The Curse of ’51: Mayo Football and the All-Ireland Championship

photo: „Achill Island“ degreezero / pixabay

You best start believin’ in ghost stories, Miss Turner…Yer in one!”

Captain Hector Barbossa

“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”

The All-Ireland Senior Football Final of 2020 takes place this Saturday (19th December 2020) and it will feature two teams who are very familiar with each other. These teams have contested four All-Ireland Senior Football Finals (including a replay/rematch in 2016) since 2013, namely Mayo and Dublin. Whereas Dublin are seeking their sixth title in a row and are widely considered as one of the (if not “the”) best county team of all time, Mayo are looking to win their first All-Ireland Senior Football title since 1951.

According to modern myth and legend, the reason Mayo have not won the title since then is due to a curse that was placed on them following that win.

County Mayo – Contae Maigh Eo

County Mayo is in the west of Ireland with its name coming from the Gaeilge words “Maigh Eo” which means “Plain of the yew trees”. It is a beautiful part of Ireland, home to the mountain of Croagh Patrick, Achill Island and the Great Western Greenway. Croagh Patrick is particularly famous as a place of pilgrimage, which pilgrims from around the world flock to and climb on the last Sunday of July (“Reek Sunday”).

County Mayo is also home to a number of famous people in Ireland such as the first female Uachtarán na hÉireann (President of Ireland) Mary Robinson, the former-Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the novelist Sally Rooney (of “Normal People” fame), as well as famous historical characters such as Gráinne Mhaol – the so-called “Pirate Queen of Ireland”. It was also a region devastated by the Great Irish Famine and economic downturns afterwards which led to many tens of thousands of people leaving the shores of Mayo to find opportunities elsewhere. President-Elect of the USA, Joe Biden, is just one of many Irish-Americans (including Grace Kelly) with Mayo heritage. The sheer number of people around the world with Mayo heritage is part of the mythos of their quest for the elusive All-Ireland title.

The story of Gráinne Mhaol

Mayo and the Curse

Mayo is a county with a deep Gaelic Football tradition. They have won a total of 47 Connacht Senior Football titles (in comparison, their close rivals Galway have won 46) and their great team of the 1930s put together a 6-in-a-row of National League titles (a secondary competition compared to the All-Ireland Championship) however they have only won three All-Ireland Senior Football titles, with the last one coming in 1951.

Three All-Ireland titles have them at the same level as Louth and Offaly (not traditionally strong counties in the world of Gaelic Football) and below Tipperary (more known as a hurling stronghold) in the pantheon of champions. Their Connacht rivals, Galway, in contrast, have nine titles to their name. Many people blame “The Curse” for their lack of success on the biggest stage of them all…

“The Curse” refers to an incident in 1951 following their victory in that year’s All-Ireland Final. This Mayo team was a very successful group as they claimed back-to-back All Ireland victories, in 1950 and 1951, and were unlucky to lose by a point in the 1948 decider against Cavan by a score of 4-05 to 4-04. On 23rd September 1951, Mayo defeated Meath by 2-08 to 0-09 in the final in Croke Park, Dublin.

Highlights of that final can be found on YouTube and it really was a different world and a different Ireland. The clips are only in black-and-white, the stadium and crowd management (over 78,000 there!) would certainly not pass any modern “health and safety” standards and the players kissing the ring of the Archbishop of Tuam before the match paint the picture of a much different place. As for the action on offer, the skills are certainly recognisable as those of today, but the difference in player shape and size as well as the more straightforward style of play / apparent lack of tactics is noticeable.

The 1951 All-Ireland Final – a different Ireland

After the Final, the Curse is alleged to have happened. As the victorious Mayo made their way from Dublin back to their home county, they apparently did not pay the required respects at a local funeral near Foxford, a village 16km south of the town of Ballina. Allegedly their lack of respect, whether it was by their boisterousness or their non-stopping to pay respect caused either the presiding priest or the grieving widow to place a curse on the team. The curse stated that Mayo would not win an All-Ireland Senior Football title until all the members of the 1951 team died

As of 2020, there has been no All-Ireland Senior Football title but there have been nine final defeats since 1989 and many near misses… Following the death of Pádraig Carney (“The Flying Doctor”) in California in 2019, only one playing member of the 1951 team (Paddy Prendergast) survives.

an interview with Paddy Prendergast on RTÉ News in 2012.

