Emigration is well embedded into Irish history. For decades we understood emigration as primarily heading to England or America. Now there is hardly a frontier that is not inhabited by an Irish man or women with the majority forced to leave their homeland in search of a better life, writes Nickey Brennan.
It is fair to say that Gaelic games have remained an important part of the cultural interest of thousands of emigrants in many parts of the globe. Throughout the decades, hurling and football have helped maintain a strong bond with Ireland for so many people.
Now with the advent of modern technology all the major games from Ireland are available almost instantly throughout the world.
On a trip to Toronto about five years ago I visited an Irish hostelry to watch a championship game from Ireland. I struck up a conversation with two elderly men who had emigrated from Ireland almost 50 years earlier.
Visits home over the years had been infrequent, but what astonished me was not just their interest in the game being shown on TV, but their intimate knowledge of the participating counties.
Even after half a century away from their homeland they were drawn every summer to the hurling and football championships. One felt the return of those championships allowed these old Gaels to emerge from their winter slumber.
The 2012 and 2011 All-Star footballers travelled to New York recently to play an exhibition game at Gaelic Park. During that trip GAA President Liam O’Neill spoke about the possibility of playing one or both National League finals in the Big Apple in 2014.
Football for New York
The background to this is the Centenary celebrations of the GAA in New York. The possibility of staging the 2014 GAA Congress in the city was mooted, but for a variety of logistical reasons plus the cost involved that proposal was not deemed practical.
The playing of one or even two National League finals in New York is a far more realistic proposal. The likelihood is that if the proposal gets the go-ahead it will be for the National Football League final only.
It is absolutely right and proper that the achievements of the New York GAA Board are celebrated in 2014.
The first serious attempt to organise Gaelic games in America was in 1891. This was prompted by individuals from New York who felt that the Irish should ‘devise the best means of presenting to the American public and popularising our national sports and pastimes’.
Thus began the Gaelic Athletic Association of America. However, it appears that the new fledging group lacked effective leadership and cohesion.
During the early part of the last century a major trip by GAA players from Ireland to the US resulted in many of the players failing to return to Ireland.
This was not received too well by the GAA authorities in Dublin.
An event which helped to improve the relationship between the GAA in Ireland and its new (yet still somewhat distant) unit in America was the 1911 ‘Homecoming Tour’ by hurlers who were now living in America.
That tour was deemed a great success with a quarter of the profits (£104) being donated to the Croke Memorial Fund.
However, it took until 1926 for the GAA to feel confident in sanctioning a major trip to the US by an inter-county side. The All-Ireland hurling champions, Tipperary undertook a six-week tour of America that year.
The great depression of the late 1920’s and the subsequent two decades saw emigration from Ireland slowing down, leaving the GAA with difficulties fielding teams. Efforts to attract Native Americans to Gaelic games met with limited success.
In an attempt to promote Gaelic games, minor championships were established and the then GAA Director General, Padraig Ó Caoimh, was instructed to choose a suitable cup for the American minor championships.
In 1939 Padraig McNamee, then President of the GAA, raised the possibility of cancelling, or at the very least curtailing, the now annual tours to America as attendances ‘were dropping by about 5,000 each year’.
The outbreak of World War II severely curtailed the activities of the GAA in America. When the war ended the ’Association in the US was in a critical condition.
But by the end of the forties a momentous decision would have a profound impact on the GAA in America, and especially in New York.
At the 1947 annual Congress the GAA agreed to play that year’s All-Ireland senior football final in New York to help revive the games. History now shows that Cavan defeated Kerry in that final, 2-11 to 2-7, before an attendance of 34,491 at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, New York City.
It is said that Cavan credited its success to travelling by air, whereas the Kerry team travelled by Ocean Liner and their journey took somewhat longer than their opponents.
I had the good fortune to meet Cavan’s Mick Higgins, who played in that final, some years ago. Higgins and his team mates become iconic figures in Cavan not just with that New York final success but by retaining the title back on Irish soil 12 months later against Mayo.
I also had the honour of visiting the grave some years ago of the legendary Cavan player and double All-Ireland winning captain, John Joe O’Reilly. His death at 34 years of age robbed the game of one of its ironic figures in November 1952.
Live radio broadcast
That 1947 final marked the first live radio broadcast from outside of Ireland by Radio Eireann. It is alleged that with the game running late there was a possibility that the link to Ireland might be disconnected until Micheál Ó Hehir pleaded with the transatlantic telephone authorities to keep the connection active until the final had concluded.
The first New York GAA club finals were played in 1915, one year after the ’Association was formally founded. Thus far the Kilkenny club has won six championships in hurling and Gaelic football.
That football statistic may surprise some, but GAA teams in New York do not necessarily follow county allegiance. The first of those football titles was won in 1917 and the sixth in 1965.
Kilkenny’s first hurling title was annexed in 1922 and the last in 2006. Ironically, Kilkenny won the championship double in 1922.
Sadly it appears that Kilkenny’s involvement in both championships has now ceased, no doubt a casualty of the fewer number of emigrants heading to the Big Apple in recent times.
Although the 1947 All-Ireland football final was played in the Polo Grounds, since 1926 the home of New York GAA has been Gaelic Park in the Bronx. This was the location where the American adventure began for many Irish men and women.
It was where accommodation was arranged; the first job was sorted and maybe, more importantly of all, it was where one affiliated to their first New York GAA Club. Thus began the American dream for thousands of Irish.
A dusty park
For years Gaelic Park was no better than a dusty park. Many Kilkenny players can testify to the dreadful condition of the pitch.
My first trip there was in 1974. It truly was an eye-opener and little was I to know that I would later play a major part in its redevelopment. The facility is owned by the New York Municipal Transport Authority and leased to the local Manhattan College, a Roman Catholic liberal arts college which offers undergraduate programmes in arts, science, business, education and engineering.
During my GAA Presidency we approached the college with a view to upgrading the pitch.
After some intense discussions with the then head of the college, an upgrade programme costing $3-million was agreed. Both the college and the GAA would share those development costs.
Of the $1.5-million GAA investment, $500K would have to be raised directly by New York GAA, with the remainder coming by way of a grant from Croke Park. Many attempts over the years to upgrade Gaelic Park had failed, but this time failure was not an option.
The new facility, with extended playing space and floodlights, was opened in December 2008. The dream had finally been fulfilled.
There are so many reasons why the GAA should celebrate the centenary of New York GAA in 2014. I have only touched on some very brief highlights.
For thousands of Irish the existence of Gaelic Park in New York and its games every week is the umbilical cord which connects them with Ireland.
Of all the Irish landmarks in America (or anywhere else in the world for that matter) that pitch in the Bronx is unquestionably the greatest symbol of the importance of the GAA to all our emigrants.