Belief in superstition and curses are widespread in modern society, but are we not too sensible for all this, writes Aoife Ní Chroidheáin

Moments after the final whistle blew in the Dublin-Mayo All-Ireland final, the air in Quinn’s pub near Croke Park was saturated with both shouts of joy and disappointed moans. At the bar sat two older men. Having fervently watched the game in the hopes of a win for the Heather County, they turn disappointedly back to their pints of Guinness, convinced that it was the Mayo Curse that struck again.

So what is the ‘Mayo Curse’? For those of you, who haven’t heard, former Mayo All-Ireland Finalist, Liam McHale explains the history behind the legend. “When the 1951 Mayo team were returning from their All- Ireland win, they apparently reached a funeral taking place in one of the towns approaching Castlebar.

“Apparently, some of the lads, maybe enjoying the trip home, angered the local priest, who cursed them, saying that Mayo would never win another All-Ireland, while any of the 1951 team are alive”.

Perhaps it is a bit of a ridiculous excuse for having let the Sam Maguire slip away six times since 1951. Yet people all over the country still buy into the curse. Efforts were even made to excorcise the curse from the team, with Father Costello of Foxford Parish blessing the team before the game in an effort to counteract the curse.

So are superstitions and curses legitimate components of our society today? It is certainly true to say that superstitions have and always will be rife in the world of sport.

Stuart Vyse PhD, author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition explains, “A lot of athletes are encouraged to develop a ritual before a game to calm and focus them, a ritual like a mantra.” But the line between a ritual and a superstition is fine. “The dividing line,” clarifies Vyse, “is whether you give some kind of magical significance to the ritual.”

It seems, however, that even top-class athletes, for all their excursions to sports psychologists, have tip-toed their way across into superstitious territory. Take three-time Wimbledon champion Serena Williams, for example.

This world-class sportswoman insists on bringing her shower sandals to the tennis court, she has a certain method for tying her shoelaces and consistently bounces the ball five times before her first serve and twice before her second.

Michael Jordan, considered the greatest basketball player in the world by many, the redeemer of Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes by others, wore his University of North Carolina shorts under his uniform to every game for almost two decades.

From Franklin D. Roosevelt refusing to travel on Friday 13th, to Independent TD Michael Healy Rae’s efforts to amend Ireland’s car registration system for 2013, lest motorists be deterred from purchasing a car in 2013 for fear of bad luck, superstitions and curses have even filtered into political life in Ireland and abroad.

So what is it about people that lead them to follow superstitions? Is it that the superstitions in terms of sport are so psychologically embedded in our brain, that we feel we cannot and could not perform without them? Or is it merely a habit, a taboo that is easier to keep fuelling than to break?

“Sometimes the creation of a false certainty is better than no certainty at all”, says Vyse. “We are often in situations in life where something really important is about to happen, we’ve prepared for it as best we can but it’s still uncertain.”

With the easy accessibility of knowledge and education, it is easy for people today to scoff at the early pagan’s futile efforts to ward of bad luck for winter by walking their cattle between two bonfires at the Celtic Samhain ceremony. Yet are we not essentially doing the same thing each time we make a conscious effort to avoid walking under a ladder?

It seems it is part of the human condition that we latch onto certain things to subconsciously try and predict our fate. Indeed, Vyse confirms this saying that superstitions provide people with the sense that they’ve done “one more thing” to try and ensure the outcome that they are looking for.

Therefore, can we catalogue superstition as a friend or a foe? While it certainly lends security and confidence, it really is a double-edged sword. The failure to fulfil a certain habit or wearing a lucky shirt, or in the case of the Mayo team where the negative superstition of the ’51 curse hung over them, can have a real psychological effect on a person- hindering their performance.

The trick seems to be not to take superstitions too seriously. And while Trinity students might completely refuse to walk under the Capanile bell on their campus for fear of failing their exams, as their college superstition goes, we here at UCD are a lot more sensible and realise that when we find a euro or two on campus, that superstition dictates a trip to Insomnia.