GAA's New York state of mind still resonates after 70 years

Influence of the famous Polo Grounds final of more than 50 years ago can still be felt

Considering its status as the most famous All-Ireland final in history, the 70th anniversary of the Polo Grounds match between Cavan and Kerry attracted little enough attention, falling as it did in the week leading up to this year's final.

Last week in Limerick as part of the I.NY festival, celebrating the cultural ties between Ireland and New York, former Kerry captain Dara Ó Cinnéide presented a screening of the episode of his GAA USA series, which focused on the Polo Grounds final.

It's an event that has been well preserved for posterity. Two books, the late Mick Dunne's Star Spangled Final and more recently, The Fairytale in New York by journalist Paul Fitzpatrick – seasonally of these pages –  capture the sheer improbability and impact of the whole exercise to relocate football's biggest day of the year across the Atlantic.

The latter is a more detailed study of the event from Cavan’s perspective and that makes sense. After all, they were the winners – bouncing back from a daunting 0-1 to 2-2 deficit after seven minutes – but although they added two further titles in the next five years, no more followed.

That the 1947 final represents a high water mark for the county in terms of profile is encapsulated in Fitzpatrick's subtitle – The story of Cavan's finest hour – and the pinnacle of a 20-year period which saw the county win all five of its All-Ireland titles, making them Kerry's principal rivals of the era.

Such was the aura that surrounded the achievement that I remember a Cavan man as late as the 1990s saying in exasperation that it was hard to progress realistically when so many people’s “heads were stuck in the Polo Grounds”.

For Ó Cinnéide the final also has a vital place in the story of Gaelic games in America.

“After World War II the games in America were nearly dead but the fact that they didn’t die out owed a lot to players as old as in their 40s staying involved. This just about kept the clubs alive and gave them something to build on but it needed a big gesture from headquarters back at home to acknowledge what had been done.

"The significance of 1947 was that it marked the centenary commemoration of the worst year of the Famine and that combined with the promptings of Canon Michael Hamilton at home pushed the agenda at congress and central council."

Canon Hamilton, Clare’s delegate to central council and who also looked after the interests of New York, is generally and accurately portrayed as the man who drove the whole idea of sending the final to New York although another influential personality was John Kerry O’Donnell, the most prominent GAA official in the US.

Racial bonds

O’Donnell initially looked to host the 1946 replay between Roscommon and Kerry but on contacting Hamilton was told that arrangements had already been made. Anyway given how much effort went into organising the following year’s event it’s unlikely that the GAA could have agreed to the idea even if the matter had still been open.

PD Mehigan, first GAA correspondent of The Irish Times, attributed the success of the motion to congress in April 1947 entirely to Hamilton's advocacy, saying that "his rhetoric, his 'racial bonds', his Famine centenary pleadings . . . played on all the sentiments of his audience as a skilful violinist might upon sensitive fiddle strings".

This came after Mehigan’s assessment the previous evening that the feeling of delegates was “decidedly against Clare’s rather revolutionary motion”.

In some ways the final was a disappointment.

Played in the Polo Grounds, a multi-sports venue best known for baseball, it drew 34,941 – well short of the hoped-for 50,000 – but it attracted genuine publicity in New York, greatly helped by the enthusiastic engagement of Mayo-born Mayor Bill O’Dwyer, and importantly made a profit.

According to Ó Cinnéide the impact in America was significant and helped to breathe new life into a struggling organisation.

“Between 1947 and 1965 is widely acknowledged to be the golden age of the GAA in the US. The cut-off point is the Immigration Act, which changed everything for the GAA. It marked the start of the culture of paying to bring in players from Ireland.”

The 1965 Act reformed US immigration policy, which up until then had favoured European emigrants, and consequently reduced the opportunities for, amongst others, the Irish.

Yet in what has been an incrementally changing emphasis the 70th anniversary of the Polo Grounds was arguably marked in the most extraordinary way last June when a New York team won the Division One title at this year’s Féile – testament to the work done at juvenile and developmental level in the city.

Ó Cinnéide makes a valid point that it’s very difficult to sustain the familiar club model in the US, which might allow those Féile teenagers to grow up together as a team, simply because they scatter around the country for college and work in a context of scale unrecognisable in Ireland. But the presence and health of the games now is vibrant amongst the locals.

There’s a scene in the programme in which he stands beside blocks of high-rise housing towers at an old set of steps that are all that remain of the site of the Polo Grounds, which were demolished in 1964.

The venue and its extraordinary impact on the GAA both at home and in the US have become literally a state of mind.