New York GAA marching to the beat of their own unique drum
Arrival of some intercounty players in the summer doesn’t change the basic equation for those promoting GAA in the Big Apple
Brendan Quigley, who is now playing for Leitrim in New York, in action for his native Laois against Donegal at Croke Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
For the crowd gathered in Gaelic Park last Sunday, it was a sight to behold: Brendan Quigley soaring above a thicket of bodies to claim a ball and set up another Leitrim attack.
As the crowds make their way to Carrick-on-Shannon for this afternoon’s fascinating All-Ireland qualifier, Quigley’s name is bound to be on many lips. The Timahoe man is Rolls Royce smooth and if Laois fans could spirit him across the Atlantic and into the heart of the Laois team for their showdown with the All-Ireland champions, they surely would.
The decision of seven intercounty players to quit their panel and the gauntlet of the qualifiers for a summer in New York prompted the recent statement by GAA director general Pádraic Duffy that the association may need to look again at the exodus of players to the USA in the summer.
The departure of four Laois players and three from Armagh raised all kinds of questions, not least about the enduring attraction of the qualifier series.
But they also helped to colour and sharpen the vaguely drawn picture that, in its essence, Gaelic games in New York depends on “stealing” players from Ireland.
And yet as Leitrim, the reigning champions on the New York scene, played against Kerry in the third of Sunday’s five-game bill, nothing seemed further from the truth.
“Which side is Kerry?” asked an elderly man after one of the teams played with jerseys inside-out to avoid a clash of colours. A few hundred people gathered in the stand, sipping beers and working on suntans and paying mild attention to the games. Gareth Bradshaw, the redoubtable Galway defender who elected to take some time out of the panel after his team’s crushing loss to Mayo, sat with friends in the stand.
On the field, Quigley was conspicuously excellent and Armagh’s Gavin McPartland, a corner forward of pure stealth and economy, scored the vital goals and points that kept Leitrim comfortable. Still, the idea that these players were somehow a “draw” to fill the tin box at Gaelic Park wasn’t true.
“If those seven lads hadn’t come, it wouldn’t have made a big difference to New York GAA,” says Laurence McGrath. “It is not as if people are lining out the door to watch seven intercounty players. It would be different if there was dozens of players coming. There was a lot of media talk about that. But between all the teams, you have seven players that left their county teams before the back-door game was played. Just seven players out of the 32 counties. That is a small percentage. I don’t know why they make a big deal of it.”
McGrath, like many involved with New York GAA, is a busy man. He has been involved with the Donegal club since he emigrated in the 1980s; he coaches a girls’ team with New York Celtics and he is also vice-chairman of the New York GAA board.
On Monday, Gaelic Park was open again and alive with anticipation. The CYC – the American board’s version of the Féile – takes place in Philadelphia this weekend and all afternoon, parents came with their children to sign them up for the weekend trip. The number of children with American accents was striking. It was this competition, rather than the senior championship – or the All-Ireland – in which most of McGrath’s energies were invested. The coaches of the various New York teams travelling to Philadelphia were present to get the paperwork organised.
Patrick McGovern has coached an underage girls team for the past seven years and recently brought a team across to Ireland for the Féile. He says that the idea of Gaelic games as a pastime solely for the expatriate Irish no longer applies.
“Most of the kids are American-born with Irish parents but there are three girls with absolutely no Irish ethnicity – one of our players is Asian, one is Hispanic and another whose parents are of Greek descent. We have had several African-Americans coming in. I don’t think you need an Irish background to enjoy Gaelic games. And the Féile is a huge carrot at under-14 level. They hear of the stories and activities – we went surfing, went to the Giant’s Causeway . . .
“I think also that it is a novelty for the Irish clubs to have New York teams – I have been over at Féile three times and each time I have been there, what summed it up for me was the coach bus decked out with the American flags and kids would flock around it. And the questions on the field – ‘have you ever met Miley Cyrus?’ This kind of stuff. We were hosted by a club in Steelstown in Derry and they were fantastic.”
Economic circumstance prompted McGovern to swap a promising future in Gaelic football for life in New York. In 1985, he played in the All-Ireland minor semi-final but was among the tidal wave of young Irish people who arrived in New York in January of 1986.
