New York build on underage structures


CONNACHT SF CHAMPIONSHIP:IT USED to be an economic downturn in Ireland was at least good for something; the GAA in New York. When players here were laid-off or couldn’t find work they typically looked to America, and particularly New York, where the promise of employment and a vibrant GAA scene – along with several other perks – was more than enough to entice them across the Atlantic.

These days things are a little different.

The state of the Irish economy may be one stop away from bankruptcy but there hasn’t been anything like the sort of mass emigration that marked similar scenarios in previous decades. Not yet anyway. But on the other side of the tracks, America is not as welcoming as it once was either.

This Sunday, New York’s GAA scene comes under the annual spotlight when the footballers play Mayo in the first round of the Connacht championship.

Also known as the annual banana skin – as the travelling team are always in danger of slipping up – it’s the chance to check in on all GAA matters Stateside, and it seems there is a still a mostly positive report.

New York GAA chairman Larry McCarthy has noticed a slight reverse on the trend of recent years, where American-based players were looking back with envy on the employment opportunities in Ireland. And many of them did return. While now they may be thinking of coming back the other way, they’ve found the stricter US Immigration Laws standing in their way.

“Our problem over the last few years wasn’t so much the crackdown on illegal immigrants out here,” says McCarthy. “It was more to do with the economy back home doing so well, and people leaving New York and America because of that.

“Things have begun to swing in the other direction, but only slightly. And not enough yet to really impact on the state of New York football. But this winter, certainly, there was talk of players coming back out here, instead of going home, and that hasn’t been the case for quite a few years.

“And on St Patrick’s Day here as well you could see the numbers of Irish here were up. But in terms of footballers it’s only really dribs and drabs. Not a huge upswing. Not yet anyway.

“But then we wouldn’t really be expecting that either. The economy is not doing well in Ireland, but America is still a very different place, post 9-11. They really tightened up significantly on immigration after that and that’s still the case.”

Despite all the comings and the goings, the GAA scene in New York continues to be vibrant on its own merits. There are 26 clubs in the area, but more significantly, 12 of those deal with underage players, and that’s what will secure the future of New York GAA more than any fresh exodus from Ireland.

“I think the best thing about New York GAA at the moment is that we have wonderful underage structure,” says McCarthy. “There are 12 underage clubs, who are bringing players through from under-10s up to minor grade.

“There is a drop-off after that, but that’s a problem for the GAA no matter where. But I think we have two factors as well. We’re not even close to being the dominant sport here. You have basketball and baseball and American football and that always takes dominance here over Gaelic games.

“But the other difference is our college culture. When youngsters go away to college here it’s a much bigger move, sometimes across the country. They lose the connection. It’s not like a lad from Cork going to UCD, and coming back down every weekend.”

One of the definite positives McCarthy points to is the new generation of Irish-American GAA player, those actually born and raised in the country, and who have come through the New York system. Several of those will start on Sunday, along with the usual spread of former or once aspiring county representatives from Ireland.

New York also have a new manager this year as well in Seán Smith, a Cavan native. As usual, however, the only real hope is that they can at least be competitive with Mayo. Although John O’Mahony’s team will be without several first-choice players, including the injured Conor Mortimer, and dual player Keith Higgins, who has stayed behind to play with the hurlers, McCarthy believes the game remains a vital part of the overseas GAA structure.

“I’ve said many times before how important it is for us to be in the championship. Historically we’ve always measured ourselves against Ireland. That connection is very important. But this championship match is as much of a festival as well. Dessie Dolan of Leitrim said that when he was over last year. It’s a huge weekend for us.

“We know this is the one game the visiting team don’t want to lose. Roscommon had a bit of a scare a few years ago, and we went to extra-time with Leitrim as few years ago as well. Mayo are without a few top players but they’re still one of the best teams in the country. Our hope is at least to be competitive.”