#100HappyDays Day 5 – a new venture

The piece below with a Mayo theme was first published in the newly redesigned Mayo News on 5th August 2014 as an introduction for my new column, titled An Cailín Rua, which will be appearing every two weeks from now on in that fine publication. I’m really delighted to be working alongside such a great team for a paper of which I’ve been a big fan for a long time. 

My name is Anne-Marie, and I am an exile!

It’s been a while since I lived in Mayo. That’s purely by design; sixteen years ago, as soon as I finished school, I packed my bags and hit the road out of Mayo as fast as my legs could carry me. Brighter lights beckoned, the world was waiting and I didn’t look back. Back then, being from a small village in North Mayo felt stifling and restrictive, with nothing to do and nothing to see. Being elsewhere meant freedom and discovery.

It’s been an interesting few years. They’ve brought me around the world, through a couple of colleges, across a spectrum of employment, with a wonderful variety of people. They brought me up the walls and around the bend more than once too. I wouldn’t change much.

For many of those years, Mayo felt distant. Other places started to feel like home. And while I never minded going back, I didn’t mind leaving either. It’s funny, though, as time passes how your perspective changes. (I think it’s called getting old.) After a few years living in the capital, more and more, I find myself craving the slower pace of life of the West. Now, feeling stifled and restricted means traffic jams and long hours at a desk. Freedom and discovery, on the other hand means the mountains and rivers and wide open spaces of home.

Living in the capital isn’t all bad, of course. I’m one of the lucky ones. I have friends here and a decent standard of living and I’m not exactly far from home. The three-hour drive from Dublin to Mayo pales in comparison to the trips home friends working abroad must endure. Friends who, out of necessity, have left their families and are working on the other side of the world to earn a living and build a future for their children. I have a decent job I enjoy with patient, understanding colleagues who tolerate my need to talk relentlessly about GAA for the first hour of every Monday. And I’m a hop, skip and a jump away from Croke Park, which comes in very handy in this glorious era of Mayo football. B&B is in demand, so book early!

Technology, too, makes it so easy now to stay in touch. The internet ensures we can read the local papers, listen to the local radio, and hear the local news. It struck me the other day that I probably now know more about Mayo now than I ever did when I actually lived there. Social media makes it so much easier to be a GAA fan away from home, too – the news, chatter and gossip you’d only have heard on the street or in the pub at home fifteen years ago are now at your fingertips online, and all Mayo exiles scattered around the world, from Sligo to Saudi Arabia can join the conversation. So while you might not be at home to savour the build-up to a big game like last week’s, it’s the next best thing.

Speaking of which, we really are everywhere, we Mayo people. We get around. My work in research takes me all around the country, and last week I found myself driving through Co. Kilkenny. As I rounded the corner into a tiny village called Crettyard, there high outside a house, flying proudly beside the obligatory Kilkenny flag was our very own green and red. I nearly drove into a wall in excitement. I love the comfort of seeing traces of home in unexpected places around the country and further afield, and during the summer I don’t think there’s another county that shows off its colours quite so proudly. And GAA plays such a strong role in Mayo – It’s a part of our identity, our DNA, and it goes far beyond sport, connecting us no matter where we are. (Incidentally, that day I met a Kilkenny person that day that didn’t like hurling. Who knew such a person existed?)

So while one day I know I’ll be back for good, for now I like knowing that no matter where you go, you’re never too far away. Maybe it’s my advancing years; maybe I’m just getting sentimental. Or maybe there’s some truth in the notion that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Either way, I’ve learned over the years that there’s just no place like home.

Cliffs at Ballycastle, Co. Mayo

One for the GAA fans – “New York, we’re on our way”

Firstly, a short apology to you and a self-adminstered rap on the knuckles for me, for the shocking state of neglect in which I’ve left the blog lately. I’ve half a dozen semi-structured posts in drafts, but a busy schedule of commitments over the past few months (most notably, helping to get the new Mayo supporter’s group, Club ’51 off the ground) has ensured that most of my writings lately have had a distinctly sports-flavoured theme.

Anyway, here’s a piece I wrote for the lovely folks in the Mayo News during the week, about looking forward to the 2014 GAA Championship, and our upcoming trip to the Big Apple to play New York GAA in the first round. Enjoy, and normal service will return soon.