He played for a few years in the city competition but found it didn’t compare to the training regime and level of seriousness he was used to at home. So he began coaching instead.
Twenty years after he moved over here, McGettigan bumped into Leslie McGettigan, a former minor colleague, on Katonah Avenue. They hadn’t seen one another since they had last played at underage level.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the avenues of Woodlawn were crowded with Gaelic footballers of note. The economic boom in Ireland led to a sharp decline in the presence of J-1 students and promising footballers hoping to combine a summer of playing in the heat with the promise of work.
Now, the numbers have begun to increase and with it the fear that counties will lose players to the myriad attractions of New York.
There are two big differences between now and the 1980s.
The first is that now intercounty players are not as exotic as they were then. The All-Ireland championship games are available on satellite and every year, one of the Connacht teams lines out in the Bronx for what has become the opening fixture of the All-Ireland series.
The other big change is that now the New York board has a healthy relationship with the GAA. The difference of opinion over the use of sanctions has been the only source of tension in recent years.
“I think the reason it got so much attention this year is that there were these ongoing rumours that Jamie Clarke and Ciarán McKeever were supposed to leave Armagh and didn’t. It was good that they didn’t because that would have opened Croke Park’s eyes and alarmed them. And they might have heard those rumours and maybe they stepped in and spoke earlier than they needed to.
“I feel what Croke Park need to watch is that if an intercounty player wants to leave at any time he can go and sign an intercounty transfer and you can’t stop him. If he does that – instead of a 60-day sanction – he can’t go back and play for his club. And right now I feel the clubs need to be protected above all. So if they take away the 60-day sanction and the intercounty player isn’t working, is he going to stand around?
“A lot of players know their counties aren’t going to win the All-Ireland. The back door was supposed to help the poorer counties but in reality it has helped the strongest.”
It won’t be lost on New Yorkers that London, the 33rd county for championship purposes, will run out onto the field in Croke Park this afternoon having claimed their place among the last 12 of the All-Ireland championship.
New York is the more famous of the expatriate counties but with little fanfare, London have managed to do what New York has repeatedly failed to: win a championship game.
And London’s dismissal of Leitrim after two riveting games illustrated just how far off the pace New York side were this summer. Leitrim won 4-19 to 0-7 at Gaelic Park in early May. It brought New York’s ambitions of a shock to a sobering end and raised questions as to the logic of having the American side compete in Connacht.
“I watched our lads train from January. And they did put it in, night after night. You can practise all you like,” says McGrath, as he describes the snow drifts and biting winds which mark winter for New York teams.
“On the day, the goals destroyed them . . . but I feel the occasion is important. It is still the day the New York Irish community looks forward to. There are a lot of people who just can’t go home right now. The place will be packed again next year and it’s because people will meet who they might not meet all year. The league is unrealistic . . . . maybe a county team would come out for two or three games and we would fund them.
“Two years ago Connie Molloy and Mickey Coleman decided that the effort needed to begin in January. Maybe they haven’t the best 15 out but if guys are putting in the effort, then they have stuck to their word. And it will work out in the long run. If you could get the very best 20 players, then it might be different. But it is hard in New York.”
The local senior championship is reaching its definitive point: six teams are seeking four semi-final spots. Leitrim are the kingpins, looking to complete a fourth championship in a row. There has been discontent at Leitrim’s ability to attract the marquee names, giving them a clear advantage. But they have already been beaten once this summer and, as McGrath points out, “they are doing nothing illegal”.
“All the sanctions are closed now. Teams have who they have and can only put 15 players on the field.”
New York’s reputation as a sanctuary for roughhousing is also a thing of the past. The fare on Sunday was open and high-scoring; the legendary rows and enraged supporters climbing over the wire belong to the 1980s.
This weekend, the All-Ireland SFC will be whittled down to the last eight. The bars along McLean Avenue will be broadcasting all the games and business will be risk. Over the next few weeks, Mayo or Kerry fans will begin to think of a September journey home. But most of those with sleeves-up involvement in New York GAA won’t even see the games this weekend. They will too busy running the kids’ tournament.