A Mayowoman’s Lament

Another piece I wrote for Balls.ie in the aftermath of Mayo’s heartbreaking defeat to Dublin last weekend – you can read the original here.

It’s Tuesday, and the dust has finally settled after another All-Ireland final weekend.

It’s funny. You spend so long in the weeks leading up to the big day fervently wishing the hours away, only for the day itself to pass you by in a whirlwind of colour, noise and crowds. Before you know it, the final whistle has gone, and – if you’re from Mayo – you’re left reeling once again with the bitter, stinging slap of loss.

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Mayo team ready to do battle. Photo by Michael Maye

It’s hard to write this. It’s not what I anticipated writing in the aftermath of Sunday’s game, and it’s difficult not to resort to tired old clichés in an effort to describe once again the pain of losing. After all, it’s not the first time we’ve been here. There’s nothing really new to say. Apart, of course, to heartily congratulate our Dublin friends on their deserved win. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t as stylish as it could have been (despite valiant efforts by Aidan’s Fringe), but once you have Sam in your possession, none of that really matters. Winning is everything, and our opposition proved that, once again, they had just a little more in the tank than we had to finish the job. While there is plenty of controversy to debate in the aftermath, no right-minded sports fan would begrudge this excellent Dublin team their victory.

I was right about one thing, though. This year was different. In terms of the belief Mayo brought with us to the final, our approach and our defiance, throughout the year, Mayo held their heads high and fought to the end. From Friday evening, the colours started appearing around the city. Saturday, we grew in stature and early on Sunday morning, the city was ours. This was a build up like nothing I have ever experienced, full of promise and anticipation. The welcoming home of friends and family from across the miles. The meeting and greeting old friends and new. That belief carried us into Croke Park from 12.30pm on Sunday, through the ecstasy of a superb victory for the Mayo minor team, who brought the Tommy Markham cup home for the first time in 28 years, right through to the end of the senior final, where we just failed to cross the line. So near, and yet so far. While the hurt and frustration of knowing that this was a final we could have won but left behind us, will linger for a long time,  the sense of pride and belief we feel in that panel of players and management will not waver. They’re our own, and they are hurting far more.

So yet again, in Mayo we turn our thoughts to Next Year. We’re getting closer, all the time.

It’s suggested that there are five stages of grief after a terrible event. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.  From what I’m reading and hearing, it’s probably fair to suggest many Mayo fans have incredibly, already raced through these stages and are dusting themselves down and steeling themselves for next year’s battle. The pace of recovery is rapid, but then, we’ve had plenty of practice.

After the game, a few of us took ourselves away from the madness of Drumcondra to seek some solace and escapism on the south side of the city. As we sat in a burger joint trying to come to terms with the loss, black humour won out. We debated storming the pubs and clubs in a conga line of celebration. Pretend we’d won the damn thing anyway, ignore the dissenters and party like it was 1951. If we were going to lose our minds following Mayo GAA, we may as well do it properly and get a decent night out of it. (We didn’t.) Sam Maguire, we also concluded after an in-depth analysis, is like that certain someone you’re really into, but who’s blind to your existence. Instead, he’s blinded by the glamour of the more … forward counties. The Kerrys and Corks and Tyrones and Donegals and Dublins with their flashy tans and flashy forwards. Oblivious to the charm of the quieter, more reticent but infinitely classier Mayo. Sam’s loss, we concluded. Anyway, if we finally got him, would we really want him in the end, after all that, we wondered? He strikes me as a bit high-maintenance, if I’m honest. All that polishing, and stuff.

Anything to raise a smile.  As with a real-life tragedy, humour is a healing balm.

I said before that football is more than just football in Mayo. It’s about far more than sport. For many in the West, these days form part of our very identity and when we lose, our own self-belief is rattled. While the sneering of some of the victors’ supporters on Sunday – a very small minority of what was an overall very decent, warm and generous bunch, I hasten to clarify – was hard to take, the patronising platitudes are far harder to swallow. We don’t want words of sympathy or pity. We just want a bloody win, so we never have to hear them again. But we have had two glorious years of celebration and hope and dreams, and we have had September football that many would kill for. And so the words of Samuel Beckett come to mind. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” So do those of Elbert Hubbard. “A little more persistence, a little more effort, and what seemed hopeless failure may turn to glorious success. There is no failure except in no longer trying.”

We’ll keep trying. And one glorious day, we won’t fail.

