There is a renowned tale routinely recited on the barstools of Mayo hurling’s small stronghold. It concerns perhaps their most famous victory in history. The ’86 triumph over Waterford.
The Cork Examiner’s John Murphy called it Waterford’s “most embarrassing and ignominious hour,” doing a great disservice to the underdog’s accomplishment. Accounts of the game vary, but records show Mayo led 2-6 to 0-0 at half-time, with one participant that day explaining that the gale they played with in the first-half was so strong “it nearly tore the blackspot off the crossbar.”
The final score was 3-7 to 2-6, achieved by in large thanks to a 14-men withdrawal behind the ball in the second half. At one point, Mayo's isolated and weary Joe Henry came into possession of the ball near the side-line and elected to strategically hand pass it towards the stand, where a gaggle of burly western men monetarily forgot motor skills and several minutes were wasted until the sliotar was retrieved.
That result is as poignant as ever today, because the Mayo hurlers have returned to those lofty heights. From next season, the green and red will hurl in Division 2A.
"I was gratefully reminded after the league final, it is not anywhere we haven’t been before!" Said Mayo half-back Cathal Freeman. "Back in the 80’s they were in Division 2, and they played Tipp' and Waterford. We are not the trailblazers we are made out to be, we are just getting back to where we have been before. I actually like to take that attitude: in the last couple of years we have been here before as a county. We can do it and there’s no reason not."
Cathal Freeman was fresh from a historic championship campaign which saw his club reach an All-Ireland semi-final. With a league medal now in his back pocket, Mayo hurling is at an all-time high and as captain he is in the thick of it.
The mood is good in the county. People are aware of us, the amount who know of the good things that are going on. Whether it was the Tooreen campaign or the Mayo league campaign, I would certainly say, in my time, this is the most attention that we have received and the most people within the county that are aware of us. Aware that we are here and we are competing, doing our best. It’s definitely on the rise.
Freeman is no ordinary inter-county hurler, and thus this is no ordinary interview. For starters, there is his route to the Mayo inter-county team. Born in the tiny village of Tooreen, a deep love for hurling was forged after relentless backyard battles with his older brother, Adrian. It was while watching a match involving his brother that Freeman fell in love with another team, and quickly became enamoured with the idea of representing it.
I would have always in my own mind have had a huge love of Gaelic football and still do. I’m widely interested in it. I had a lot of goals as a kid, when St. Jarlaths played Ballyhaunis I was in 6th class and Keith Higgins and my brother played with Ballyhaunis. I saw all the support for Jarlaths, the feeling around it and said ‘I really want to go there some day.’ So, when I finished Junior Cert I transferred. By the time I was done I had ambition to play senior hurling and football for Mayo.
For Freeman, there is a fundamental value in the GAA. It is not an avenue for fame or fortune, it is certainly not about himself and there is a significant deal of unwillingness to make it so. Playing is a process, the personification of pleasure. When Mayo made the league final this year, the tie was fixed for the same time as the footballer’s contest with Tyrone, some 165 kilometres apart. When quizzed the Mayo captain not only elects to forgive this injustice but dismisses it as irrelevant. The county is unquestionably football orientated and yet the fixture mismanagement, any possible lack of backing or attention is irrelevant because playing is all that matters. That is why the absence of a Hogan Cup is described as one of the most crushing days of his career- the game itself takes precedence.
We were beaten by Brendan’s Killarney, James O'Donoghue I think kicked double digits and we had never heard of him before. He absolutely tore us to shreds. I Just really loved playing for Jarlaths, I found it to be a very enjoyable time and came into a new school not knowing anyone to make some brilliant friends. I loved being part of the tradition and really was convinced that I was going to win a Hogan Cup. We won two Connacht’s, but then it was the dying of that dream and knowing you won’t have the opportunity back again. We’ll say in a club championship or playing for Mayo at any level, you always know, 'Right I can come back next year and I can work on this and work on that', but we got beaten that day against Killarney. That was it.
Few folks on this side of the world were concerned with Alabama Crimson Tide’s extraordinary 26-23 overtime victory in the American Football National College Champions, but that is Freeman’s primary sporting passion. Artificial intelligence and good, long-form journalism are the two other interests. The New Yorker, the Atlantic and the Economist are publications of choice and already there is an awareness that the likelihood is he won’t read this interview. Suggestions for strong sports journalism inspiration are doled out and gratefully received. Grievances concerning the fixation on theoretical GAA analysis irrelevant to the game’s particulates are aired, the link between sponsorship, media exposure and growth of the game explained and by the time he is finished, there is an urgent need to change the topic of conversation for fear he’ll soon invoice for the lesson.
