At senior level, though, most games are played at Gaelic Park in the Bronx, in which the GAA has made a €2m investment
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.”
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
Fighting chance: New York could make history with a first senior football championship win tomorrow when they entertain Leitrim