo lost last year’s All-Ireland Final replay to Dublin on October 1st, yet by October 3rd Michael had somehow found the will to book a hotel room in Dublin for this Saturday’s Allianz League match between the two counties.
It’s actually hard to get your head around that sort of emotional fortitude and pure fanaticism, but for Michael Maye being a die-hard Mayo supporter is simply a state of being.
“There's not a day goes by that you don't talk football in Mayo,” he told GAA.ie.
“Football and the weather. The first thing is the football and then the weather, that type of thing.
“A few friends of mine who are Dublin born and bred have married Swinford girls and moved here and they just cannot get over it. They think we're mad in the head here because we never stop talking football.
“We're long-enduring Mayo fans, but the year we do eventually win Sam then people would like to say, 'Well I was at every game'.”
Maye is one of the founding members of the Mayo supporters group 'Mayo Club ’51’ along with Anne-Marie Flynn, Mark Togher, and Robert Bashford.
Its genesis came from a group discussion on the Mayo GAA blog website in the wake of the 2013 All-Ireland Final defeat to Dublin.
After the match, Mayo manager James Horan referenced the almost eerie silence that befell Mayo supporters in the ground in the final ten minutes of the game. It was as if they’d accepted the fate that their team was going to be beaten again.
Anne-Marie Flynn herself had been aware of it at the time and did her best to rouse those around her only to be told, ‘sit down, the game is over!’
Mayo were still very much in contention on the score-board and only lost the game by a point, but the expectation of the worst was hard-wired in most of their supporters.
That’s not Flynn’s style, though. A natural optimist, she’s the sort of person with a flair for punctuating a conversation with commas of laughter.
So she set about ‘rallying the troops’ as she describes it, and together with Maye, Togher, and Bashford hoisted a flag that has since drawn many more die-hard Mayo supporters to it.
“We've gotten a really good reaction to it,” says Flynn. “I think that's been borne out over the last two or three years in terms of the noise value at big games. Especially when the team has fallen behind or is facing adversity, people will get on their feet and shout them on.
“There's a lot more colour at games, we're seeing a lot more flags and banners and that sort of thing. There's been a really great social benefit to it as well because you'd have a lot of fanatics that are heading out to FBD games in the middle of winter.
“If you're heading along to a game like that on your own now you'll always know someone because it's so sociable. We'd have meet-up events and all that sort of thing, it's just been great craic really.”
Even Flynn’s natural optimism and appreciation of the craic has been sorely tested when the emotional roller-coaster of being a Mayo supporter has taken one of those all too regular plunges.
The controversial 2014 All-Ireland Semi-Final extra-time replay defeat to Kerry still cuts to the quick so much that even talking about it is a trial for her and best quickly left in a conversational slip-stream.
Last year’s All-Ireland Final replay defeat to Dublin was another sore one to process.
“It was devastating, but when it's happened you so many times it's like, ‘oh well, it's nothing we haven't dealt with before’, in a way,” she says.
“You know the drill at this stage. You lick your wounds for a while, you keep the head down, and by the time spring comes around the appetite just comes back.
“Now, I wasn't ready to get back into it this year at all in January. ‘Oh God! Do I have to get going again?!’
“But then I went to the first FBD game and from then on it was, 'Ah yeah, I'm grand now, all good to go again, it's behind us'.
“It always feels like a fresh start. When it's a new season it's a blank-slate and anything can happen. And it's great to just catch up with people again and focus on the good days.
“But I think taking a break from it after September is very important. Because it can be very emotionally draining, it can be exhausting.
“The last couple of years in particular because games have gone to replays, so it's been really hard going. Tiring and emotionally draining.
“So you just have to take a bit of a time-out, reset, but then you're back on the horse again from January and February.”
Flynn clearly isn’t the only Mayo supporter with that sort of reflex resilience.
2,321 attended Mayo’s first competitive match of the year on January 7th even though they were only playing NUIG with a second-string selection in the first round of the FBD League.
