How GAA gained a foothold in New York
On Sunday afternoon in the Bronx, New York welcomes Sligo to the preliminary round of the Connacht Championship. There’s nothing like it for the New York GAA. Fergus Hanna traces the unique history of the Gaelic Games in the city in his beautiful book The History of the GAA in New York, published in 2014.
It’s winter and Collect Pond, a body of freshwater in New York City, has frozen over. The people of the city have turned it into a popular ice rink. The ice lives from skaters who shoot in all directions. Among them are Irish. They also skate, but they also have Hurleys in their hands and they have recreated the hurling matches they play on grass in New York for the rest of the year on the ice. Hurleys and balls were imported from Ireland and the game is played with wild devotion.
22 football and hurler clubs have come together to form the Gaelic Athletic Association of America. The delegates come from all over New York and New Jersey. They elect a central council, choose the officers who will lead them, and set up a championship with gold medals and a gold cup for the winners. This association will prove to be of limited success, and it will not be until 1914 that the GAA in New York will develop a permanent formal structure. But a start has been made and everything needs a start.
There is a field on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 34th Street. It’s Sunday afternoon and a group of hurlers are playing away. Their game is halted when other men walk onto the field with baseball bats. They are demanding that the slingers go and the field cleared for a baseball game. The slingers reject the demand. Push and Shove become Punch and Swing. Ashes and blood flow, and finally the baseball players run to the gates. But the day is not over yet. The police are notified and six slingers are arrested. However, this is New York. There are too many Irish community politicians and too many Irish police officers for the men to lose their freedom for long. William Heffernan, a South Brooklyn councilor, secures freedom for the slingshots. They are all home for tea. And on the following Sunday afternoons, they don’t have to endure any more interruptions.
It’s a Sunday in late July and 7,000 people are in Celtic Park – the GAA playing field in New York – to watch soccer and throw games. Two men sit on the terrace that was built next to the playing field. They put a bottle between them. They are watched by two detectives who suspect the men are drinking alcohol. This is the age of prohibition and detectives are reaching for the bottle. The men resist. A detective is hit with a bottle and one of the drinkers sprints towards the Irish dance hall built at the end of Celtic Park. Mounted police officers arrive on the field. Pandemonium follows. More bottles fly. People are arrested and six people are hospitalized, including two young girls. The police are convicted for being cumbersome.
It’s Tipperary Field Day – the day Tipperary people from all over the northeast corner of America go to Celtic Park to watch football and meet and do whatever happens when people get together. There is supposed to be a match between the Sligo footballers and the Tipperary footballers. The Sligo team is on the field, as is the referee. You wait and wait and finally the Tipperary team comes along. Many of the Tipperary players are disturbed. You have just heard that one of your team has been shot. He was working behind the counter in the Butlers’ Store on 119th Street the day before when a robbery broke out. The Tipperary players eventually decide to play the game out of respect for all of the Tipperary people who have traveled to Celtic Park. They are losing. In fact, they don’t even manage to score.
New York clubs have a new playing field: Innisfail Park in the Bronx. In time they will change the name to Gaelic Park and it will become the great home of the Gaelic Games in New York. The tide of Irish emigrants to New York means the GAA clubs are thriving. There are now 50 affiliated clubs. Innisfail Park hosts games after games every Sunday in spring and summer. There’s a ballroom at the end of the pitch and Irish music fills the evening air. House was redone.
The Cork hurler Tom Fitzgerald is home to New York from WWII. He fought for the US Army in France with such bravery that the French government awarded him the Croix de Guerre.
The relationship between the ATM hierarchy and the New York GAA is lower than ever. Things are so bad that New York isn’t even officially affiliated with the GAA. But the championships are flourishing in this city and the New York Board has narrowly voted to allow its clubs to attract an unlimited number of Irish players to their games. The economy in Ireland is in a brutal recession and the influx of weekend and summer players across the Atlantic is increasing from week to week. There is anger in Ireland at the way the ATM is operated in New York. The newspapers make stories about the amount of money that should be given to change hands. It is said that a player who arrived at JFK Airport was hit by clubs that went to auction for his loyalty.
It’s 2014 and the New York GAA is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its official organization. The economic collapse of the post-Celtic tiger has given new strength to the Gaelic games in the city.
Gerard McCartan, GAA New York
There are currently 29 teams playing Gaelic football, nine hurling and five ladies Gaelic football. Every Sunday the Gaelic Park is lively and familiar.
The games are good – sometimes very good. But the games are only part of the story and have always been part of the story.
The GAA’s success in New York is a triumph of pride and commitment. And it is a triumph that extends into an infinite future.