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Car Accidents, Ticket Scrums And The Long Wait

In what’s proving to be an interminable few weeks for Mayo GAA supporters, here’s a piece I wrote for the folks over at Balls.ie during the week about the build-up to the big match. Original link: http://balls.ie/gaa/mayo-dublin-preview/  Enjoy! 

Ten days and counting.  Ten interminable nights of feverish tossing and turning and dreaming. Dreaming of Sam.

So many questions.

Will James start Andy? Will Cillian’s shoulder be match fit? Will Ger Caff’s defence put manners on Bernard Brogan’s attack? Can Al Freezer replicate his magnificent performance of August 25th? Will the man in black, Joe McQuillan lend the Dubs a helping hand? Most importantly, will Aido’s Fringe once again defy gravity and last the pace?

These are just some of the many questions occupying the minds of Mayo GAA supporters in the lead-up to the All-Ireland Football Final on September 22nd.

We’ve been here before. Oh yes. For the uninitiated, this will be Mayo’s eighth appearance in an All-Ireland senior final since 1989 (infamous ’96 replay included). We’ve gone home empty-handed seven times. We’re no strangers to the pre-match build-up. We know how to decorate a town, make a decent round of sandwiches (that will last us ‘til the breakfast in Feerick’s) and paint a car or sheep or two. But despite some decent efforts, we’ve not seen Sam Maguire since 1951. And we’ve fallen down disappointed, and picked ourselves back up, year after year.

This year feels different, somehow.

There’s a new air of confidence in Mayo. Instead of apprehension, there’s expectation. That this is our time; that we can do it this year.  It’s hard to explain. For a long time – probably since 1996 – there’s been a certain fear associated with Croke Park on All-Ireland day. Lots of talk of the so-called “Curse of ’51” (a tale which is tenuous at best, but eternally tedious).This year, it’s different. We have a team that’s proved itself ruthless, creative and mentally strong. A team to believe in. And for the first time in a while, there’s a tangible sense of belief in the county that this is finally our year. Now or never.

There’s probably no senior football team in the country that has ever carried this weight of expectation in to a final. It’s a huge burden to place on the shoulders of a young team. But that’s Mayo for you. Always demanding, never losing faith.

Mayo, for all its rugged beauty, has its problems. It’s been hit hard by the economic crash, and emigration and unemployment remains high. It has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. But there’s an extraordinary, fierce sense of pride in the county. Football is more than just football in Mayo. It’s in the blood. It’s transcends the bad stuff, and brings people together. It’s all-consuming; this week, if you’re not talking football in Mayo, you’re not talking. And Mayo badly wants the win. So once again the flags are flying high, the cars have been spray painted, the Mayo songs are peppering the airwaves fourteen of them at last count) and the sheep are green and red. There’s a sense that this time, it will be different.

And there’s the ticket hunt. It’s an eye for an eye and every man, woman and child for themselves. Grannies for sale all over the shop. “Any tickets?” is the current refrain on all Mayo lips, regardless of whether you’ve gone to buy a loaf of bread, open a bank account or get a tooth out. No-one wants to miss this one. Desperation is growing by the second. Begrudgery reaches new levels in the ticket hunt. “Sure that wan will have no bother getting her hands on a rake of tickets. Wasn’t her husband’s aunt-in-law’s brother on the county board for years?” Rumour has it the queue for the ticket draw outside Ballina Stephenites started back in late August, with some of the returning semi-final support only stopping off at home for a flask of tea and the sleeping bag before setting up camp in the stand. Willy Wonka’s ticket hunt had nothing on Mayo’s. Expect bloodshed.

And what of the opposition? Well, they’re fierce quiet altogether. A Dublin team within a sniff of a final usually guarantees a minimum three tabloid pages daily, with a souvenir poster every Wednesday and enough car stickers to wallpaper the SUV with. This year, the Dubs are conspicuous by their silence. One suspects they’re happy to watch the Mayo hype machine march on, while they do their own thing in the background. Living in Dublin, I’m onto their plan. The only flags in south Dublin suburbia are green and red, and there are no round bales or sheep painted blue in the immediate vicinity. Only stickerless SUVs. One would think South Dublin didn’t even know there was a final coming up. Very odd, altogether.

