Soldiering through the US Gaelic league
2005: Some US soldiers coming home from Iraq stop in Shannon. They notice locals playing an unusual game. They learn it and, this year, become American hurling heroes. NIAMH SWEENEYreports on the changing face of Gaelic games in North America
IT COULD BE anywhere in Ireland. There are “tins” of Club Orange, Tayto crisps, cocktail sausages and curry chips. Hundreds of men and women – wearing their team colours – are spread out over five pitches. Little GAA-jersey-wearing kids run wild, pumped up on “minerals”. And, of course, there’s a fella with a clip board.
The searing 33-degree heat is the main giveaway that this is no ordinary tournament. That and the dust that billows from the rock-hard ground on which these football, hurling and camogie teams hope to fight their way to glory at the GAA’s North American County Championship finals held in Philadelphia in early September.
“The pitch is very, very hard. That’s something that we wouldn’t have to cope with at home,” observes GAA president Liam O’Neill, who has flown in for the finals.
O’Neill says he wants to send a message to the North American County Board that the GAA in Ireland is “serious about the Gaelic games family”. “What happens in North America is important to us,” he adds.
The history of the GAA in the US is a rich one. One of the first documented games of hurling was played in Hoboken, New Jersey, on March 17th 1858. According to one newspaper report, almost 2,000 people watched the game.
After that, wherever there was Irish immigration, the games were played. And in 1959 the North American County Board was formed.
“The first ever meeting was held in Philadelphia in February 1959 at 3132 Market Street,” says John O’Brien. “At that time the games were being played in various cities but under no heading and with no structure.”
A year later, North America – excluding New York, which became its own jurisdiction – was granted official county status by the GAA’s Central Council.
“There were originally only three or four divisions, but it’s grown 20-fold since it started,” says O’Brien, now 79 and the last member of the original board. He is from Roscommon (and won a minor football medal with his county in 1951) but has lived in Cleveland, Ohio, since 1963.
At that time, Cleveland was one of several hub cities for young Irish emigrants coming to post-war America. “A lot of emigration then was fuelled by those who went ahead. If you had a brother or a neighbour in a place, that’s where you went. But there are virtually no Irish people coming to Cleveland now.”