All we need is Sam to come back to Mayo

Our family isn’t steeped in GAA like other families. We would be categorised very much as a “soccer” household, firstly because of my father’s involvement at Westport United and Castlebar Celtic and with various youth teams all throughout his life.

There’s a little newspaper snippet that has been floating around the family group chats, too, of my grandfather Mick — Dad’s dad — answering a vox-pop out of his car window ahead of the 1996 All-Ireland senior football semi-final against Kerry.

“I’ve no interest in G.A.A,” he says. “I didn’t watch the Connacht Final and I won’t watch the Kerry game either. I’ll think I’ll go to Bingo instead.”

Maybe it’s no surprise that we always liked the soccer more than the Gaelic in our house. It wasn’t in the blood. There are, in fairness, a few accomplished GAA players in our wider family — my cousin Liam Staunton from one house and my late cousin Ken from another.

The last time Mayo won the All-Ireland was the same year my mother was born. That’s my mother, Agnes, who died in January of this year.

These days, I love it and hate it when I look back on my Facebook or Instagram photos — or my wife’s — and see one of Mam’s comments on there.

I love it because her comments are a reminder that she missed nothing in our lives and they are a reason to be thankful for what was a lovely connection between us.

Every holiday, every landmark day for our children, every little Sunday in the park, she saw. We don’t send postcards but those are a kind of postcard and one she had a chance to interact with.

I hate it because I know I will never see another comment like that again. I regret, too, that I didn’t post more photos and give her the chance to praise her grandchildren one more time.

Her phone was her major point of contact with the outside world — including me, her emigrant child.

The summer before she died, I’d flown home to Ireland. She’d been ill and was in hospital. That’s not why I came home but it’s what happened. She’d been in quite a few days and by that stage they said they’d do a surgery to see if they could get to the root of the problem.

My mother was almost lost to the world on the operating table and out of nowhere they were telling us it was time to gather round the bed. It was disorientating and it felt like we weren’t ready to do it.

Six of us — my father, three of my four brothers, my sister and me — met in the ICU that evening and I remember now that we were all wearing black. It might well have been too late for the other brother to say goodbye by the time he arrived from England the next day but he was going to be there.

We went in. My mother was unrecognisable; part-woman, part-machine. Those machines would beep two or three times in a row and we wouldn’t understand what those beeps were for.

I remember touching her hand and it was too cold. I asked why — and a nurse told me her body was protecting her organs.

The window was open behind her bed and I couldn’t square how odd it all felt. She wasn’t clinging to life as much as the machines were clinging on for her. But I was looking out the window and cars were just going by the gates of the hospital. So normal out there, so abnormal in here. It was like we were in another dimension but we could see through a portal to outside, where things were how they were meant to be. I wanted to go there.

We drove home when we were told to.

It was a Thursday and my father switched on the television; golf in America someplace, from whatever tournament.

I remember when I was still at school, on Sunday nights before heading back in on the Monday morning, my father would watch the golf from America on Sky Sports. Green fairways, blue skies. It would often be dark and cold with the wind whistling through the gaps at home, and I liked that it was still sunny and warm — still Sunday afternoon — somewhere.

Off I went to college. I never thought I’d do that again. But yet here I was, sitting in the sitting room, 17 years later, watching the American golf on television with my father. If you’d asked me if I’d want to have that experience one more time, I would have said yes. But probably not like this. It was too big a sacrifice.

We went into bed, assuming that when we got back out later that morning that she would be dead. And while I lay there I thought about the funeral to come. I thought about whether I’d have to give the eulogy. That night I’m sure I started to grieve.

I looked through all her Facebook photos. I read all her comments.

And I looked at her Instagram account.

One photo that stands out is one of her and my father at the butt of Croagh Patrick on their wedding anniversary.

The statue of Saint Patrick stands on the plinth behind them. Mam is wearing a beaming white coat and she looks proud. Her wedding ring is gleaming on her ring finger.

They got engaged on the summit of Croagh Patrick back in the early 1970s but probably wouldn’t have been able for the climb something like 43 or 44 years later. A lap of the statue would suffice.

I could then see she went on a posting spree on September 17, 2017. Six photos across the day; the day of the All-Ireland football final.

One picture, a meme of sorts, is that same plinth at the Reek, empty this time, with a sign around it saying: “Gone to Croke Park” as if St Patrick climbed down and headed up to Dublin for the final.

I could see she was out the back of the home house the day of the game. She’d taken a photo of some red berries growing in front of green leaves. She’d done the same with some red flowers which had caught the sun’s light.

“Red and Green everywhere, clear blue skies in Castlebar, all we need today is for Sam to come back to Mayo, Good luck Mayo!,” Agnes had written.

She’d had gone around the house to find other things that were green and red, our Mayo colours. There’s the word BELIEVE spelled out in green and red. There’s a chequered green and red Mayo flag that gets hung out every year that we make it to the final.

I like these photos and it makes me sad to look at them now and not only because she’s dead but because Mayo lost to Dublin that day and Agnes really wanted them to win. No fault to the players, they don’t need any extra pressure. But it’s sport. You want your team to win.

Mam wouldn’t have been able to name you the Mayo team in 2017 or probably not in any other year but that was hardly the point. She’d wished they’d win Sam Maguire. She cared.

I would always have liked Mayo to win the All-Ireland — I didn’t share my grandfather’s steadfast indifference but I was no fanatic either. I don’t think it would have changed my life.

But since that night, looking at those photos, I have wanted Mayo to win the All-Ireland more than anything than I’ve ever wanted before in my life — so something my mother wished for would come true.

And now I get it.

Fathers and grandfathers, and mothers and grandmothers, and sons and daughters, and girlfriends and boyfriends, and husbands and wives, and uncles and aunts, and cousins, and grandchildren, and neighbours, and people you just see in the street and people who died the day of semis, and people who died the day of finals.

All those people died without seeing Mayo win an All-Ireland. It’s for them. Someone out there wants Mayo to win it - for someone - and when they do they will think of them and mourn them anew. Like I will. We are living this for those gone before us.

We always say ‘maybe next year’ when we know damn well there will be no next year for a lot of us. And those ones will depart for the same place my mother is — the list of people you want Mayo to win the All-Ireland for.

That’s why we need it. It won’t bring anyone back but it matters. It matters.

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