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.