Curses in Sport and in Ireland

Curses in sport are not unique to Mayo and are not unique to Ireland. They vary from sport to sport and even individuals have curses attributed to them. There is a modern curse in the form of the “Aaron Ramsey Curse” whereby when the Welsh footballer Aaron Ramsey scores a goal it is usually followed by the death of a celebrity or well-known person a few hours later. Such victims of the “Aaron Ramsey Curse” include Osama Bin Laden, Muammar Gadaffi, Steve Jobs, Alan Rickman and Stephen Hawking among others…

In German football, Bayer Leverkusen’s team of the early 2000s („Neverkusen“) was deemed to be cursed following three runners up and a season (2001/02) where they finished runner-up in the Bundesliga, the DFB-Pokal and the Champions League. Elsewhere, the Chicago Cubs were deemed to be a cursed baseball team following over 100 years without winning the World Series. However, following their World Series victory in 2015 it leaves Mayo as the real cursed team for us all to flock to.

In Ireland, curses have a long tradition. Going back to ancient Irish myths and legends, a “geas” or “geasa” was regularly placed on the heroes and kings of these stories. Ancient legends such as Cú Chulainn and Fionn MacCumhail had such curses placed on them, normally preventing them from doing an action or one that forced them into committing an action. A geas on Cú Chulainn (the great hero of Irish mythology) stated that he could not eat dog meat while another stated he could not refuse hospitality. As is the way of these things, his death came about (in some stories) after he was offered hospitality where the meal of the day consisted of dog meat. Breaking a geas in Irish folklore is a serious issue.

In more modern times, and GAA related, there was the Curse of Biddy Early. Biddy Early was a Clare woman in the 19th century who was accused of witchcraft. She was a well-known herbalist and she gained fame in the area as a healer who had the ability to heal all sorts of ailments. This fame or infamy eventually brought her into conflict with the Catholic Church and she was accused of witchcraft in 1865 under a 16th-century Witchcraft Act. The case against her was unsuccessful due to a lack of evidence. However, she left a lasting impression on the area and it was claimed that she placed a curse on the Clare hurling team which prevented them from winning the All Ireland between 1914 and 1995. The fact that she died in 1874 – 10 years before the founding of the GAA demonstrates the power of this curse!

The Clare hurlers ended their own „sporting curse“ in 1995.

Mayo and the All-Ireland Final since 1989

Since 1989 Mayo have lost 9 All Ireland Finals and some in the most unfortunate circumstances. In 1989 they suffered a three-point loss to a great Cork team led by Larry Tompkins. That Cork team contested 4 All-Ireland Finals in a row and in 1990 they and the Cork Hurling team both came home with their respective All-Irelands – the famous “Double”. Mayo would go on to contest All-Ireland Finals in 1996 (Meath), 1997 (Kerry), 2004 (Kerry) and 2006 (Kerry) and lose them all. The All-Ireland Final in 1996 ended in a drawn game (Meath 0-12 Mayo 1-09) and had to be decided by a replay (rematch) in which Mayo lost by one point (Meath 2-09 Mayo 1-11). It wouldn’t be the last time Mayo lost an All-Ireland Final by one point. In fact, it wouldn’t be the last time Mayo lost a replay by one point!

It is really in the 2010s that Mayo’s quest for the Sam Maguire Cup has really reached its zenith. Mayo have contested the 2012, 2013, 2016 and 2017 All-Ireland Finals and have not come away successful from any of them.

In 2012 they faced the mighty men from Donegal led by Jim “Jimmy’s Winning Matches” McGuinness and having beaten the All-Ireland champions from the previous year (Dublin) Mayo weren’t favourites but also by no means great underdogs. They just needed a good, solid start to gain a foothold in the match. However, disaster struck after only 2 minutes and 25 seconds as the man-mountain of Glenswilly, Michael Murphy, rose above Kevin Keane to plant a beautiful goal into the Mayo net. 8 minutes later, Colm McFadden put the dagger in with another goal and Murphy came close to a third goal. After ten minutes Mayo were 2 goals and a point down and had not yet scored. They would not register a point until the 16th minute. In the end they went down by a score of Donegal 2-11 Mayo 0-13 but never really threatened to win after their disastrous start. It is sickening to think that the father of Michael Murphy, one of the main architects of Mayo’s defeat, is from Mayo…

2012 All Ireland Football Final

The other defeats they have suffered have all come from the current great Dublin team who they will meet in tomorrow’s final.

