Taken on the opening afternoon of the 2006 season, the image of the vacant seats in the Bronx accentuated a clear message. The Irish are leaving town at such a pace that those left behind are struggling to keep their native games alive. Less than three weeks after the latest media obituary then, the New York hurlers’ triumph over Derry last Sunday was both timely and opportune.
The ensuing logistical battle over the date and location of the Ulster final presents Croke Park and the Ulster Council with a perfect opportunity to show the denizens of the New York scene they understand their plight and are willing to do something to help. By agreeing to send Antrim over to play a rescheduled decider in August, the authorities would be alleviating a major headache regarding the immigration status of several players, offering the New York Board a unique promotional gift, and most of all, demonstrating gratitude for the outsized role the GAA in America has played in the lives of Irish emigrants for nearly a century.
The last part should be the weightiest element of any argument. In 1988, the Emerald Isle Immigration Center was established in New York to provide advice, assistance and whatever else it could to the many Irish struggling in a new country. For decades before that and since, the GAA unofficially served all those functions and more. At different junctures in our history, eras when successive Irish governments gladly waved people on to boats and planes, apparently caring not a jot what awaited them once they reached the other side of the Atlantic, the GAA was very often the first port of call in a strange land. Its people cared.
In Gaelic Park on 240th Street, anybody with a pair of boots or a hurley or enough of an interest in the games just to turn up regularly was immediately adopted into the extended family. On his first Sunday in America, an Irishman could arrive at a match desperately wondering how he was going to make his way in this enormous country, and depart with a job and a room in a house. Sorted. Before the phrase even entered the lexicon, Gaelic Park provided a wide-ranging support network for emigrants. Apart from being an invaluable spiritual link with home, it was equal parts accommodation office, employment bureau and travel agent.
“Every Sunday I went to Gaelic Park with my parents and I fell in love with it,” said Marty Morrissey in Eamonn Rafferty’s book “Talking Gaelic.” “My father and mother had emigrated and like many before them, arrived in New York with barely the clothes they stood up in. The pain of separation was eased by meeting every Sunday with friends from home and Gaelic Park was the United Nations of Ireland. My father got his first job there, within a week of arriving.
“Everybody would be there from every county, chatting about everything under the sun, arranging dates and cheering the teams on, all in the same breath. My father was a travel agent and often, he did business out of the park. It was that sort of place, very much ‘our’ place. Jobs were found, houses were rented, couples met, newspapers were read, stories were swapped and of course football was watched in this little bit of Ireland away from home.”
In New York, the GAA impacted on lives in a way far beyond sport. Tens of thousands of Irish wouldn’t have lasted a week or a month in Gotham without the succor provided by their compatriots. By helping so many find their feet in this country, the GAA ensured those envelopes full of dollars would eventually wing their way to homes in Ireland where they were desperately needed. Can anybody calculate the effect that had on the struggling Irish economy in the 1950s or even the ’80s? Is it unfair to expect some payback now?
“We would prefer to see it go ahead, ideally on the original date, but that is a matter for the Ulster Council,” said Croke Park spokesman Fergal McGill last week.
At a time when one-third of the city’s hurling clubs have folded in the past 18 months, and an estimated 200 active players have returned home, the New York board are hardly asking for much by requesting the Ulster Council to postpone and relocate the final? Just think of it as a little something to say thanks for helping all those sons and daughters out when work wasn’t as plentiful back home as it thankfully is today.
Through the years, the New York county board has been rightly castigated for failing to purchase a stadium of its own. Too much money was squandered flying big-name players out to swing championship matches in the latter stages of seasons. However, it can even be argued that practice had a positive influence on GAA affairs back home. Anybody wondering why previous generations of inter-county hurlers and footballers were not as obsessed with commercial gain and pay-for-play as some of the present bunch need only look westward for answers.
In 1973, the going rate for one game in New York for a star player was $200. A teacher’s wage in Ireland back then was