The Irish stars earning stripes in New York GAA
Brian Byrne goes behind the scenes with the Gaelic Park girls who are in the Big Apple proving if they can make it there, they'll make it anywhere...
Published 22/05/2015 | 02:30
When the daunting metropolis of New York City towers at your doorstep, stepping into Gaelic Park on a Sunday afternoon can feel a little jarring.
It might be that you're immediately walloped with thick Irish accents completely untouched by American twang. Or because you spot 30 players in familiar county colours battling it out in a manner that wouldn't look out of place in Croke Park.
The modest stadium a few miles north of Manhattan, in The Bronx's Irish community of Riverdale, is the only place in a world where a Dublin woman would happily don a jersey for Kerry.
But New York ladies GAA chairperson Rosie O'Reilly says that here, women from every corner of Ireland play together, and for counties they would never have dreamed of back home.
Case in point: the Stateside Kerry/Donegal team is made up of 27 players, but just two of them are from Donegal, and none is from Kerry.
O'Reilly, who moved from Cavan to New York in 1986 and lives in Yonkers, explains: "You meet so many people here from so many different counties, so it's not like you're just stuck to your own county, like you would be at home."
It's a social outlet, too. Many, like O'Reilly, even meet their partners there. "My husband Donal plays hurling, and I met him after I moved over. A lot of the girls and fellas here have met husbands and wives through get-togethers after the games."
The New York Gaelic Athletic Association was founded in 1914, which secured a lease of Gaelic Park from the city in 1927. But it wasn't until 1991 that the city's Irish women, having spent years watching the men play from the bleachers, formed their own organisation.
Kerry Connaughton, the owner of Riverdale Steakhouse, had witnessed women playing football for the first time in the North American football finals in Philadelphia in 1991, and decided to put an ad in the local Irish Echo newspaper when he came home.
The 81-year-old, from Athleague in Roscommon, explains: "I had never seen women playing football before, and I said to myself, this is unbelievable.
"I remember to this day what the ad in the paper said. 'Boston has it, Chicago has it, San Francisco has it - why not New York?' I called the first meeting in October, and we had our first challenge match that same month."
The fledging association formed nine senior teams, but today, Cavan is the only surviving one, joined by four others formed in the interim: Na Fianna, Fermanagh, Kerry/Donegal and Rockland, from New York's Rockland County.
They compete each year in the Sean Faherty Championship, named after a young construction worker from Dublin who died in the early 1990s, and the Annie Kearney Cup, after the mother of a Kerry/Donegal player who passed away from cancer.
The women band together to form a New York team each summer, which flies home to compete in the All-Ireland junior ladies' football championship. The team has reached the finals three times, including last year, when they lost out to Wexford by two points.
O'Reilly says the flights alone cost more than $100,000 (€90,000), and criticises the Government, which she says does not contribute to the cost of their travels.
This year, the Government pledged €250,000 through the GAA to the Shannon Gaels Club to develop an underage playing field in Queens, and a further €37,000 to the New York Board to promote Gaelic games in the New York area.
O'Reilly admits: "To be quite honest, we don't even fly with our own airline, Aer Lingus. They're more expensive than the American airlines, who give us better deals."
She would like to see the New York team compete at senior level, but says this is impossible because most players can only get a couple of weeks off from work, which is spent flying home to compete rather than in training.
"We're like the New York men's team - we have no competitive games coming up to an All-Ireland championship. We're going in cold, having played nobody, whereas the teams we're playing against have had 10 or 15 county games behind them.
"It's evident in all our first games. You can see the team coming together in the second half, but unfortunately there's not enough time."
O'Reilly also blames US immigration law, which she says is slowly altering the face of the New York GAA.
Almost 20,000 people took the plunge and left Ireland for America between April 2010 and March 2013, according to the Central Statistics Office, more than double that over the previous three years.
But O'Reilly says that because most young emigrants can only move temporarily on three- or 12-month J-1 visas, it is difficult to hold on to players for very long.
"It's not like the way it was years ago, when there were plenty of people to fill jerseys and make up teams. Nobody comes here long-term any more.