Dublin v Mayo – Modern Rivals

Based on pure statistics it is difficult to classify Dublin and Mayo as a rivalry. In Championship Football, in the All-Ireland Championship, they have met 16 times with Dublin winning on 10 occasions and Mayo only twice. However, four of these meetings have come in recent All-Ireland Finals and there have been great All-Ireland semi-finals thrown in for good measure.

Mayo v Dublin All-Ireland Final preparations: a comedy piece from the „2 Johnnies“

One of the great All-Ireland semi-finals of recent times featured these two sides and involved a rare Mayo victory, this was the semi-final of 2006 – which featured the so-called „Hill-Gate“. From the start, Mayo got in the heads of the Dublin players and management (led by Paul “Pillar” Caffrey) by warming up in front of the Dublin faithful in Hill 16. This was mad stuff. This was not normally done. Watching this on TV, the Mayo players going through their drills and warm-up with the Dublin players advancing on them in a phalanx formation. The Mayo players weren’t overawed and weren’t going to budge for the city boys. Dublin didn’t want to lose face… so we had the farcical situation of both teams warming up in one part of the enormous Croke Park surface. “Pillar” gave a right strong shoulder to the Mayo coach John Morrison, essentially demonstrating that Mayo had won the mind games. Mayo went on to win by a point and what a point it was! The flowing blond locks, the wand of a left boot – it could only be the maverick Ciarán McDonald with a great point. A brilliant win for Mayo was followed by a 13-point All-Ireland Final defeat to Kerry…

„HillGate“ 2006

However, Mayo have not had many of these days against Dublin unfortunately. In 2013 they lost by one point, 2-12 to 1-14 with two goals coming from Dublin legend Bernard Brogan. Goals change games and they change finals. The timing of Brogan’s goals were killers for Mayo as he scored as they were building momentum in the first half and just after Mayo scored their goal in the second half. The 2016 Final involved Mayo scoring two own goals to allow Dublin to draw the match – 2.09 to 0.15 points – a game in which one team – Mayo – contributed 21 points to 9 in a drawn match. I don’t think that has ever happened in Gaelic Football. In the replay, they lost by a point (1-15 to 1-14) with their reliable free-taker and all-time leading scorer (in fact, the all-time leading scorer in the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship) Cillian O’Connor missing a free from 40 metres.

In 2017 Mayo were back in the final – they had to take a roundabout route to the final in which they played nine matches compared to Dublin five to reach it. Mayo’s route involved a defeat to rivals Galway, games going to extra-time against Cork and Derry and draws against Roscommon and Kerry which had to be decided by replays. Dublin’s route involved five wins with an average winning margin of nine points. Dublin were heavy favourites going into it but once again Mayo gave them a battle. The traditional hallmarks of a Mayo All-Ireland Final were there as they conceded a sucker-punch goal after 90 seconds from Young Footballer of the Year Con O’Callaghan and eventually lost by one point (1-17 to 1-16), this time to a Dean Rock free from about 40 metres out.

The support of 31 counties and their diaspora spread around the world has not been enough to inspire Mayo to get across the line and finally win the Sam Maguire Cup – the All-Ireland Senior Football trophy. However, the quest, the great sporting movement “Mayo for Sam” still believes that it will happen.

“Mayo for Sam”

“Mayo 4 Sam”/ “Mayo for Sam” signs have been spotted all over the world and in the most unlikely of places. From marked out on the roads of the Tour de France to viral photos from tourists at Machu Picchu, from Dubai to skydiving videos and from celebrity endorsements to underwater photos – “Mayo for Sam” is one of the great sporting movements.

„Mayo for Sam“ by Chris and Dave

It will almost be a shame should they finally win the Championship as the mythology around Mayo’s quest, the curse, the one-point losses, the defeats from the jaws of the victory, the own goals, the red cards, the heartbreak and their incredible ability to bounce back again and again and get to the final only to be knocked down again makes it such compelling viewing. The unfortunate reality is that one of Mayo’s truly great teams, the group of players most likely to break the curse, has shown themselves to be able to beat almost all teams in Ireland except for this Dublin team. A Dublin team who are arguably the greatest team we have ever seen in Gaelic Football.

However, just as the crew of zombie buccaneers in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Black Pearl” were compelled to go to the ends of the earth to seek their cursed gold, the Mayo faithful from around the world are aboard the “Mayo for Sam” boat until it finally reaches their promised land. Upon their eventual arrival, people from around the world can join together, raise a glass of their favourite beverage and sing out the Saw Doctor’s classic „The Green and Red of Mayo“.

Mayo for Sam!

by Oisín O’Mahony

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