Mayo, God Help Us!

Nobody really knows its true origins but the expression ‘Mayo, God Help Us’ resonates deeply with all Mayo women and men. Stretching back to Famine times, the phrase was often uttered after any mention of the county and it’s assumed that it referred to poverty, bad land and hardship … for some an expression of fatalistic hopelessness, for others a plea for divine assistance.

The Mayo psyche is a complex and fragile one, perhaps best expressed in their songs which were often written from an emigrant’s perspective, like the lyrics from ‘Moonlight in Mayo’…

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

Self-pity is certainly not a defining Mayo characteristic however, and neither is giving up in the face of overwhelming odds. The following lyrics are from ‘The Boys of the County Mayo’……

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!

In 1798, poorly-armed and badly-trained Mayo peasants stood their ground and stopped repeated charges from England’s crack cavalry troops for more than four hours, their hopeless but heroic stand earning subsequent praise from their adversaries. It was the tenants of Mayo who first lit the torch in the fight against oppressive landlords and ultimately won the right to own their own land.

Both at home and abroad, Mayo is noted not only for the endeavours of its sons, but for its daughters too because the fairer sex was not to be outdone as the history of Mayo was being created. From Grace O’Malley, the famous Pirate Queen, to Mary Robinson who became Ireland’s first woman President, a list of Mayo heroines stands out.

We have a friend who comes from Mayo and if anyone asks him his origins, when he answers the enquirer will invariably respond ‘Mayo, God Help Us’. Our friend always takes it in good humour but tread carefully with the phrase. Although it’s alright to say it if you’re from Mayo, if you’re not it could be construed as pity, or worse, a sneer!

Marie-Chantal Douine


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