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Photo by Michael Maye, (or @Mayo_Mick, as we know him)

Out and about in Dublin, however, there’s a bit more happening. Car flags are an instant source of solidarity on the roads. A lady I met almost drove over a dog (and its owner) last week in the SuperValu car park, such was her eagerness for a car flag high-five. Dublin taxi drivers in particular love the old car flags. The day Dublin played Kerry, I was stopped at the lights at O’Connell Bridge, the red and green on display, when a blue-jerseyed taxi driver across from me motioned for to roll down the window. “Who d’ya think will win today?” he bellowed across two lanes. “Who do YOU think will win?” I shouted back, deflecting the question, Mayo defence-style. “Jaysus”, he said. “I hope Kerry do. Better for business later!” And with that, he sped off, with a friendly beep of the horn and flutter of the flags. Top fella.

So with ten days to go, there’s nothing to do but wait. Wait, and dream, and analyse, and debate, and argue, give out about the county board hiding the tickets and dream some more. Anything to quell the nerves and make the day arrive faster. Maybe light a few candles and say a few novenas that a ticket will appear. And say a few more that this time we’ll finish the job. It’s now or never. Maigh Eo Abú!

On World Suicide Prevention Day, what can YOU do to prevent suicide?

It’s World Suicide Prevention Day today, Tuesday 10th September. The day, is an awareness day observed annually in order to provide worldwide commitment and action to prevent suicides.

It’s unlikely many of us here in Ireland lack awareness of what is one of the largest killers of our young people. Recent CSO statistics indicate that 507 people took their own lives in Ireland in 2012 – however, as per any suicide reportage, this figure forms only a very small part of the picture. Not all suicides are recorded as such; there are many unreported accepted suicides, and the overall figure masks the occurrence of severe suicide blackspots in certain parts of the country, like Limerick, Wexford, Mayo, Leitrim and Cork, with Limerick numbers the most alarming at 26 in every 100,000. The statistics, though they are only a snapshot, speak for themselves. However, a lack of proper recording and accurate data to work with, particularly to use to spot clusters and trends, is one of the key challenges facing those who fight every day to try and turn the tide of suicide

Regular visitors to the blog will know that I touch on the topic of mental health here the odd time, sometimes in relation to my own experiences, sometimes at a more general level, and occasionally referencing the influence of things like alcohol on our collective mental health. It’s great to see frank, open discussion of mental illness on social media and in the newspapers today; however in the course of the debate, we’re constantly hearing about “breaking down the stigma” as if it’s some big mystery. Stigma is born of ignorance and breeds fear, yet the reality is, each and every one of us has the key to breaking down that stigma, by just learning a little more about the nature of mental ill-health, and by taking small but meaningful steps to challenge it. Yes, you too. It’s not rocket science, and we can all do it. Some thoughts below.

  • The key message we’re hearing is “If you’re in difficulty, talk to someone”. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Just reach out, and everything will be okay. Well, you know what? It’s not that bloody easy. Firstly, when you’re in a place where you’re struggling, or convinced that no-one gives a damn about you, and that you might be better off dead, it’s incredibly difficult, nigh impossible, to reach out and talk to somebody. If you do reach out and talk to someone, you may not get the response you hope for, or need. What then? We need to stop placing the onus on people who are suffering to make that first move. This is a collective, worldwide responsibility. It starts with you and me, showing real human kindness to the people around us. Look around you, at your family and friends. If you think that someone is struggling, talk to them. Pick up the phone. Let them know you care. Even if they’re not visibly struggling, tell them anyway. It can be that simple.
  • Telling people to “just talk about it” is all well and good. But in a country where we’ve been bred for generations not to talk about things, talking is something not something we’re all very good at. And if you’re the person chosen to talk to, you might have no idea how to handle it. If you do see someone struggling, and you’re not sure what to do or how to talk to them, that’s totally fine. It’s natural. We’re all human; we’re not all counsellors. Sometimes indicating that you’re willing to listen is all that’s needed. And if you need some help, the folks over at See Change have some very practical tips on how to talk and listen. And there are services available to help both you and the person in difficulty – you can call them yourself, pass the details on, or offer to accompany them while they seek help.
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Some practical tips on talking about mental health

  • We all have mental health, and we all have a responsibility to look after our own mental health. We are not victims of our minds. Prevention is better than cure, and there are countless things we can do to mind our minds.  Exercise, fresh air, spending time with friends, eating well, taking a break from online activity, are all small steps that can have an incrementally positive effect  on our own mental – and physical –  health.
  • Just like most physical ill-health, mental ill-health is not a permanent, unevolving state. Sometimes we’re in good mental health, sometimes, less so. That’s normal. For various reasons, people can go through difficult times where they struggle to cope. Depression can be all-consuming, and for the person experiencing it, it’s hard to believe that this feeling will every pass or that things will get better – but things can and do get better. Depression may be something that will always be part of your life – but it can be managed, in many different ways. Equally, if someone you know is experiencing depression now, with the correct help, there’s every chance they can and will recover.
  • It’s heartening to see so many people sharing their experiences online. Sometimes writing things down is therapeutic, and reading those stories from people you might know is oddly reassuring. Let’s start taking the next step, and talking about it face-to-face, with our friends and family. It doesn’t always have to be a big deal. Experiencing mental health difficulties during life’s journey is perfectly normal, and a simple acknowledgement can go a long way. This was the thing I found hardest to do, but was the one helped me the most.

