Stephen O'Grady on the importance of Gaelic football and a historic losing streak

  
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This episode of Streets of Your Town straddles two continents on opposite sides of the world—Ireland and Australia.

Where the wild ocean whips the rocky cliffs of Ireland’s west coast, the people of the small county of Mayo are contemplating whether they can overcome a hoodoo of 70 years.

Is it a coincidence or a curse? I delve into the mystery of how this county has not won an All Ireland Gaelic Football Final since 1951, despite making it to the finals of arguably Ireland’s most important sporting contest ten times.

Some blame an infamous curse apparently placed on the entire football team by an angry priest.

But as our guest Stephen O’Grady so eloquently explains, Gaelic football is more than just a sport, it’s a crucial part of life in Ireland.

“1951 was the year that Mayo last won the All Ireland football title,” he says.

“Since then there has been this veritable famine as Mayo have gone in search of what’s become known as the holy grail for Mayo. Year after year we have this amazing ability to make All Ireland Grand Finals and lose them. But make them exciting, and yet lose them in the most dramatic and unprecedented ways.”

He says the renowned Mayo curse, has taken on more of a meaning in Australia, than at home.

“As the Mayo team returned home from the All Ireland title winning trip to Dublin in 1951 they came to a town called Foxford…so the story goes that as the Mayo team came through there was also a funeral ongoing in the town. So the story goes that the Mayo team didn’t show respect for the funeral, and the priest who was overseeing the funeral cast a curse—do you cast a curse or impose a curse?—on the Mayo Team and said they would not win another All Ireland until all members of that team had passed on.

“My memory and my understanding is that one [surviving member of that team] remains.

“Paddy Prendergast who has actually lived in Kerry for much of his life—he’s the one remaining alive apparently. A lovely man. I would be delighted if Mayo could pull off the win in two weeks time and he’d be there to bear witness to it.

“It’s funny growing up I didn’t know about the curse at all. It definitely passed me by. I would dare say, it came to my attention more when I came to Australia. It’s funny how it pops up—it’s a great old yarn. We all know it’s a load of codswallop."

Mayo has made it through to this year’s All Ireland final on September 11 when they will take on Tyrone. It’s the first time Tyrone and Mayo have ever faced each other in an All Ireland final.

Stephen O’Grady grew up in Mayo, with the imprint of his county’s woes in finals a constant companion while growing up.

“I’m a Mayo man. I was born in Mayo. And here’s my first little bit of ‘it’s our year this year’—I was born in Mayo back in 1970 and it’s 70 years since we won the All Ireland, so it must be meant to be this year,” he says.

"I’m not a bit superstitious Nance but I’m taking anything that’s going."

Now living in Brisbane, Australia, after moving here 15 years ago, Stephen tells us how he hopes this is the year that his beloved Mayo football team overcomes the weight of an entire county’s expectations, and the shadow of a disputed curse.

“In Ireland Gaelic football is shaped around your parish, so you don’t get to move around really. You have that identity and connection from day one of your life and you really don’t shake it off,” he says.

As Stephen explains, Gaelic football is as much about identity, Irish emigration, and the longing for what was left behind, as it is about who wins or loses.

“Sport has a quality that can create human experiences that other aspects of life don’t have, and that should never be undermined. We should recognise it for what it is."

To watch the game you’ll have to be up at 2.30am on Sunday September 12, and download the special GAA app.

Behind the Scenes

In this interview Stephen and I talk about International Rules, the hybrid game that combines Gaelic football with Aussie Rules to come up with a game that both countries play against each other as the international competition.

I will never forget travelling around Ireland to meet all of my then-fiance Andrew’s rellies, but also having the distinct joy of watching and reporting on the International Rules competition being played in Ireland that year.

If you’d like to hear some of the drama behind the scenes, and of course more of those glorious Irish accents from all around that beautiful country, then you can listen to my 2007 SA Media Awards Best Sports Story winning radio doco “International Rules”.

And this week is the great debut of journo legend and author extraordinaire Trent Dalton’s book Boy Swallows Universe on stage as part of the Brisbane Festival!

It’s a wonderful success story with the season being extended twice already after being put off from last year because of the pandemic.

And if you remember Trent Dalton’s interview from my Journo Project podcast, you’ll know that he credits so much of this success to his training as a journalist. You can listen to that episode and how he pulled Boy Swallows Universe together.

Streets of Your Town: The Journo Project
Trent Dalton, from journo to author
Listen now (46 min) | He’s the kid from Brisbane’s tough outlying northern suburbs who went on to win two Walkley Awards for his powerful feature writing. Now Trent Dalton adds screenwriter and international bestselling author to his credits. His first novel Boy Swallows Universe…
Read more

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Streets of your Town podcast would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians on whose land this story was gathered—the Yuggera and Turrbul peoples.

I acknowledge their ongoing resilience, contributions and connection to land, culture and water, and pay my respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging.

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