"At the All-Ireland last year, we had maybe six or seven new players on the team, which you would never have in Ireland. And out of the panel of 24 players, half of them were American. In another few years, all of the teams will probably be around 75pc American."
O'Reilly hastens to mention that the New York GAA is proud of its Irish-American ties, but adds that even players from the US are often drawn away by sports scholarships once they start college.
"Many of the American ladies are fantastic athletes, and adapt very well to our game. The problem we find is when they start college, they're pushed to go with sports that they're going to get scholarships with.
"I've a girl on the Cavan team who goes to Manhattan College, and she plays lacrosse on a scholarship. She can't be here for some games because she is playing games on that scholarship. Another girl is on a soccer scholarship out in New Jersey."
O'Reilly says her concern at the moment is keeping the five senior teams alive and kicking. However, she is quick to quash fears that the future of the New York ladies' GAA may be in doubt.
"There are still staunch Irish GAA people managing the association, so I don't see it going anywhere. But it's definitely changing."
The Best in the Bronx: Meet the Gaelic Park girls...
From: Garrettstown, Dublin
Position: Captain, centre half-back
From the moment 23-year-old Aoife O'Rourke touched down in New York City, it felt like she was home.
O'Rourke, who spent two summers in the concrete jungle before returning for a third time on a J-1 graduate working visa, is now an office manager at Baroco Contracting in Yonkers.
"I love it here, and I've settled in so well. I wouldn't get the opportunities at home that I've got here. It's unbelievable. Before I came out here, I was working for AIB, Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, and I was nearly making half of what I'm making out here."
The Dundalk IT sports management graduate, who joined the Meath senior team when she was 16, has applied for a H1B visa and is crossing her fingers she can remain Stateside.
From: Castlebar, Mayo
Mary Naughton says she "cried and cried" after she took the plunge and moved across the pond.
"When I came here first, I'll never forget it. I came in the February, and it was so quiet, and I knew no-one, and I got so homesick, I cried and cried."
The former Dublin City University sports science student says all the friends she made during college lived in Dublin, so she never saw them after graduation.
"That's what made me come out here. I had a full-time job, and I was just like, what am I doing here? I have no life.
"Come April and May after I moved, everything started to build. I met a lot of new people in the GAA here. The girls came out for the summer, and it was just the best experience of my life."
From: Carrigtwohill, Cork
Cork woman Stefanie Beausang spent three years living in San Francisco, but decided she wanted a second taste of America once she had graduated from college.
The 23-year-old admits she rarely misses home, and feels she is following in her siblings' footsteps, who travelled to places such as India.
"When I was very young, I was living in San Francisco with my family, so I had an idea of what it was like here. I was playing at home with my club, and said I'd go back out and experience it again.
"Some days I'd miss little things, especially when I ring my family at home in Cork. I have three older sisters, and they have all done their spell of travelling, so it's my turn now."
From: Lavey, Cavan
This year is Rosie O'Reilly's 32nd year playing Gaelic football at junior level. The 45-year-old met her husband Donal at Gaelic Park shortly after moving to New York in 1986, and has since made lifelong friends at the club.
She is the oldest member of the New York ladies' GAA team, which travels home to Ireland each summer to compete in the All-Ireland junior ladies' football championship.
"I was one of the many people who came out here on their own in the '80s and '90s - it was the start of a little community just like we had at home. We have great fun; the girls get together after the games, and have a few drinks and socialise at whichever bar or restaurant is sponsoring us. That's basically how they meet up and make friends."
From: Rockland County
High schooler Aoife McGirl has played Gaelic football since she was six, but still has a hard time explaining the sport to her American classmates.
The Irish-American, whose parents hail from Leitrim and Tyrone, started off playing with the local boys' football club, but later joined the girls' club after it picked up speed.
"My dad is in love with GAA, so ever since I was six I've been playing," says McGirl, whose sister is also on the team.
"I'm in high school in Rockland County at the moment, and I play soccer and run track. Nobody knows what I'm talking about when I try to explain GAA. They all think it's rugby. A lot of times if I want to give them a quick explanation, I say it's kind of like soccer, except you use your hands, but I don't think that helps."