Now that the long evenings are kicking in, the dark days of winter are starting to feel like a distant memory and with them, the deflation of last September’s All-Ireland defeat. I don’t know about you, but that winter felt like a hell of a long one.

The last time I had the pleasure of writing for this fine publication, I was scribbling in feverish anticipation from exile in Dublin just before the final. The spirits were high, the dream was alive and I was harbouring gleeful fantasies of watching the next-door neighbours whipping down the blue flags in disgust (SIX of them, no less) while we painted the street green and red.

We all know how that turned out.

Thankfully, we’re emerging from hibernation. The neighbours have finally taken down the blasted bunting and washed the blue paint off the cat. After a roller-coaster of a league, the Green and Red Army are cranking up the engine for another shot at the big one. And what a beginning we have in store. Mayo’s Championship adventure begins, not in the salubrious surroundings of Hyde Park or Pearse Stadium, but smack bang in the middle of the Big Apple. As away games go, it’s a bit of a stretch, and a long way from McHale Road, but the Mayo faithful are taking it in their stride and are decamping in their droves to NYC for the May bank holiday weekend.

And in their hundreds they are going. Down west for Easter, I ran into a few familiar faces from the schooldays around Ballina. Nearly everyone I met had the bag packed for the Bronx. Some, I suspect, might have difficulty telling their free-ins from their free-outs, but they’re coming along for the party regardless. It’s curious, for a county that still feels the effects of the downturn more than most, but where Mayo football is concerned, being sensible is scoffed at. The New York fixture has been on the cards for a while, and for many, this is the holiday of a lifetime combined with the love of a lifetime. So you can bet your bottom dollar (see what I did there?) that the piggy banks have seen serious action over the past few months in order to make this trip a reality. And given GAA President Liam O’Neill’s recent remarks on the future of New York in the Connacht Championship, it’s possible that this could be one of the last opportunities we get to see Mayo play in Gaelic Park. So there’s a sense of Carpe Diem around this one.

This trip is about more than just the football, however. The football is only an excuse. Rather, this is a chance for Mayo people to reconnect with family and loved ones in the US and beyond. It’s a chance for emigrants all over the US to reconnect with home. And that goes far beyond Mayo – you can bet that a significant number attending will have no Mayo connections, but will relish the chance of a taste of home and of the Championship that would otherwise be off limits, for whatever reason. I’m told of a family with members in Ireland, France and Chicago, who haven’t stood in the same room in over 25 years, convening in New York. Many others making the trip will be meeting new family members for the very first time. This goes far, far beyond football. It’s the trip of a lifetime to the City That Never Sleeps. (It’s fair to suggest that much of the Mayo support heading over there won’t be sleeping much either.)

For New York GAA, meanwhile, this is the culmination a year’s worth of hard training. Unlike others in the Championship, they don’t have access to the back door. It’s do or die for them on May 4th. This is as good as it gets, and you can be sure they will pull out all the stops to greet Mayo, both on and off the pitch.

Behind the scenes, in the dark days of winter, encouraged by the defiant determination of James Horan’s camp, the faithful were galvanising themselves for another year. One of the results of this was Club ’51, a supporter’s club set up by the fans for the fans, to get behind the team. The club quickly grew legs, and as well as providing practical information on where to park your car at an away game, it has proved a lifeline (some might say a support network) for those of us suffering the hangover of a disappointing September. Being involved in the club has demonstrated to me beyond all doubt the resilience, the optimism, the sense of fun but mostly the proud, infallible spirit of the Mayo people when it comes to football. Club ’51 is embarking on a mission to demonstrate just how far-reaching the Mayo support is, and planning to send a flag on tour around the world to be photographed with fans in all sorts of far-flung places. The first stop on that journey is New York.The authorities have been alerted, the hatches have been battened and the Naked Cowboy will be naked no more, but clad in Mayo’s finest cloth. We’ll be painting the town red … and green.

May the 4th be with you. New York, we’re on our way.

Photo: Bryan Sweeney (via Joe.ie)

Photo: Bryan Sweeney (via Joe.ie)

This post was originally published in the Mayo News on Tuesday 29th May, 2014.