Sunday 22 September 2019

GAA in the Bronx: an enduring passion

Tomorrow's big-ticket event may be New York's clash with Leitrim in the Connacht Senior Football Championship, but GAA has year-round breadth and depth in the Big Apple. Siobhán Brett reports from New York City

Fighting chance: New York could make history with a first senior football championship win tomorrow when they entertain Leitrim
Fighting chance: New York could make history with a first senior football championship win tomorrow when they entertain Leitrim

You might see a battered kit bag bearing the words "Cumann Lúthchleas Gael" being hauled through the streets of Manhattan, or the familiar O'Neills logo on a pair of shorts queuing up beside a coffee cart in the Brooklyn. I have, in my time, had the unique thrill of spotting hurleys on Queens-bound subway cars.

Gaelic football and hurling continue to draw players, umpires and coaches in New York in 2018, more than 100 years after a GAA county board was established. Inter-county football comes to the New York metropolitan area in a consequential way once a year, and this year that's tomorrow, May 6, when the US-based team will take on Leitrim.

New York has been affiliated with Connacht Senior Football Championship since 1999, and, in the very early days, the New York team - known as "the Exiles" - used to travel to Ireland to compete. This year, it's the turn of Leitrim from the Connacht championship to travel across the Atlantic, and many feel that New York's chances of securing its first-ever win in championship football are better than ever.

For the people who devote significant time and energy to the prosperity of Gaelic games in New York City, Westchester County and upstate New York, it represents a tantalising shot at respect and recognition.

Within the "county" of New York GAA are some 30 clubs, named after counties, saints, and a selection of boroughs and communities in the city.

Games development officer Simon Gillespie has witnessed significant expansion of the association's reach during eight years in the city. Gillespie coaches, but also sees himself as a business development manager - and has been satisfied with growth at youth level, which he says is gradually catching up.

The year 2020 will mark the 50th anniversary of a minor board in New York - the arm responsible for underage Gaelic football and hurling for players aged 4 to 18 years - something that had been unsuccessfully ventured twice before 1970. Today, there are 2,500 children and teenagers registered to play in New York.

"It's always an organisation in flux," Gillespie explains, "all the time dependent on economic and immigration trends. As a result, sustainability is our whole focus."

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In the 1940s and 1950s, most teams were from Manhattan and the South Bronx - today there are none in Manhattan and only one in the South Bronx. Most are now based in the Bronx and Yonkers, north of the city.

The Trump administration's crackdown on illegal immigrants has familiar if heightened implications for New York footballers who are not legally resident. There has been at least one instance of New York GAA players being stopped by immigration in Shannon, according to Gillespie. In 2006, the New York hurling team played the Ulster Championship final against Antrim in Boston amid fears about re-entry by some of the panel. Gillespie says it would be nice if, in the event of a New York win, the semi-final was held in Big Apple. That the next round would be staged in Ireland was, he suggested, "part of the agreement, like a lot of things, things that were agreed 20 years ago".

For all US-based players, five days' "vacation" from an unsparing American employer at extremely short notice provides its own headache (the semi-final is set for May 26 against Roscommon). But this is unprecedented and uncharted territory.

Gaelic footballers and hurlers train and compete in a small set of modest pitches for which New York has permits or long-term leases. Just one club in the US, Rockland GAA in Orangeburg, New York owns its pitch and facilities.

At senior level, though, most games are played at Gaelic Park in the Bronx, which has been the beneficiary of some €2m in investment by the GAA. Two-ish miles away is Paddy's Field in Woodlawn, a simpler setting in which camogie-playing friends of mine have lamented its woodland perimeter, which makes retrieving balls a dicey affair.

A club named Shannon Gaels has a long-term lease on the field from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Gillespie says that ownership in the vicinity of the city remains a remote prospect. "Put it like this, to buy land would cost in the region of $1m an acre," he says. "You need eight acres to build and develop a GAA playing field."

Gaelic Park, the site of tomorrow's quarter-final, held approximately 10,000 fans for a concert by the Grateful Dead in a former life. Gillespie says that the championship games tend to command between 4,000 and 6,000 spectators and noted that, at the time we spoke, 1,400 people were making their way from Leitrim.

Micky Quigg, a recent graduate from Derry, who arrived in New York last year and has since been working full-time alongside Gillespie, says he was previously "kind of oblivious" to the breadth and depth of the New York GAA community.

Recruitment is often hard-won in an environment where baseball, basketball, soccer, lacrosse and American football, among others, vie for attention and players.

"It's nearly more impressive, then, to see the number of people who do play, coach, and volunteer out here," he says. "They're supportive of it, passionate about it, and they want to see it prosper. In a short time, I have been really impressed by that passion."

People, Irish and not, regularly write to the New York GAA asking about opportunities to volunteer and take part at board or organisational level, if not to play. Quigg, who is lately on the receiving end of some of these inquiries, says he found this interest remarkable. "Americans really want to be part of it," he says. "That's class. You wouldn't get that in other sports."

The New York team's emblem comprises a red ring and a handful of blue stars around the face of Lady Liberty. Gaelic Park is being put to work from early tomorrow morning, with development squad camogie, football, and hurling matches against Philadelphia and Boston also scheduled.

New York's chances are better than ever before. The week before last, they defeated All-Ireland club football champions Corofin (1-20 to 1-7) on a balmy blue evening in Gaelic Park. Jimmy Glynn, Galway man and New York-based publican, was swift to point out that Corofin were down a number of their starting panel.

After the match on April 26, Corofin repaired to Jake's Saloon, one of three bars of the same name owned and operated by Glynn. Glynn moved to New York in 1994 and has, since opening his first bar in 2002, been an engaged supporter of Gaelic games in the city (with an obvious emphasis on Galway).

Leaning on his contacts at a number of city hotels, Glynn block-books rooms and floors for teams and supporters in search of bed and board for weekends. Jake's Saloon then caters for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

"We cater for supporters, more," he adds. "The players want to be somewhere secluded, out of the limelight." The happy medium, in defending teams from the distraction of zealous supporters, is to bus the players in for a meet-and-greet.

In feeding club and county teams who arrive to play in New York, too, Glynn has witnessed a telling change over the course of a generation's menu preparation. Dieticians now carefully consult on special meals. Glynn remembers a time when a club team from Mayo phoned in their order in advance: of a panel of 37 players, 36 wanted steak, well done.

Jake's Saloon will not be playing host to Leitrim this weekend - there are other "Leitrim pubs" in the city, according to Glynn, whose focus remains quite squarely on Galway, with time for Roscommon when the need arises ("there's no Roscommon pub in Manhattan").

Roscommon defeated New York by just a point in 2016, and in 2003, Leitrim needed extra time to edge past New York by two points.

"We're looking forward to it," says Gillespie. "We're looking forward to a good result. To win would be more to show that it can be done, to show everybody here in New York that we're part of something bigger than ourselves. To show Australia, to show other places around the world: it can be done."


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