Four 52-seater buses traveled to Tralee from Belmullet alone for the recent League match against Kerry, while last weekend an impressive 11,657 patrons made their way to McHale Park for the clash with Roscommon.
Their enduring commitment is also reflected by the fact that the county has maxed out their 3,600 allowance of Croke Park season tickets. Only Dublin have also taken their full allowance, and the nearest county after that is roughly 1,500 behind.
“For the last two years it’s been sold out to the maximum and we haven't actually been able to make any new subscriptions available,” says Mayo GAA PRO Paul Cunnane.
“We're obviously capped based on a certain number of tickets from Croke Park so we actually can't open it up to new people even though the demand is through the roof.
“Last year around the All-Ireland Final time in September people were already asking how could they join for 2017. I would regularly get messages in to our own social media, Facebook, Twitter, et cetera, from people asking how they could join. The availability just isn't there though because the numbers are already maxed out.
“Our social media numbers are climbing year on year. People just can't get enough of Mayo football. The appetite his huge and the numbers just keep getting bigger and bigger.”
The numbers might be getting bigger, but there has always been a singular passion in Mayo for Gaelic Football. After they lost the 1989 All-Ireland Final to Cork, an estimated crowd of 10,000 supporters were there to welcome them when their plane landed in Knock airport.
That was the same year the bug first really bit with Anne-Marie Flynn. She was just eight years old and her family were far from died-in-the-wool Mayo football fans, but from '89 on she was hooked on Mayo football.
“I think it's an illness,” she laughs. “It's not something you have really much of a choice about.
“I suppose it's that collective shared experience that you get in any county that binds you in.
“Our story is one of severe endurance and perseverance. But the one thing I will say about that is that there's a bit of a rhetoric or perception out there that, ‘poor auld Mayo’, they're to be pitied. But to be honest, we've had far more good days than bad days.
“It's not in any way a burden. It can be hard going some Septembers, but in general it's been a brilliant journey and we've got a lot out of it.”
You’d imagine by now that Mayo supporters would have experienced so many near-misses and painful losses that they simply wouldn’t allow themselves to believe any more that any given year might be theirs, but they remain as indefatigable as ever.
“Ah yeah, I think you have to throw yourself in there,” says Flynn. “Like, I would look at this year and think we've as good a chance this as we've had any other year.
“If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen, it's nothing we haven't dealt with before. You really would love to see it happen for the lads themselves, especially the ones who've been on the road for the last 10, 11, 12 years.
"There's nothing we would want more as supporters than to see them get over the line and get that medal for themselves. We're just supporters, the game will always be here for us.
“I think for us it's important to try to stand up for our county a bit in one way as well because there's a lot of pity for us out there and abuse that we're bottlers and that sort of thing.
“Our team mightn't have won, but I think they've proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they're certainly not mentally frail in any way because they keep coming back. It's still important for us to acknowledge that and get the message out there that we don't need the pity, we will get there.”
They might not want your pity, but it does seem as though Mayo supporters do get some sort of grim satisfaction from the degree to which they must suffer for their ascetic devotion to the cause.
It’s had to be about the journey for them because they’ve yet to reach the destination they crave, and the fact that they have endured such heart-break and keep coming back for more is almost like a badge of honour at this stage.
“I'm not sure should I say it, but maybe it's that they enjoy the misery,” laughs Paul Cunnane. “It certainly nearly adds to it.
“When Mayo do finally win the All-Ireland I think maybe people won't know how to react. That's always been part of it, being so close, but never actually getting over the line. It's one of those strange things.”
So, how would Mayo supporters react if the county did end its now 66-year wait for the Sam Maguire Cup?
When your identity has for so long been defined by an honourable struggle that keeps falling short, how would it feel to suddenly be the winner and leave all that behind you?
"It would change the whole dynamic completely,” admits Flynn. “It would be quite a shock to the system.
“But I'm sure we'd figure out a way of dealing with it, I'm sure we'd cope!”
They surely would.