When GAA first took Manhattan
... WELL UPPER MANHATTAN TO BE PRECISE. HISTORIAN RYLE DWYER LOOKS BACK ON A MOMENTOUS ALL-IRELAND FINAL IN NEW YORK’S POLO GROUNDS, EXACTLY 70 YEARS TO THE DAY WHEN CAVAN BEAT KERRY
THURSDAY, September 14, marks the 70th anniversary of a unique All-Ireland Football Final that was played in the Polo Grounds in New York City. It was the only time that an all-Ireland senior final was played outside this country.
The two teams involved were Cavan and Kerry —the reigning all-Ireland champion from 1946. It was decided to play the final in New York in order to boost the GAA in United States, where the game had suffered as a result of the virtual elimination of Irish immigration during World War II.
Playing the game in New York added international stature to the occasion. The Mayor of New York, Bill O’Dwyer, was actually from Bohola, County Mayo, so the city pulled out all the stops to welcome the Irish. Some 1,500 people attended the banquet in honour of the occasion.
The Polo Grounds left a lot to be desired as a football pitch, because it was a baseball park. The bare areas on which baseball players ran between bases remained, along the raised mound of earth that the baseball pitcher used. The Polo Grounds would not hear of levelling the pitcher’s mound, or re-sodding the baseball diamond.
There were also many teething problems, associated with the Radio Éireann (RÉ) broadcast from New York. The Department of Finance had to authorise the expense of sending Micheál Ó Hehir to commentate on the game.
The Director of Broadcasting, Robert Brennan, and Tony O’Riordan of RÉ met with the powerful Secretary of the Department of Finance J.J. McElligott, who was actually a Tralee man. But he was not a sporting enthusiast, so he had to be convinced.
“Does anyone listen to the broadcast of these matches?” McElligott asked.
“The director and I looked at one another, then burst out laughing,” O’Riordan recalled. McElligott provided the necessary approval.
People in Ireland had to rely on Ó Hehir’s commentary, which began with the match preliminaries at 8 p.m., Irish time. A telephone line was reserved for two hours.
“It was a game worthy of a great occasion,” Mitchel Cogley reported next day in the Irish Independent. “The pitch was concrete hard, and the ball as lively as a kitten.”
Kerry settled fastest, while the Cavan team seemed to be suffering from “stage fright.”
Ted O’Connor promptly had the ball in the Cavan net, but the goal was disallowed, as the referee had whistled for a free, and Kerry had to settle for a point instead. Batt Garvey caught the kick-out and raced through the centre to crash in a goal, leaving Kerry four points up after only three minutes. After Cavan scored their first point, Bill Dowling fielded a ball in centre field and raced through the middle, like Garvey, and scored a second goal for Kerry, which added another point before Cavan got a second point. Then Kerry added two further points and had another goal disallowed.
By midway through the first half, Kerry was leading by 2-4 to 0-2. The game then began to turn dramatically in Cavan’s favour. Bill Dowling, who had been starring for Kerry at midfield in place of the injured Paddy Kennedy, had to go off injured, after he came down awkwardly on the hard ground. Kerry were kept scoreless during the remainder of the first half, while Cavan managed to score two goals and three further points, to lead at half-time by 2-5 to 2-4.
New York was in the midst of a heatwave, and the younger, fitter Cavan team adapted better to the stifling conditions. They tacked on six further points in the second half, while confining Kerry to just 3 points. Consequently, Cavan ran out worthy winners, by 2-11 to 2-7.
The match preliminaries with Mayor O’Dwyer, who threw in the ball, had overrun, and Ó Hehir feared he would be cut-off as the game itself began to overrun the allotted time. “I became frantic and started pleading to whoever was in charge to give us five minutes more,” he recalled. “Thankfully there was some American who realised the importance of the occasion to us.” The line was left open for the extra six minutes needed.
A crowd of 55,000 had been expected. The Cork Examiner reported next day that the Polo Grounds were packed to capacity, but the Sunday Independent noted that there were some 25,000 empty seats. The paid attendance was only 34,941, despite the stadium’s capacity for 60,000 people.
The attendance was down dramatically on the record set at the 1946 final between Kerry and Roscommon. It had been witnessed by 75,771 people, who paid £6,190.
Even though the attendance at the Polo Grounds was less than half that of the previous year’s final, the $153,877 that the people in New York paid amounted to £38,469 at the existing exchange rate. This was well over six times greater than what more than twice as many people had paid at Croke Park. The difference could be explained by the price of tickets.
Tickets at the Polo Grounds had ranged from $2.40 to $7, which averaged out at $4.40 per person, whereas the cost at the final in Croke Park in 1946 had averaged out at fractionally less than twenty pence (1s. 8d.) each.
Players and officials had the experience of a life time, and GAA enjoyed a windfall. The only people to lose out were the followers of the game in Ireland. But as they are the lifeblood of the association, the experiment turned out to be a once-off affair.
NEW YORK WAS IN THE MIDDLE OF A HEATWAVE AND THE YOUNGER, FITTER CAVAN TEAM ADAPTED BETTER TO THE STIFLING CONDITIONS – RYLE DWYER
How The Kerryman carried news of the All-Ireland defeat back home on the front page and inside. Photos used in the publication were amongst the first ‘wired’ across the Atlantic for use in news publications.