The All-Ireland Football Championship begins in the Bronx
New York aiming to shock Leitrim into submission at Gaelic Park
It will never have the same aura as the old Yankee Stadium or host fabled concerts like the The Beatles scream-fest at Shea Stadium but unlike those other beloved sports shrines in the Bronx and Queens, at least Gaelic Park still exists.
Most regulars in the place laugh when they remember how the reality failed to match their expectations; its reputation and fame far exceeds its size. “One of the greatest let -downs any GAA person from Ireland is likely to experience,” was Pat Spillane’s recollection of his first visit.
A short walk from 242nd street, the very last stop on the One train, takes you down Broadway where on a mild spring evening groups of young men are playing pick-up basketball and games of handball against the wall of Van Cortlandt Park. You cross beneath the hood of the raised number one track and the most famous GAA ground on foreign soil announces itself with a sign that it almost jaunty in its simplicity: Gaelic Park. They should have Take It Or Leave It printed in brackets below.
“I’ve seen just about everything here,” says Connie Molloy, who will manage New York when they play Leitrim in the first game of the 2013 All-Ireland championship tomorrow.
“Brilliant players and awful ructions, particularly in the 1980s. People coming in over the fence there behind us. Monaghan had a team in those years and . . . ah, it was scary stuff.
“The New York game had a reputation of being rough in those years. And they were. Unquestionably. I’m not sure why it was. The refereeing was that bit looser and I suppose it mattered to boys.”
As he talks, Molloy scans the group of players going through warm-up drills as called out by Mickey Coleman, the team trainer. This season has been encouraging: unlike other years when the bitterest nights would whittle numbers down to 10, New York have had a panel of 36 to choose from.
For once, the management faced the novel dilemma of reducing the championship panel. This year’s group is an accurate reflection of the Irish emigration pattern of the last years. Molloy flew out to Boston in the summer of 1981 to play football for a summer. He had been an influential player on an Ardara team which won the club’s first county championship in 59 years. His name travelled. He stayed on until Christmas and then took a train to New York to visit his uncle.
“So you are heading home,” his uncle said. “You have a few dollars saved. What will you do when you have that spent?”
And something made Molloy stay. He found the first months lonely, didn’t even hear the radio commentary when his brother Anthony played on the first Donegal team to win an All-Ireland title at under-21 level the following autumn. But he was home to watch his brother lift the Sam Maguire 10 years later. And he has no regrets.
“You take your chances in life,” he says. Now his son CJ, born here, will play for New York on Sunday. There are five New York-born players on the squad now, the most positive proof of the stubbornness of the city game here. The GAA has provided New York with an energetic youth officer, Simon Gillespie.
But to field teams and to exist, New York GAA is still overwhelmingly reliant on the waves of emigration.
Molloy was among the first of what he terms “the mass exodus” which descended on the high streets of Woodside and Woodlawn in the 1980s. David Byrne, the team psychologist, came to study in America in the 1990s. Many of the players came here after the abrupt cessation of work in Ireland in the last five years.
As with most people who wander through the gates of Gaelic Park, they are here more through accident or happenstance than design. As always, Gaelic football made the transition easier even if the New York experience remains very different.
“It’s not easy,” grins Rory Woods. For years, the Scotstown man was a constant presence on Séamus McEnaney’s gallant Monaghan teams, a broad and intelligent half-forward with a scything left foot.
Just a handful of years ago, he played in a riveting All-Ireland quarter-final against Kerry. Last February, he found himself running around in the sharpest wind in an empty Gaelic Park. He could see the shadows moving in the lights of the high-rise apartments above him. It felt as if all of New York was hunkered indoors.
The great outdoors of ’Blaney or Clones are none too balmy in deepest winter but Woods concedes he was shocked by the ferocity of the weather in Riverdale.
“Never saw the like of it. We’d run squares and when you turned into that wind, it was like an alarm clock going off in your head. One night our warm-up was shovelling snow off the pitch there. And this other time I was standing behind one of the boys and I saw something on the back of his head. I said: ‘What the f**k is that on your hair.’ And he put his hand up and there were icicles.”
The idea of training in a virtual Antarctica is apt when it comes to New York. As Molloy puts it: “The miles have always been between us and Ireland and always will.”
The big struggle for New York is the oldest struggle: they don’t get enough games. Mickey Coleman grew up listening to the voice of Mickey Harte.
