Thursday 22 August 2019

Working in the NYPD, tackling organised crime and competing in the Poc Fada - Behind the scenes of New York GAA

As RTÉ's co-commentator for New York's showdown with Mayo in Gaelic Park tomorrow evening, Bronx-born Pat Donohue is the most distinctive voice you'll hear on the GAA this summer. He talks working in the NYPD, the ongoing effects of 9/11, tackling organised crime in the Big Apple and competing in the Poc Fada. And he reveals what tomorrow's game really means to his city

Pat Donohue’s story is at once typical of the Irish-American experience and yet truly remarkable. He followed the well-worn path from the green of Gaelic Park to the blue of the NYPD
Pat Donohue’s story is at once typical of the Irish-American experience and yet truly remarkable. He followed the well-worn path from the green of Gaelic Park to the blue of the NYPD
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

The owner of the most distinctive voice you'll hear commentating on the GAA this summer is of Galway stock.

Born to a Ballinakill father and a Connemara mother, Pat Donohue is dyed in the wool when it comes to his GAA loyalties. Still, he is very much a child of the Bronx.

Pat Donohue’s story is at once typical of the Irish-American experience and yet truly remarkable. He followed the well-worn path from the green of Gaelic Park to the blue of the NYPD
Pat Donohue’s story is at once typical of the Irish-American experience and yet truly remarkable. He followed the well-worn path from the green of Gaelic Park to the blue of the NYPD

Tomorrow night he'll take his place beside Marty Morrissey in the cosy green press box in Gaelic Park and his view on what's unfolding will be beamed around the GAA world.

It's his third year to commentate on the New York game. When Morrissey enquired about someone on that side of the pond that knew GAA in the city, he was put in touch with Donohue and the pair hit it off. It was the latest progression in his GAA life less ordinary.

Donohue's story is at once typical of the Irish-American experience and yet truly remarkable. He followed the well-worn path from the green of Gaelic Park to the blue of the NYPD. Both organisations would shape him fundamentally.

There's not many who can talk the Poc Fada and 9/11; organised crime in the Big Apple and the formative years of Dessie Farrell.

"I often say that I was American raised in an Irish household," says Donohue, smiling.

Growing up, several summers were spent back in Galway. Back stateside, most weekends were wiled away on the small shard of in the Bronx that the Irish community set upon when the first match was played there 91 years ago.

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"People of my generation, we often refer to ourselves as Gaelic Park orphans," says Donohue. "Every Sunday we were taken to Gaelic park at nine or ten in the morning and we'd be collected at six at night. It just became ingrained into our culture."

For years he'd split his time between American sports and the GAA. When New York were competing in the minor championship he'd head back home to play in the All-Ireland quarter-final they were parachuted into.

They struggled to make an impact but the experiences stay with him. He remembers a young Dessie Farrell being close to unstoppable in 1988. "I think he got 2-8 that day."

They were back again the following year and lost to Derry, having travelled through the north.

"It helped me understand the commitment the people in the north made to play the sport and keep it alive when it wasn't really popular or accepted by certain people. That was one of the best experiences I've had in my life. And it was brought on by football."

He was still eligible for minor in 1990. That year they played Galway, a huge thrill considering his lineage, but he was double-jobbing on that trip. Earlier in the year, he'd won the Poc Fada competition in New York, which had been organised by ESPN's commentator and Louth native Tommy Smyth. A few days after taking on Galway in Mullingar, he was wearing the same New York number three jersey as he bounced around the Cooley Mountains.

"Tommy Smyth announced the match in Mullingar. I went to the reception afterwards and then I hopped in the car and drove to Knockbridge with him. Two days later I was up the Cooley mountains. Ger Cunnigham won that day."

Right through college and starting out with the NYPD, Donohue stayed with the GAA, playing with St Barnabus in the city as well as the department's team while also playing some hurling and American football with the NYPD.

In his 22 years' service with New York's finest, he's done everything from working in transit up in the Bronx on late night train patrol ("I could write a book on what I saw and you wouldn't believe me") to being part of Rudy Giuliani's personal security detail when he was Mayor. He also had a stint investigating organised crime in the city but these days he deals with union-related issues.