Tua Tagovailoa was Alabama’s unlikely hero during the National Championships. Born into a Samoan family in Hawaii, he became enamoured with football within the surf-and-sand focused region. The quarterback came off the bench and let rip a 40+ yard pass to land the game-winning touchdown last January.
Freeman too was not born in a county where his sport was prominent. It is hardly an astonishing revelation that football takes priority in Mayo, it is just a given. After school, a young Cathal harboured ambitions of playing Senior Mayo hurling and football. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be.
I was on and off the Mayo team for the guts of two years. Was I good enough? Possibly, but possibly not. I wasn’t a Keith Higgins type of player, like a perennial all-star. I have no regrets about my time there because I gave all I could, and it didn’t work out. It happens. Once I left the Mayo football squad, I wasn’t enjoying football, I was really enjoying hurling and wanted to be as good as I could be at that level. I had this ambition. I wanted to play Railway Cup and felt we could do more with Tooreen and Mayo.
I really wanted to dedicate myself to that, so I stopped playing club football as well, which was a difficult decision. I’d to leave aside Aghamore football club, who have been incredibly good to me. It’s been a long and windy road in terms of my own sporting career.
Mayo’s hurling pockets hold a pride in the 2B Champions as strong as the adoration in Ballyhale or Portumna. This is their team; home-grown, native and capable. That belief extends throughout the squad as they have demonstrated time and again over the last two months.
It was a brilliant League campaign in many respects. We won all of our group games which mattered. By the last game against Down we had already qualified. What stuck out was the general resolve we showed, we were down, trailing every single time at half time in our matches. Then we had the ability to refocus and get back to basics, produce a more solid performance in the second half of every game and get to work.
Congratulations to Mayo hurlers and their captain Cathal Freeman on their fine 2B league final win over Down at the weekend. Dual star Keith Higgins playing an influential role along the way! #CelebratingPlayers pic.twitter.com/nih9P9kcJg
— GPA (@gaelicplayers) March 21, 2018
That is the momentum the side hope they can carry into the Christy Ring next month.
It is wide open. I think it is a wonderful championship to be in because of the number of teams that will be competitive. London, Kildare are in 2A, they probably see themselves as a cut above. We are doing our damnedest to get to that kind of level. Derry have all the Slaughtneil’s boys back and you saw the difference that made in the relegation final against Armagh. Against Down there was only a puck of a ball between us in the league final, Armagh have beaten us more often than we’ve beaten them over the past couple of years. It’s fantastic to be involved and all teams will be chomping at the bit to get going. Even talking to lads in the Joe McDonagh, they’re really looking forward to it.
This year will see the introduction of a new hurling Championship structure, with Mayo competing in the third tier. The prospect of forming three fully competitive competitions is no mean feat but to give credit where it is due, this year's formation looks well-balanced.
One of the issues with hurling is that it is quite difficult to split teams up because there is a large gap in the standard, even amongst what people may consider to be balanced. For example, we played Carlow last year. From someone on the outside looking in they’d say Carlow aren’t a strong hurling team and neither are Mayo so they are at a similar level but we got beaten by, I can hardly remember the score, maybe 30 points. There is a significant gap between levels of hurling at the lower end, so it is a difficult proposition to get everyone into a competitive structure. To be fair to the GAA they have done that at least in this variation of the set-up. We can’t ask for much more.
Cathal Freeman is engaging and immensely personable. All the advanced interests aside there is a discerning style that could only be forged in small-town Ireland. His one true focus throughout the conversation is Mayo hurling; that is his sporting priority. May 12th, an opening round clash with Wicklow. Outside of that, a return to education is on the horizon as a career in medicine is pending.
If a good captain is one who remains calm in the storm then it is easy to see why Freeman leads out the Mayo hurlers. Whether it be in the game or in life trials and tribulations have been forthcoming and overcome. In 2010 his brother Adrian Freeman was traveling in Australia when he was killed in a car crash. He was just 24. He was Mayo’s top scorer in the NHL two years in a row and a team-mate of several of the current team.
Cathal does not dwell on it, but does have a simple mantra to which he regularly returns.
I have a perspective from events that have happened in my life. It is a game, it is a huge part of life and a huge part of many people’s lives but not life or death and you need to take it with a pinch of salt. People get a bit too caught up with it sometimes.
Just play the game.