He won two senior All-Ireland medals with Tyrone in 2003 and 2005 and went close at under-21 level. So for the brightest years of his football life he was the part of the inner sanctum of one of the most extraordinary Gaelic teams ever assembled. It is safe to say he knows the game.
“Well, we assume that we know what it is required for teams to be able to operate at intercounty level,” Coleman says amicably.
“And we run this like any other intercounty team. But it is what it is. We have lads rushing here from the five boroughs and an hour of a journey from Long Island. Some nights we can’t get on the pitch. The commitment has been fantastic, you know. Having the Irish American lads coming through has deepened our options.
“CJ Molloy has started for the past few years. Donnacha O’Dwyer, whose father is a Tipperary man, played full back for us. Shane and Conor Horgan started last year. But we have no opposition to mark ourselves against. We are grabbing in the dark and we know that we are going to need things to go right for us if we are to win the next day.”
Coleman is from Ardboe and came through on teams along with the McGuigan boys and Gavin Devlin – his cousin and the current trainer of the Tyrone team. Like most GAA people, Coleman is keenly aware of the legacy of Gaelic Park, of the imperious and controversial reign of John Kerry O’Donnell, of the bizarre situations in the 1950s when immigration was so heavy that New York teams could actually compete with the finest football and hurling teams for league honours and of the roll-call of famous names who played here.
Gaelic Park is the only GAA ground that can claim to have hosted The Grateful Dead, Robert Kennedy and Christy Ring.
Connie Molloy often laughs when he recalls the composition of some of the teams he played on. “In 1986, we reached a local final and we had Anthony (Molloy) at midfield along with Jack O’Shea and Larry Tompkins in the forwards.”
And although Coleman was aware Frank McGuigan had spent a full decade in New York before returning home in 1984, he was surprised by how many people still remember him.
McGuigan’s sabbatical in New York is legendary: he came out to the city in 1973 as part of an All-Star expedition after a supernova summer which yielded Tyrone an Ulster championship. He was at the bar in Gaelic Park on the afternoon the touring party was due to fly to Dublin. It may have been Sean Doherty from Dublin who advised him that it was time to go, that the plane was leaving.
“Let her leave,” said McGuigan and that shaped the next 10 years of his life. Then McGuigan returned to Ireland and promptly delivered another Ulster title for Tyrone with one of the great individual displays in the 1984 provincial final.
“Everyone still asks: how’s Frank,” Coleman says.
“He is nearly more of a household name here than at home. I’d talk to boys about him and I gather he played the best football of his life here in Gaelic Park when Tyrone were waiting for him to come home. Even Connie, there. Connie said he never heard tell of Frank when he came here first and then he played a game against him and he sees Frank rising for this ball and saw the soles of his boots sailing above him.”
The era of marquee players hanging around 272nd street has passed. Rory Woods is the only member of the current panel with significant championship experience and because he wrenched a muscle in his back a fortnight ago the Monaghan man will be watching from the sidelines tomorrow.
“All we can do is train hard,” Woods says as he stands near the small green press box watching the team train.
“Mickey has come from a real professional set-up at home. And he is working with mainly club footballers here. Sometimes he gets frustrated. We should flood the defence early on and try and not to make any mistakes. Over the past few years against Sligo and Roscommon, we were leaving the middle wide open and the game was over after 10 minutes.”
David Byrne was taken on as psychologist and his immediate task was to try and make the group of half-strangers that assembled in January believe they are a team.
“And to make them feel as if they belong in the All-Ireland. They have a bit of a swagger about them now,” he says.
But it is all guesswork. The league is over and New York have yet to play a game.
Tomorrow, Gaelic Park will resemble the glory days of the Kerry O’Donnell era: beers flowing, queues in front of the burger stands, the sun high, fierce ex-patriot pride, the band playing and always the One train rumbling past.
The championship game has become the big Irish day out in the Bronx and that puts pressure on the players. The Leitrim team, just a vague notion in the freezing nights of winter, will be there in front of them, strong and grim-faced and full of intent.
Nobody wants to be the team that loses to New York in the Connacht championship. It is often forgotten that the All-Ireland football championship begins in the Bronx. Sometimes New York GAA people wish more ceremony could be made of the fact. Maybe that will happen if they win a match.
“It’s going to happen sometime,” vows Connie Molloy in an accent still pure enough to belong to a Brian Friel play.
He has been three decades waiting and coaching and trying to make the game better here. He does it because he can’t imagine not doing it. Next year will be the centenary of the GAA in New York. It has never claimed perfection. But despite everything, it – and Gaelic Park – is outlasting the odds.