President Michael D. Higgins meeting the Mayo players.

A Mayo councillor's hopes for Mayo and the Sam Maguire Cup

WATCHING Galway beat Mayo in the Connaught final in June this year made many despair for Mayo football, writes Thérese Ruane.

Was this the end of an era? Was there to be no homecoming for the Sam Maguire from this great team?

Thankfully, the Mayo resilience, commitment and dogged determination shone through and yet again, Mayo secured a place in another All-Ireland football final.

As I took my seat in Croke Park this year, so many memories came flooding back to me. My first time in Croke Park was in 1989 for the All-Ireland final between Mayo and Cork. I think we were happy just to be there that day.

Our victory was reaching the final and relishing in the glory and the thrill of shouting on our team in Croke Park. But we came so close, and we felt reassured we wouldn’t be waiting another 38 years before we’d contest an All-Ireland final again.

It took a few years, but finally, in 1996, there we were back again, this time up against Meath for a thrilling replay of the 1951 final. We gathered in our favourite spot in the Canal End of Croke Park, family and friends all together in a sea of red and green, expectant, nervous and hopeful.

Before the match started, I noticed a man standing alone a few yards away from us. He looked just like my Uncle Benny who had emigrated to Chicago in the 1950s. I’d met Benny for the first time in 1988 when he had come back to Mayo to see my father before he died. I remember his tweed cap and how he spoke with a strong Mayo accent, unchanged since the day he’d stepped off the boat many decades earlier.

Benny and I had connected straight away. We kept in touch over the years, writing letters over and back to each other, his airmail envelope always containing a $20 note even though I knew he could barely afford it.

And of course, the recent banter on Mayo football and their prospects in the championship that year featured prominently in our letters.

Benny died in 1993. He didn’t live to see Mayo line out in Croke Park again and his dream of bringing the Sam Maguire home to Mayo hadn’t yet been realised.

The man standing in the Canal End of Croke Park that day was so like Benny, I had to speak to him. At half-time I approached him, asking what he thought of the match so far. At first he was shy, but delighted with the company, and before long he was telling me all about himself and how he came to be at the All-Ireland final that day.

He had grown up in Mayo, but left for New York in the late 1950s. He had never returned home, not even to visit. He’d no family or friends left in Ireland that he knew of. He remembered his father taking him to Croke Park as a young boy to see Mayo play Meath in the final of 1951. He’d never forgotten that day and had vowed to return if Mayo reached an All-Ireland final again.

In 1989 he had planned to travel but couldn’t seem to muster up the courage.

This time he did and the solitary Mayo man stepped on a plane in New York, booked into a hotel in Dublin and made his way to Croke Park. He told me he’d die happy if he could just see Mayo win the Sam Maguire again.

The second half began. We were jubilant. Eighteen minutes to go and six points up, all of us ready to invade the pitch and celebrate victory.

But, as we all know, Mayo didn’t win that day. In the dying moments of the game a bounce of a ball from Colm Coyle robbed us of our triumph and it was a drawn match. It was heart-breaking. I looked over to my new friend, our eyes met. He was devastated. A draw. No result. I went over to say goodbye.

As tears welled in his eyes, he said: “I’ll never make it back for the replay.”

We both knew he would not make it home to Ireland again. I often think of him and of my Uncle Benny and so many others like them, exiles who never returned, who buried their loneliness and loss deep inside.

But when the men in green and red line out on Saturday in Croke Park, when the National Anthem plays and the roar of the crowd deafens, their hopes, their dreams and their pride will fill the air too, and everything will be possible. Especially after 65 years.