I experienced my worst depressive experience in my 20s, and at the time felt in despair that things would never get better. They did.  I learned some valuable things over the course of that time that I carry with me every day,

  1. While depression might always be a feature of my life, it doesn’t define me. I am far more than that.
  2. Depression can be managed. Proactively and reactively, there are things I can do to combat it. It’s not always easy to react, which is why I try to be proactive.
  3. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. In fact, the very act of doing something about it made me feel stronger.
  4. “This too shall pass” became my motto For me, accepting that I wasn’t well was important, and sometimes I just needed to put my head down and let it pass, rather than fighting against it. Pass it did, and pass it will, if and when it happens again.

These are lessons I learned on my own journey, but maybe they’re things than can help non-sufferers understand the nature of the illness and remove some of the mystery about it.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. Preventing suicide isn’t something for “other people” to do. It’s up to you, and you, and you, and me. So do something. Pick up the phone, knock on that door, send that message. Speaking as one who knows, it could make all the difference.

#DatesWithDublin #7 – Croke Park

As previously indicated, this post, number 7 in the Dates with Dublin series is a piece of pure self-indulgence, being as it is a sort of homage to one of my favourite places in the world, let alone Dublin, to visit. It’s a slight deviation also from the purpose of this project, which was to uncover a few lesser-known gems.

But it’s my blog, so I’m allowed to make the odd executive decision; and to be fair, if you’re a tourist to the fair city, it’s well worth a visit, even you’re not gaga for the GAA like I am. I’ll try to keep it professional, and give you some information about the place, as well as spilling my own emotions and guts all over the floor in as dignified a manner as possible. No, I’m not actually talking about the crisp aisle in Tesco. Rather, that Theatre of Hope, that Mecca of Magic, that Field of Dreams (okay, that’s enough….) that is Dublin 3’s finest, Croke Park.

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Croke Park from the Hogan Stand; Artane Band in situ. Mayo won the match

 

For those of you who may not be familiar with Croke Park, it is the headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Ireland, housing a stadium with a capacity of 82,300 (making it the fourth largest in Europe), a museum, a ‘skyline’ tour, and a conference centre among other things. For those of you who may not be not familiar with the Gaelic Athletic Association, it is an Irish – and international – amateur sporting and cultural organisation, focused primarily on promoting Gaelic games – hurling, camogie, Gaelic football, handball and rounders. For those of you who may not be familiar with any of the aforementioned sports, frankly, you’re missing out.

Croke Park, or Croker, as it is often affectionately referred to by GAA fans, dates from the late 1800s, although it has undergone significant development within the last 30 years, and has been used primarily by the GAA to host the above games, with the highlight of the sporting year occurring in September with the annual All-Ireland finals in hurling and football. All games are amateur, meaning that players, who represent their local clubs and their counties, do not get paid for their participation.

Within the confines of this post I can only offer a narrow glimpse into the world of GAA and indeed all that Croke Park has to offer. For those of you on the tourist trail, who might be interested in finding out a bit more about Gaelic Games, the Croke Park Museum is open daily all year round, and traces the history of the games and the biggest amateur sporting organisation and its roots in Irish identity from the very beginning to present day. The exhibition is highly interactive and all-round good fun, and if you’re interested in the history of your own county, there’s plenty of information to chew on. You can even get busy with a hurl or football and try your hand at it yourself, if you didn’t grow up with a sliotar in your hand or football at your feet. It’s just as easy as it looks…. Ahem.

