These don't have to be just 'our games' - anyone can play


On Gaelic Games:Maybe it sounded a bit fanciful but GAA President Liam O’Neill’s speech to the GPA dinner in New York last Thursday hit on what may well turn out to be one of the most radical developments in the association’s history.

The target that there may eventually be more people playing Gaelic games outside of Ireland than at home is fairly aspirational at the moment: current figures show a disparity of 16,000 to 250,000 (or a ratio of about 16:1).

But the vision encompasses a major departure for the GAA – a playing membership that would have to become less Irish and more international, as local populations in the overseas territories became more involved and blood lines to Ireland dilute.

As O’Neill acknowledged: “It’s no longer about the emigrant going abroad and growing up in the GAA. It’s about the emigrant who has gone abroad whose child is now playing games. That’s where the growth is going to be.”

Writing in an essay collection to mark the GAA’s 125th anniversary in 2009, UUJ’s Dr Paul Darby, who played championship football with Antrim and is the author of Gaelic Games, Nationalism and the Irish Diaspora in the United States, remarks:

“Many feel the future of the GAA in the US will be predicated on reaching out to young people, not necessarily of Irish descent, born in America. As a consequence, considerable energies are being invested in youth programmes and competitions aimed at building a sound grassroots for both football and hurling.

Familiar themes

“For those involved in this process it means selling the ludic and aesthetic qualities of Gaelic football and hurling to a broader constituency rather than packaging or promoting them as a resource for the expression of Irish national identity, as was the case in the past.”

Talking to Larry McCarthy, from Cork and a long-time administrator for the GAA in New York, at last Saturday’s All Star match in Gaelic Park it was striking how the familiar themes of Gaelic games had transposed from the parishes of home to the world’s uber-metropolis.

Even though acquiring property is far more challenging that at home, the local GAA are slowly developing an infrastructure, which caters for much the same needs as in Ireland – community focus and thriving juvenile sections.

For a long time, Gaelic Park in the Bronx fitted with a particular version of the diaspora experience: sentimental attachment to the old country spiked with resentment at forced economic exile.

There was also in decades gone by the squabbling between the New York board and Croke Park and the disjunction between it and the rest of the North American GAA, still reflected in the current association structures.

New York GAA seemed at times to rely on importing the home experience with the apparently ceaseless traffic of inter-county players to play in the local championships. But times have changed.

It used to be said the GAA in New York and North America in general thrived when Ireland was doing badly but unlike previous recessions, the current economic calamities haven’t been amenable to the traditional remedy of exporting our unemployed there. For a start the US economy has also been affected by the 2008 global meltdown but more tellingly, the intensified security of post-September 11th America has made undocumented immigration a much less viable option than in previous decades.

Impressive statistics

The GAA has had to become more adept at reaching out to the local populations and in that regard the statistics are impressive. Around 700 children involved in a juvenile programme in the suburb of Rockland was one of the examples used by O’Neill. There has also been the increased representation of non-immigrants on New York teams.

For so long the concept of the GAA abroad has been about importing the games and providing a home from home rather than reaching out to the local populations.

In recent years the European board model of recreational involvement has been notably successful. Established by largely voluntary emigrants whose jobs took them to the continent, it often attracted Irish people who had no previous involvement in Gaelic games but who saw them as a way of recognising their cultural identity as well as providing a sporting and social outlet.

It was here that the great appeal of women’s football was identified and at the weekend Liam O’Neill spoke of how it was that game, rather than the men’s, which had the greatest potential to attract overseas communities to participate in GAA activities. As the president emphasised the growth of the women’s game adds urgency to the task of removing the barriers between the sports so that the GAA is formally open to all.

With the New York GAA modernising and hoping to celebrate its centenary in 2014 by redeveloping the facilities at Gaelic Park and also by staging a national league final, the old model of the GAA projecting a self-absorbed nationalism is giving way to a more inclusive form of expansion.

These don’t have to be just ‘our games’ – anyone can play.

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