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.”
In such places, Irish Americans are running the clubs, “trying to keep the tradition going”.
“It’s a tough undertaking. The competition for kids with other sports is intense. They have basketball, football, baseball, hockey . . . and they all have their heroes. But they have no heroes for Gaelic football.”
Despite these challenges, the GAA in North America looks to be thriving. One year into a new five-year plan to establish a network of regional development officers and a schools’ outreach programme, the organisation is growing.
This year’s finals in Philadelphia saw 105 games played by 95 teams, made up of just over 2,000 players. Of the 105 games, 27 involved ladies’ football and camogie, the most successful year for female participation. A clear majority of those women were American-born.
Bostonian Catherine Farrell, 19, competed at this year’s finals with the Connacht Ladies senior football team. Her father John Farrell moved to the US 27 years ago from Oldcastle, Co Meath.
He is now chairman of the north east divisional board and says predominantly American-born teams are now the future for the GAA in the US.
But the number of so-called “sanctioned” players (Irish players, for the most part J1 students) coming over to play for American teams each summer has increased significantly in the past four years.
Local teams help these players find accommodation and jobs. In some cases, they have paid them to play. A significant point of controversy, this practice was quietly criticised by many over the course of the weekend in Philadelphia.
But while the North American finals are fiercely contested each year at every level (senior, intermediate and junior divisions), for many of those who travel – in some cases thousands of miles – to take part, it’s about more than just the sport.
Irish networks all over the US come together through the games, forming an anchor for communities and providing that crucial link to home.
In the past two years in Texas, men’s football teams have started up in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, and the longer-established Austin team, the Celtic Cowboys, can play regular matches without having to fly to other cities. Dallas has also recently established a ladies’ football team.
Hurling is the fastest-growing Gaelic game in the US. “And most hurlers are now American born,” says Tim Flanagan, PRO for the North American Board.
For many who attended this year’s finals in Philadelphia, however, one hurling team in particular became “the story of these games”, as Munster chairman Seán Walsh puts it.
Over the past seven years, the Barley House Wolves of Concord, New Hampshire, have been on a journey that led them from Shannon Airport (where, as reserve members of the US Army National Guard, they caught “a glimpse” of a hurling match being played on television as they stopped off en route to serve in Iraq).
Fascinated by the game, company commander Ray Valas created a hurling team as a way for the members of his unit to stay in touch and support each other as they tried to re-adjust to life at home. “I needed this when I came back from Iraq,” says an emotional Valas.
The Wolves started in a basement of the Barley House pub in Concord watching YouTube clips of hurling.
“Looking back, what we were doing in the beginning wasn’t even hurling,” says Valas. “As an American, you have to unlearn baseball and hockey. But in 2007 we went to Boston to play a Junior A team. That day we learned the very fundamentals of the game,” he said.
The Wolves played in their first county finals against Milwaukee in Boston in 2007. “We didn’t score a single point,” says Valas.
After that, Valas says he ran his team like a military unit – never question the ref’s call, always walk on to the pitch in double file, absolutely never miss training.
“We reached a point where it was more than just a means to connect with the guys. We got hooked on the sport,” he says.
Last year the Wolves lost the Junior C final to a team from San Francisco by a single point. “The fire that went into our belly after that? The intensity doubled. I for one was not going to lose a final by a point again.”
At this year’s county finals, they were crowned Junior C hurling champions. Hurlers of North America, watch out, the Wolves are coming for you.
For more coverage of Irish life abroad, see irishtimes.com/ generationemigration, the Irish Times forum by and for emigrants