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The Quest To End A 73-Year-Old Gaelic Football Curse Starts In The Bronx

Mayo , Ireland - 17 March 2024; Mayo players stand for Amhrán na bhFiann before the Allianz Football League Division 1 match between Mayo and Derry at Hastings Insurance MacHale Park in Castlebar, Mayo.
Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile via Getty Images

The 2024 rendition of the All-Ireland Football Championship tournament gets underway this weekend with the featured match taking place in ... the Bronx? 

Yup. A Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) squad representing County Mayo plays New York GAA in a Connacht province quarterfinal football match on Sunday at Gaelic Park.

The All-Ireland football championship has been contested since 1887, and began as a competition for teams representing the 32 counties of Ireland before England broke the island into pieces (there are now 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland plus six in Northern Ireland). But late in the last century, GAA brass threw a bone to Irish expats, adding teams from New York and London to the mix. The first step in the quest for an All-Ireland comes with the provincial championships held in each of the country’s four provinces. For competitive purposes, the offshore New York and London teams were put in the Connacht Province alongside Mayo, Galway, Sligo, Leitrim, and Roscommon. So once a year on the tournament’s opening weekend, a team leaves Ireland for New York. Much as all my grandparents crossed the pond a century and change ago, only my kin was fleeing British oppression and the multi-generational destitution foisted on Ireland by the evil imperialists, not coming over to play a game. But otherwise, pretty similar.

This year, it’s Mayo’s turn. Even with no obvious marketing, the Mayo-New York match sold out quickly. Gaelic Park has an official capacity of just 2,000 (though match-day crowds seem far larger), so if you don’t already have a ticket, don’t bother looking. I missed the original sale, and I’ve been checking secondary markets all week without getting a whiff. 

That’s not a complete shocker. The ancient sport has traditionally gotten attention exclusively in Gaelophile circles, but has broken contain a couple times of late: Three GAA footballers were brought in for the NFL combine last month to try out for kicking jobs, and The Athletic’s Kalyn Kahler broke the news that Charlie Smyth, a goalie for the County Down squad, was signed last week by the New Orleans Saints. 

Plus, the Mayo team is among Gaelic football’s most beloved squads, and already had maybe the biggest fan base in the sport even before becoming the subject of international interest last year. That came when Joe Biden, whose ancestors and lots of living relatives hail from the county, turned the final speech of his lengthy Ireland visit into a pep rally for the home team’s All-Ireland quest. “Mayo for Sam! Mayo for Sam!” Biden shouted, a reference to the Sam Maguire Cup given each year to the tournament winner. 

The one-off annual match in the Bronx can be a jarring experience for spectators who’ve only watched games played on GAA grounds in Ireland. The New York squad is the only GAA team permitted to use artificial turf. The team shares the multipurpose field at Gaelic Park with the softball, lacrosse, and soccer programs at Manhattan College, and the lines for those other fields of play are visible during the football game, so it can get confusing wondering which border is the football pitch’s out of bounds. Also, GAA rules hold that athletes can only play for their home county, but there is an exception for New York: Footballers living all over the U.S. suit up for the club.

But the odd playing surface and loosened player/county eligibility rules never really ruffled feathers, surely in part because the visiting county squads tended to beat the living crap out of the comparatively disorganized American team year after year in the Bronx, and could therefore continue their runs toward a provincial championship and All-Ireland title unabated. So the New York games had an aura more of an exhibition than a playoff.

But New York's gotten feisty. In last year’s stateside match, the underdog Yanks tied visiting Leitrim late in extra time, 0-15 to 0-15, and ultimately won on penalty kicks. The clinching boot came from Mikey Brosnan, one of four U.S.-born players on the winning squad.

This was New York’s first win in tournament history. Leitrim’s loss was such a shock to the system of one color commentator on the GAA’s official stream that as the New York fans stormed the field to celebrate he actually started crying sad tears, while explaining that he was from Leitrim and felt ashamed for “the lads” on the losing end. Quirky field and quirky eligibility rules and quirky scoreline be damned, this was good sports. 

The historic win earned New York a trip to Ireland and its first-ever provincial semifinals match. Alas, they returned to form by the time they arrived in Sligo, where they were trounced by their Irish hosts, 2-16 to 0-6. But the Yanks were playing with house money by then.

Mayo’s ambitions this season and every year are a lot loftier than New York’s. They want an All-Ireland title, something they haven’t won in 73 years. But, good golly, have they come close. The squad has appeared in 13 finals matches at Croke Park in Dublin since its last Sam Maguire, but hasn't won a single one of them. (Mayo tied in the 1996 and 2016 finals, but lost the replays in both.) Not surprisingly, that's the longest championship game non-winning streak in the 137-year history of the All-Ireland tournament.

Plenty of Irish folks, a myth-loving lot, attribute Mayo’s otherworldly skein to a curse placed on the team by a priest after the victory celebration following that 1951 win. The legend, some version of which every Gaelic football fan in and out of Mayo can recite, holds that the cleric felt a bus full of revelers disrespected a funeral in the town of Foxford, and said that as long as anybody on the winning team is alive there’ll be no more All-Irelands for Mayo. Crazy, for sure. But so’s Mayo's addiction to losing finals.

The damage inflicted on the Mayo fan base by all those losses is evident in how a large portion of the green and red flock has adopted the most desperate fight song I’ve ever come across: “To Win Just Once” by Galway’s Saw Doctors.

But, another chase begins this weekend. And, in case the gods really are paying attention: Mick Loftus, the last living guy from the 1951 Mayo panel that may or may not have inspired the curse, died last April at 93 years old. Mayo for Sam! 

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