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What does It Mean?

Is it a cry of despair or an invocation for divine assistance in challenges to overcome? (Or maybe both?)

“What” refers to the phrase long-associated with Mayo people and all things Mayo; “Mayo, God Help Us!”

Allegedly, it came into being because it was the almost universal response of Mayo expatriates throughout the world whenever they were asked where they had come from;

As in, “Where are you folks from?”

“We’re from Mayo. God help us.”

Maybe this account of its origin is indeed true but it matters not. It’s true in essence and that’s what counts. It accurately summed up the feelings of the untold hundreds of thousands from this stricken county who were exiled by poverty, oppression and political indifference to their plight.

The coffin ships in the decades during and after the Great Famine carried them in bulk across the Atlantic, not knowing what lay before them but certain that life couldn’t be any worse than what they were leaving behind.

Others found their way to England and congregated in the main urban centres. To this day, cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and London bear witness to this forced emigration; one might call it deportation from the Land of the Shamrock and Heather, as they have large colonies with strong Mayo roots. Emigrants from my part of the county, Swinford in East Mayo, tended to settle in Leeds.

Mind you, the phenomenon of mass flight from this part of the county neither began nor ended in the years when famine stalked the land.  During the 1830s, many Mayo emigrants found their way to Argentina for reasons I am not altogether sure of. Others headed for the docks of Liverpool and others still worked on the construction of the English rail network and, before the advent of the steam engine, in the excavation of its canals.

“The women found work in factories and mills while the men used the pick and shovel,” as an old neighbour with a lyrical touch to her speech, said to me once in my childhood days.

In truth, Mayo people and others of Mayo ancestry are to be found almost anywhere on earth. For the outward flow of its people still diminishes the resourced of this long-suffering land.

Mayo’s population was recorded as 388,887 in 1841, just before the potato blight made its appearance. It reached its nadir in 2002 when the figure had dipped to 117,494.

Okay, it is not quite accurate to moan that the history of Mayo and its people is one of unrelenting gloom and despair—but much of it was.

The Mayo psyche is a complex and fragile one.  Perhaps it is best expressed in our songs and stories:

It's just a year ago today 
I left old Erin's Isle 
My heart was throbbing in the soft light 
Of my colleen's smile 
In all my dreams I seem to hear 
Her sweet voice soft and low 
I know she's waiting where we said 
Goodbye in old Mayo 

Mawkish and stylised and a favourite of the old music hall aficionados, “Moonlight in Mayo” seems to appeal to many with no Mayo connection at all, either real or imagined.

 After all, unrequited love and nostalgic flashbacks to one’s place of origin are universal themes but Mayo folks appear to affect pathos and despair better than most others.

Many other definitive Mayo songs have another characteristic in common with the above; they are composed from an ex-pat’s perspective—indications of the harsh lot our ancestor’s endured.

Well-known works like “Take Me Home to Mayo” and “The Boys of the County Mayo,” with its opening line,” Far away from the Land of the Shamrock and Heather,” continue in the same doleful vein.

But there is another side to the average Mayo person’s mental make up. “Mayo, God help us” can be interpreted in another way and, for many; this is the one that defines Mayo mentality today.

Self-pity is not a defining Mayo characteristic and neither is the propensity to lie down in the face of overwhelming odds.

“Now boys stick together in all kinds of weather,

Ne’er show the white feather wherever you go,

Act to each as a brother and help one and other

Like stout-hearted men from the County Mayo.”

Those words, dear reader, are the chorus of the aforementioned “The Boys of the County Mayo,” which belies the lament somewhat.

We can also call on God to aid us in the struggles that lie ahead as well as looking for the Almighty to take pity on our sorry lot Back in 1798, the poorly-armed and badly-trained Mayo peasants, who stood their ground on the ridge of Shanmullagh, near Ballinamuck in County Longford, stopped repeated charges from England’s crack cavalry troops for more than four hours. Their hopeless but heroic stand earned fulsome praise from their adversaries.

It was the tenantry of Mayo who first carried the fight to the oppressive landlords and ultimately wrested the right to own property from their greedy hands.  They were ably led by Michael Davitt from Straide, one of their own.

The fairer sex was not to be outdone as the history of Mayo was being created. From Granuaile to Mary Robinson, a list of redoubtable heroines stands out.  At home and abroad, Mayo was never noted for the half-hearted endeavours of its sons and daughters.

Green and red are the official colours of this county.

This choice of colour scheme was said to have been inspired by the words of a Thomas Davis poem:

Full often when our fathers saw the Red above the Green,
They rose in rude but fierce array, with sabre, pike and skian,
And over many a noble town, and many a field of dead,
They proudly set the Irish Green above the English Red.

With the fortunes of the county’s football senior football teams, it’s a case of being often down but never quite out. Gaelic football is a very popular sport in Ireland and in Mayo in particular; the interest in the fortunes of the county senior (men’s) side has long since passed the fanatical devotion stage. It vies with small talk about the weather as the number one topic whenever two or more ‘Mayos’ chance to meet up- especially when the meeting takes place on foreign soil.

The desire for success in the All Ireland Championships is what forges a common link between us all. The fact that our teams are remarkably unsuccessful in their quest for our concept of the Holy Grails means little to those who long for news of home. The last time a Mayo side lifted the coveted Sam Maguire trophy was back in 1951.

Still the hunger is there and will remain until the goal is achieved.

After that, who knows?

Somehow or other, I doubt than interest in Mayo football will wane when Mayos meet up in Pittsburgh, PA, or  on Main Street, Swinford. “How’ll the lads do this year, do ya think?” needs no explanation or interpretation at all.

Small talk is dispensed with and barriers of time and distance are lessened as the chat gets animated. Barriers of logic and reason are dispensed with as reminiscences are exchanged and lasting friendships are made. There will be no surrender and no turning aside until the goal is achieved.

Perhaps one should look no further than the crest on Mayo’s football jerseys to try and understand our two-faced meaning of the phrase that defines us: “Mayo, God help us.”

“Mayo, God Help Us”

Lift us up or lead us on?

Críost Linn can mean “Christ, pull us out of the hole we are in” or “Christ, stand with us as we turn to face the foe.”
What do you think?

On the GAA county crest, the motto reads, “Criost Linn.” (Christ be with us)

This can mean we implore Christ to take pity on us in our sufferings and disappointments or it could be an exhortation to aid us as we face our adversaries with courage and determination once again. Such are the vagaries of Mayo football that it can mean both at the same time!

Nothing to do with County Mayo is ever as simple as it may seem.

A “derby” game against neighbours and long-standing rivals, Galway.

Dark Days 1845
Starving Irish emigrants on board a coffin ship.

Bright Future  1985?
First commercial flight lands at Knock International Airport.