You can combine your visit to the museum with a stroll on the Etihad Skyline tour – a walk around the roof of Croke Park. Despite all the steps you need to climb to get there, the walk is really well executed, feels safe and secure, even for those who are a bit wobbly at a height. (You’re effectively tied to the barrier, so you really can’t do anything silly like fall off, no matter how clumsy you are, Take it from me, I tested this in full.)  The tour guides and fun and engaging and the walk offers a pretty impressive view over the stadium. Being honest, the view over North Dublin is a little less impressive, but that said, you’ll have some fun picking out local landmarks. Sadly, there is no access to the Skyline on match days, for those of you who are hunting for those elusive all-Ireland final tickets and thinking of pulling a fast one. If you’re going up there, do what I didn’t and bring a warm jacket – it’s bloody baltic.

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Taken from the Skywalk as Croke Park was preparing to host the Eucharistic Congress in 2012. On the screen is a notice warning the gluten intolerant to take the wine instead of bread at Holy Communion. Thanks Mark @yearoffestivals for the photo – and the jacket!

Some interesting facts and figures about Croke Park:

There are seven levels within the stadium, and it covers 16 acres of ground. Within its confines there are over 3km of seating, and 10 km of piping has been used in the plumbing (Importantly, the toilets are consistently probably the cleanest and most well-stocked of any sporting or music venue I’ve ever been to. But then, I usually frequent mucky festivals and Junior B games, so that’s hardly surprising). The environmentalists among you may be interested to know that Croke Park claims to be a carbon neutral venue. There are over 400 beer taps in the Davin Bar, the largest bar in Ireland. The big screen on the Hill 16 side of the stadium is the biggest outdoor screen of its kind in Europe and there are 463 floodlights around the stadium, each emitting light equivalent to 2,000 candles.

Outside the museum- and I like this a lot –  stands a wall featuring the crest of every single GAA club, both in Ireland and overseas – symbolising the fact that local clubs lie at the very heart of the organisation.

The real draw of Croke Park however, is the action on the field. While the stadium is a busy hub of activity all year round, with events and activities constantly happening, for sports fans it’s from July and August onwards that activity reaches fever pitch when county teams exit the provincial championships – either by winning or losing their provincial final – and move to the next level of the competition, where all games are played in Croke Park. The GAA is not perfect, nor are the traditional competition structures equitable or entirely fair, but they are deeply rooted in a convention that spans over a century, and as such, they are what they are. Once you reach the last eight, it’s then you allow yourself to dream.

And once you reach those stages, nothing beats waking up on the morning of a match, bedecking yourself in your county colours and embarking on that trip to Dublin (or in my case, the spin across to the Northside on the 16), and meeting similarly bedecked friends and family along Dorset Street for the pre-match analysis.

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Camaraderie on All-Ireland Final day, 2012. Remarkably, we are still friends

Nothing beats the pre-match beer, and the hurried flick through the papers to see who the pundits are tipping, and their instant dismissal (“sure what would that eejit know?” Applicable to most pundits if they plump for the opposition). The walk down long Clonliffe Road, the majesty of the stadium looming in front of you… Very little beats that first breathtaking glimpse of the beautifully manicured ground, bathed in late summer sun; nothing beats the warmth and camaraderie among supporters, even if they’re on the opposite side.

Not much beats the deafening, spine-tingling roar that welcomes your team as they enter the field of play; nothing beats the ecstasy of a sweetly placed goal at a crucial moment, and nothing, but nothing, beats being on the winning side at the final whistle.

I’m from Mayo. Those of you who are familiar with Gaelic Games will understand instantly what that means. For those of you who are not, allow me to briefly explain. Mayo has a fine, proud tradition in Gaelic football. Despite this fine tradition, we have won the ultimate prize – the Sam Maguire trophy, awarded to the All-Ireland senior football champions – just three times, and not since 1951 (before my parents were even born, though of course Mammy and Daddy Flynn were both blessed with youthful good looks). Compare that to the likes of Kerry, for example, who have won it no fewer than 36 times. Greedy feckers.

Since 1989, we have appeared in seven senior all-Ireland finals in Croke Park, and we have failed to win any of them. You may wonder why anyone from Mayo holds the place in any sort of affection at all. We are, quite simply, suckers for punishment loyal and optimistic to the last.

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What Croke Park looks like when Mayo don’t win a final. #7.

This year, on September 22nd, 2013 we will enter our eighth all-Ireland final 24 years, facing Dublin, the mighty Boys in Blue, once again dreaming of bringing Sam west over the Shannon. Despite all that’s happening in the harsh reality that is Ireland at the minute, I can assure you that many with Mayo roots are thinking of little else this fortnight. As I write, the dream is very much alive. It remains to be seen whether this time, it can become a reality.

But one thing is for sure. Nothing beats being there.

Update: We lost.