At se­nior level, though, most games are played at Gaelic Park in the Bronx, in which the GAA has made a €2m in­vest­ment

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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