Happy 100th to the Big Apple

This is a special year for the GAA in New York as it celebrates its centenary, writes Nickey Brennan.

This is a special year for the GAA in New York as it celebrates its centenary, writes Nickey Brennan.

The New York GAA community has been hugely influential in helping numerous Irish emigrants, many of whom arrived with little prospects.

Records show that Gaelic sports were played in the Big Apple as far back as the late 1700’s. Twenty years after the GAA was founded the New York GAA Board was established.

In 1888 over 50 Irish athletes sailed to the US to participate in hurling games and other athletic activities. New York was visited. The ‘American Invasion’ was a financial disaster mainly due to poor weather and an American Presidential campaign.

The establishment of the New York GAA Board was a major development for Gaelic games in the US. The first championships were played in 1915 and the Association continued to grow despite a World War and a major US depression.

A significant milestone was the purchase of Gaelic Park in the Bronx in 1928. Located in the Bronx, the home of New York GAA is a lot more than just a sporting venue.

It was regularly the first port of call in New York for many Irish emigrants. A chat with a friend often secured a job for an emigrant, while Gaelic Park’s regular social functions saw many a match made.

Ten years after the GAA purchased Gaelic Park it was forced into bankruptcy. The property is now owned by the Municipal Transport Authority, who lease it to Manhattan College. They in turn lease it to the GAA for use at evenings and weekends.

My first visit to Gaelic Park was in 1974 with Kilkenny. It was a health risk playing hurling on the pitch.

I recall a football kicking competition that afternoon between Kerry legend Mick O’Connell and Roy Gerela of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Gerela was a three times Super Bowl winner. O’Connell won.

New York teams regularly competed in Irish competitions until emigration controls made it impossible for the players to travel to Ireland, particularly if they held an illegal status. When New York defeated Derry in the 2006 Ulster hurling championship the final had to be played later that year in Boston as the players were unable to travel here.

Some notable successes by the New York hurlers were the 1958 Boland Cup against Wexford and in 1969 when New York defeated Kilkenny over two games in what was considered ‘a world championship cup’. Kilkenny won two NHL finals against New York in 1966 and 1990.

Perhaps the most significant moment in the history of New York GAA was the staging of the 1947 All-Ireland football final at the Polo Grounds when Cavan defeated Kerry.

Kilkenny was one of the strongest hurling clubs in New York for years, winning seven senior and five junior titles. In more recent times Kilkenny joined with New Jersey, winning two senior titles.

It might surprise readers to learn that Kilkenny won seven New York senior football titles.

Early this century the New York GAA had big plans to develop a new centre at Randall’s Island in the city. I had an involvement in the discussions, but the plan was over ambitious and far too costly.

Redeveloping Gaelic Park was explored. I attended a meeting with Brother Thomas Scanlon of Manhattan College and the New York GAA where we agreed a $3-million redevelopment. I have always considered Gaelic Park to be the most important piece of real estate outside of Ireland for the Irish.

The cost was shared between the GAA and Manhattan College. The GAA at national level contributed $1-million with New York GAA providing $0.5-million.

The redevelopment has transformed Gaelic Park. The all-weather surface with floodlights has been a major boost.

Plans are afoot for a further $3.2-million investment which will see the building of a banquet hall, bars and a range of other facilities.