After Kerry annihilated Mayo in the 2006 All-Ireland Football Final, a Mayo friend of mine said to me that "the craic is savage whenever Mayo reach an All-Ireland; that is until half-three on the Sunday afternoon".
That comment hit home for two reasons: firstly, it was a wonderful description of the odyssey that Mayo fans in high spirits make to the capital when their team nears its Everest; secondly, it silently captures the misery routinely inflicted on a whole county once the ball is thrown in.
In the past 20 years, that misery has been relentless. Beaten in three finals (1989, 1996, 1997), thrashed in two others (2004, 2006), and crucified by a margin of 20 points in the 1993 semi-final, Mayo has had several haunting experiences in Croke Park.
Keith Duggan's 'House of Pain' takes a sympathetic look at those nightmares on Jones' Road, and evaluates the effect they've had on a county's heart and soul. Zigzagging his way across the rugged Mayo terrain to meet the players and managers who have suffered for the Green and Red, Duggan recounts the highs of 1950 and 1951, and examines how those Sam-winning sides have become more mythologised with each passing year.
Mayo is the Jimmy White of GAA. Some say they're unlucky nearly-men; others say they are born losers. The truth, as ever, is less simplistic. Duggan patiently untangles the wreckage of Mayo GAA post-'51, and in the process uncovers some anecdotal gems. But the same old questions remain: What if Finnerty had goaled in '89? How did '96 slip through the cracks? Why the collapses of '04 and '06?
Mayo has suffered its share of hardship over the decades. And yet its footballing fortunes are more ingrained in the county's DNA than the spectres of unemployment and emigration. Duggan understands this, and some of his prose here – on the death and legacy of Ted Webb; on the Ciarán McDonald enigma – echoes far louder than within the confines of GAA. This book goes beyond sport: it's an audit of an entire psyche and social fabric.
If there's one criticism that can be levelled at Duggan it's that he doesn't offer enough of himself on Mayo. If he's not quite sitting on the fence here, he's certainly leaning against it. And while nobody expects him to stick the boot in – the last 56 years have been painful enough – there was still room for more of his own take on Mayo's (mis)fortunes.
Septembers have been cruel to Mayo, but when the pain of failure eases, when the dark winters dissolve and the light of a new footballing year appears, the county inevitably recognises that they'd never swap the lows for Championship anonymity.
Keith Duggan is Ireland's finest sports writer, and his paean to Mayo GAA has done nothing to dent his reputation. Nostalgic, humorous and sad, it's also drenched in the ingredient that keeps Mayo football coming back for more: hope.
And yes, I am a Mayo man.