As is the case with many in the department, it was the events of September 11, 2001 that have left an indelible mark.

At that stage, he was based in lower Manhattan and remembers the night before clearly. He was set to be on duty at Yankee stadium, only for the game to be rained off. His memories of the following day remain crystal clear. The trip to work that morning was unremarkable, save for the perfect sky.

He had been selected to go to Washington a couple of weeks later to help police the World Economic Forum and was sent on a training exercise. They were watching a training video when, in the corner, a small police radio buzzed with news that would change everything. Sketchy reports were coming in that a small Cessna plane had hit one of the Twin Towers.

"I shook my head, it didn't make sense," he remembers. "Because as I was driving in that morning there wasn't a cloud in the sky. I remember that most vividly.

"We turn on the TV and we see the first tower. I said to the guy next to me that's not a Cessna, it was too big a hole.

"And as we are watching that we see the second plane hit and I turn to the guy behind me and said 'I think this is war'. So we loaded up the buses and responded down to ground zero."

What followed was life-altering. Seeing the images are one thing. Living them is quite another.

"By the time we got to Lower Manhattan they had frozen off the areas because the Towers had started to come down. We were about half a mile away and once the second tower came down some of us responded there.

"At that point it was like walking through a movie set. What struck me was how quiet it was. That day I didn't get done working until three in the morning. I came home, showered and came back in and worked almost two and half weeks straight..."

For the first time in a 30-minute interview his voice trails off.

Some things don't need further explanation but the legacy of that day lives on. He can still reel off the lives lost by the various emergency services. 23 from the NYPD. 343 fire department members and 37 from the Port Authority.

Those numbers are seared in his mind. But his work as a union rep brings him in contact with the aftermath of 9/11 on a regular basis. It's an event that, even 18 years on, continues to claim lives.

"We are now almost at 300, from all ranks in the NYPD, who have died as a result of exposure to toxins and toxic air in the days afterwards when we were doing the rescue and recovery effort," he says.

"I have some medical issues I'm dealing with as a result of working down there. People tend to forget - and I unfortunately see it day in, day out - that what happened that day doesn't go away.

"A couple of days ago my unit buried a detective, Lisa Rosado, who I knew. She died as a result of cancer from working down at Ground Zero.

"As horrific as that day was, I don't think the public realises the impact it continues to have, and will have, going forward."

Throughout his life, the GAA has been a constant in one form or another. He's moved into refereeing now and has officiated in Philadelphia, Syracuse, Buffalo and Toronto. Last weekend he answered a call to play for the NYPD's team when they were short.

His other passions include American football. He's a shareholder in the Green Bay Packers. He's only a fan because his mother, not knowing there were teams closer to home he could support, bought him a bedspread when he was a child.

She chose the Packers because she saw their colours and decided they were as close to the Irish flag as she was going to get.

As a publicly-owned non-profit, it's easy for him to see a little of the GAA and the Packers in each other.

"The city (Green Bay) reminds me most of Ireland and a small rural area where everyone pitches in. It's like going to your local GAA match. The town shuts down, everyone goes to the game. And that city lives and dies by the success or failure of the Green Bay Packers."

Everything will be set aside this weekend. Tomorrow, the "orphans of Gaelic Park" will return to the place that has shaped them. They travel in hope more than expectation. But that has always been the way. For Irish Americans, the occasion is at least as important as the game.

"The thing I'd like to express most to the people in Ireland is... I know there was talk years ago about ending the match and that it wasn't beneficial.

"But please don't ever underestimate how important this is as a day for New York. It's one day but it carries us for the other 364. The anticipation... I remember walking out of Gaelic Park last year after losing to Leitrim and someone says 'You know what? We'll give it to Mayo'. And that was just hours after losing a game they should have won. And the talk was 'Mayo are coming, let's get at them'."

For Donohue and the rest in New York GAA circles, it's the hope that sustains them.

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