America at Large: Fenway Park steeped in Ireland’s own troubled past

Dublin and Galway hurlers have lot of history to live up to in November

Irish republican leader Eamon de Valera speaking at a packed Fenway Park in Boston in 1919. Photograph: Getty Images/General Photographic Agency

Irish republican leader Eamon de Valera speaking at a packed Fenway Park in Boston in 1919. Photograph: Getty Images/General Photographic Agency

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An hour before the scheduled start, the police closed the gates at Fenway Park. More than 50,000 had already been shoehorned inside, safety was becoming an issue, and the hordes still thronging Lansdowne, Van Ness and Jersey Streets would just have to eavesdrop the action from outside. An attendance more than three times the number that witnessed Babe Ruth’s Boston Red Sox in the 1918 World Series just nine months earlier, the first full house in the ground’s young life.

Across the green sward of the outfield, men, women and children defiantly held aloft placards. “We demand England withdraw from Ireland,” said one, “England is disqualified and unfit to rule Ireland,” went another. Serious-looking men in uniform milled around beneath banners advertising themselves as stalwarts of outfits like Charlestown’s John Boyle O’Reilly Guards and Lowell’s Wolfe Tone, Sheridan and Meagher Guards.

In different pockets, rival bands from various corners of New England bashed out a cacophony of traditional Irish tunes, firing up a stadium rendered almost technicolour by the profusion of tricolours billowing in the summer breeze alongside so many stars and stripes. Shortly after 3pm, three mounted policemen finally started to clear a path through the canyon of people so Eamon de Valera, the headline act, could make his way to a temporary stage erected over home plate.

Beloved cathedral

The crowd surged forward, some just wanting a glimpse, more apparently desperate to touch the hem of his garment. A few women fainted at the first sight of the tall, angular figure striding past, the president of the rebel Irish Republic, the one the papers dubbed “The Irish Lincoln”. In a baseball field that would later evolve into a beloved cathedral, the high priest of Irish nationalism had come to say mass for his flock.

Against the background of that epic Sunday afternoon in June, 1919, news that hurling is to be played at Fenway this November is as welcome as it is perhaps inevitable. Aside from its most revered architectural feature being an enormous wall known as ‘The Green Monster’, the venue John Updike so exquisitely described as “a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark” has had an Irish vein running through it since Charles E Logue built the place in 1912.

Second Captains

Having first stowed away from Derry to Nova Scotia at a mere 13, Logue’s second attempt at emigration took him to Boston and was much more impactful. A carpenter by trade, a daily communicant, and father of 16 (including two nuns and two priests), the growth of his contracting company coincided with the Irish wresting control of Boston politics away from the Brahmins, and doling out the patronage accordingly.

A close friend of president John F Kennedy’s grandfather Honey Fitz, Logue oversaw the construction of churches and colleges all over Massachusetts but Fenway is, of course, the monument that earned him his footnote in history.

Like any stadium of this vintage, it has undergone many renovations, Amid all the upgrades, its enduring beauty is that it has, somehow, managed to retain enough of its essential intimacy, quirky character and olde world charm to make it on to the National Register of Historic Places. Bereft of the garish conveniences and excess accoutrements that are staples of the game-day experience elsewhere, going there affords an opportunity to turn the clock back to a simpler, more quaint time.

Bootlegger

It also offers the chance to take in somewhere uniquely steeped in Ireland’s own troubled history. Battalions of United Irishmen conducted military drills there in 1914 and, eight years later, Countess Markievicz and Kathleen Barry were the star turns at an anti-Treaty rally. After the dust had settled back home, Dan Breen, the IRA gunman and Fianna Fail politician enjoying a career break as a Boston bootlegger, caused a stir when he once turned up to watch the Red Sox in the company of mayor James Michael Curley, a character known, for good reason, as the city’s ‘Rascal King’.

There was sport too. In 1935, not long after being plucked from the Irish Army, Danno ‘The Irish Whip’ Mahony took away Jim ‘The Gorgeous Greek’ Londos’s version of the world wrestling title to the delight of the pro-Irish Fenway crowd. Three thousand miles away in his native Ballydehob, his family and friends held a celebratory torchlight procession through the town to Staball Hill when they heard the news.

On another summer’s evening at the ballpark two years later, in a Cork versus Kerry match-up foreshadowing the great showdowns between Paul Galvin and Noel O’Leary, Crusher Casey from Sneem defeated Mahony via “a top body grapevine” after 90 minutes of grappling.

Fenway hosted hurling for the first time three years before de Valera set foot on the diamond. And when William Cardinal O’Connell held his jubilee mass there in 1934, the Cavan Gaelic footballers were among the 40,000 present.

Replicates the feat

On November 22nd then, the Dublin and Galway hurlers have a lot of history to live up to. The last time the sport was played at Fenway, in 1954, photographers dressed Christy Ring up in a baseball uniform and described him as “Ireland’s Babe Ruth”.

We can bet on something similar happening again. And if anybody replicates the feat of Ring’s team-mate Liam Dowling, who drove a home run out of the stadium during a baseball practice, the ensuing hysteria could be de Valeraesque.

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