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The curse of Mayo: can Ireland’s unluckiest side end a 70-year run?

The curse began, as in most fairy-tales, during a time of joy. It was 23 September 1951, and Mayo, an impoverished county in the west of Ireland, had just won the All-Ireland senior football championship final.

The team had triumphed over county Meath in Croke Park stadium in Dublin, making the players the kings of Gaelic football. It was the biggest day in Ireland’s sporting calendar, a day when the nation stopped and tuned into the radio. An All-Ireland final was a cultural phenomenon.

Clutching the Sam Maguire Cup, the young victors piled into a truck and wound their way back to Mayo to celebrate. They were rolling through the village of Foxford when, so legend goes, they passed a church where a funeral was under way. The players did not get out to pay their respects. The enraged priest then uttered the fateful words: “For as long as you all live, Mayo won’t win another All-Ireland.”

And so it came to pass. A 70-year drought: seven decades in which Mayo has fielded great teams and come oh-so close to reclaiming the trophy multiple times, only to lose, crushing the county’s hopes and prompting some to wonder: what if the curse is real?

The question is now burning anew because Mayo has made it to another All-Ireland final. On 11 September, the descendants of the 1951 team will take on county Tyrone in Croke Park, the 134th All-Ireland senior football final.

One member of the 1951 winning team is still alive – Paddy Prendergast, aged 94 – so, in theory, the curse still endures, and that possibility is fuelling intense interest in the game.

“It’s almost evangelical – the pursuit of this missing trophy,” said Alan Milton, a spokesman for the Gaelic Athletic Association, which runs the championship.

“Everyone wants to be there to see if they do break this hoodoo.

“There is an element of fomo (fear of missing out). You don’t want to miss it when they do finally reach the holy grail.”

As the match nears, athletes, pundits and politicians have debated the superstition on the airwaves. The national broadcaster, RTÉ, asked the former taoiseach, Enda Kenny, who is from Mayo, if his county could overcome the supposed hex.

“Absolutely,” he replied. “I don’t believe in the curse at all, neither does Paddy Prendergast, and he’s the most iconic figure.”

Kenny is credited with a saltier response when asked about Mayo’s loss in a 2017 final: “Curse my arse Joe, they just scored more than us.”

But even curse sceptics concede that Mayo has been extraordinarily unlucky. The third biggest of the island of Ireland’s 32 counties, a landscape of bogs, rocks and Atlantic cliffs, it is sparsely populated – just 130,000 people, –but produces excellent Gaelic football teams and especially fervent supporters.

Ten times since 1951, the men’s team have reached the final, an achievement in itself that requires winning the Connacht provincial championship and then a semi-final against another province’s winner.

But then each time, before 82,000 stadium spectators and up to a million TV viewers, Mayo has fluffed Ireland’s equivalent of the Super Bowl. Recent defeats were especially agonising. In 2017, they played sublime football but lost in injury time to Dublin, a GAA juggernaut. They lost to Dublin again last year, evoking despair akin to Captain Ahab seeing Moby Dick vanish below the waves.

Then the men in green and red thwarted the Dubs in last month’s semi-final – a thriller – to earn a place against Tyrone next Sunday.

In normal times, Mayo’s diaspora – since the famine it has been one of the counties hardest hit by emigration – flocks back to Ireland to will the team to victory. Covid-19 has impeded any influx this time and Croke Park will operate at half-capacity.

“They’re zealots and normally travel in massive numbers,” said Milton. From the US, UK and elsewhere, they will root for an end to the curse. “There’s been a manic obsession to see this happen.”

Few people seriously believe in the curse. It is an anachronism, folklore from a lost era when Catholic priests could berate pliant congregations. The church’s power has withered and Ireland is now secular.

In any case, the curse may be a myth. The 1951 team stopped in Foxford to greet well-wishers but did not encounter a priest, Prendergast told TG4 in 2017. “There was supposed to have been a funeral in the local church; I don’t know whether there was or not. I saw people standing around the church but we didn’t get off the truck because we couldn’t get off the bloody truck.”

There are other superstitions. No player wearing number 13 is said to have ever lifted the Sam Maguire Cup (named after an Irish republican who served in the British civil service) on All-Ireland final day.

Curses have been linked to disappointing results by other teams. In 1923, a priest in Galway, irked by people sneaking from mass to watch a hurling match, is said to have shouted: “May Galway never win an All-Ireland while a member of this parish is playing on the team.” After a visit to Galway by Pope John Paul II in 1979, the county’s hurlers finally won another championship in 1980.

Papal power has limits, though. Pope Francis signed a Mayo football jersey after visiting a shrine in the county in 2018. “Will that end the curse?” RTÉ News asked in a tweet.

It didn’t.