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Letter from Mayo: Dark secrets and the search for Sam

Mayo’s injured captain Andy Moran.

CHRIS McNULTY
Letter from Mayo

GREETINGS from a busy Connacht town named Ballaghaderreen.

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It is the home of injured Mayo captain Andy Moran, but there are few pointers to an All-Ireland final here.

The Fiddler’s Elbow on Barrack Street flies two Mayo flags above its doors, but the mood inside is fairly sombre.

The waiter twigs instantly. “Ah, you’re from above in Donegal,” he says before regaling me with a tale of one of Ballaghaderreen’s famous sons, Jim Fleming.

Jim Fleming played inter-county football for both Mayo and Donegal in his time. In 1962, he won a Donegal Co Championship with Sean MacCumhaills. A Garda in Donegal at the time, he moved to the Convoy club the following year.

“Was he any good,” I venture.

“Played half-back,” I’m told.

Don’t know if that meant he was or not. I’ll assume he was since they speak so fondly of him.

Sean Flanagan, the last Mayo man to lift Sam Maguire, also hails from Ballaghaderreen.

Now, another native heads for Dublin, albeit injured, looking to clasp hands on Sam Maguire.

Here, Andy Moran is a local treasure. But only with some of the people some of the time. You see, Ballaghaderreen has a dark secret.

On the way into the town on the N5 from Charlestown, a cheery sign welcomes you to the locality: “Failte Ros Comáin.” Welcome to Roscommon.

Once upon a time, Ballaghaderreen was in Co Mayo, but in 1898, under the Local Government Act, it became a Roscommon town. All of it, that was, apart from the local GAA club, which still plays under Mayo’s banner.

The club played one year in the Roscommon championship, but it was just a once off.

Ballaghaderreen is a divided town. Some on Sunday week will be in raptures, over the moon if Moran and Mayo collect Sam Maguire. For other, there’ll be a smirk of contentment if it’s Michael Murphy who climbs the steps of the Hogan Stand – these people, it’s fair to assume, are the Rossies in the area.

Ballaghaderreen is a peculiar place with an even more peculiar story – but it’s mood is in keeping with what is a strange feeling in Mayo this week.

There is NO hype in Mayo. Zero.

No buzz, no madness. Not even any sheep spray painted green and red.

Sure, the bunting stream from businesses; flags fly in all arts and parts; Castlebar and Ballina are resplendent in green and red; but there’s something missing.

Even McHale Park in Castlebar is without atmosphere. Contrast it with Sean MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey, which is quite the sight at the minute with green and gold streaming from its every corner.

On the way down the N17 through Sligo on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, the black and white flags still flutter, Yeats County folk still flying the colours from the week of the Connacht final.

There are the odd chinks of support for the All-Ireland finalists around Ben Bulben.

Indeed, even the local chapel in Grange is flying the flags. At either side of the main gate flies the Mayo and Donegal colours.

Charlestown is the first town inside the Mayo border. You wouldn’t think they’re gearing up for an All-Ireland there, though.

“Ah sure we’ve had so many finals and been beaten in them, ya wouldn’t bother with that aul carry on,” one man puffs on his cigarrette.

“Folk says we’ve not a prayer in this one either.”

James Horan later tells us at a press conference: “There is a lot of composure and calm in the county which is good.”

Indeed, it seems overly calm.

From here, I head for Ballina, but again there’s a mooted build-up that only rises on the way out of town where every business seems to have a ‘Good Luck Mayo’ sign scrawled along the roadside.

I need petrol so pop into Mangan’s Filling Station on the outskirts of town. The shop assistant draws a broad grin when I wander to the counter.

“Which parts are you from?”

“Donegal,” I whisper. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Me too – I’m from Falcarragh.”

“Tough couple of weeks for ye here?” I wonder. “Na, it’s great craic.”

Couldn’t seem to stay anonymous. Perhaps it was the Donegal airfreshener on the mirror, or the car flag flying from the back window, or the window sticker, or the smiley Donegal Rua grinning from the back seat that gave the game up…

Snaking around Lough Talt over ‘The Windy Gap’ into Castlebar, you can’t help but see the striking similarities in the geography of Mayo and Donegal. It’s raw, unspoiled natural beauty is quite the sight on a day like this.

Remarkably, it’s not even ‘spoiled’ by a green and red something jutting out of some place.

Castlebar is a hive of Junior Cert activity early on Wednesday evening. Garda patrols have manned the streets, which are bedecked in green and red.

The Breaffy House is well outside the town in a quaint setting that makes it easy to see why Jim McGuinness had his Donegal team spending some time here.
James Horan summonsed us here to conduct his press duties ahead of the All-Ireland final. It’s a beautiful resort that seems a world apart from the hustle bustle of a tickets rush or pre-game banter.

Just the way Horan likes, it seems.

After obliging the media with a couple of hours of quotes, Horan and his carefully selected players head off into the evening to continue their plans for Donegal.

They’re a week behind in Mayo, having been involved in the second semi. They hold an open night tonight for fans in Castlebar.

They expect a big crowd, but don’t predict there to be close to the 5,000 that greeted Donegal in Ballybofey last Saturday morning. Then, just eight days stand between Mayo and the biggest game of their lives.

On the way back from Castlebar to Charlestown, through Ballyvary a sign reads ‘Simply Amazing Mayo (SAM)’ – it’s the first reference to Sam Maguire I’ve come across all day.

Although timid, there was a confident tone out west on Wednesday.

Confident of breaking their hoodoo and of becoming the first team to crack the Tir Chonaill code.

Still, something doesn’t seem right.

I make the turn for home in Charlestown, bidding Mayo a fond farewell for now, a last look around seems to confirm a reluctance for the natives to build their hopes too high.

John Gannon is back outside Murray’s in the town drawing on another tobacco stick.

I pull in for a sandwich and tell him I’m headed for the Hills again as I come back with supplies for the journey home.

“Good luck on Sunday week son,” he says.

“I think we still have time to wait here in Mayo. It’s just good to be in it mind you. You never know, maybe Moran will bring it home.”

Some folk in nearby Ballaghaderreen agree. Only some mind you.

It was a strange sort of Wednesday.

c.mcnulty@donegalnews.com

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