By Sean Creedon
and Harry Keaney
"Seeing New York’s Gaelic Park for the first time is one of the greatest letdowns any GAA person from Ireland is likely to experience," declares former Kerry football great Pat Spillane in his new biography, "Shooting from the Hip." In fact, Spillane describes the GAA in New York as "the banana republic of the association."
He goes on to describe New York’s Gaelic Park in the 1970s as "basically a large drinking den," and he adds that "it’s a scandal that in a city like New York, this is the public face of the GAA."
"Thankfully, it’s the exception," Spillane said. "In other U.S. cities such as Chicago and San Francisco, there are excellent GAA facilities . . . "
The president of the GAA in New York, Monty Moloney, said that the picture of the GAA in New York that Spillane is painting is now over. Moloney said he did not want to dwell on the past, preferring instead to look to the future. He said the GAA has now made necessary changes "that will send us down the road we want to go."
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Spillane admits in his new book that he himself made money from "illegal" trips to play in the Big Apple. He writes that a wealthy individual always handed him an envelope with the words "this is something for the education of the kids." At the time Spillane was not married, and he was never too sure whether the dollars were for the kids he taught in Bantry or for his future children.
Spillane says that it’s a great shame that the money invested on the "weekend shuttle players" is not invested in the promotion of underage football in New York.
"Many American youngsters are natural athletes who could easily be coached in Gaelic football," he said.
And, Spillane added, he wouldn’t ask his worst enemy to play in the New York hurling championship.
However, Spillane said that in speaking about players going to New York, the money element "is greatly exaggerated." He reveals that the match fee in 1973 was about $200 plus air fare. By the early 1990s the fee had increased to about $500 per game.
Spillane says the main reason players go to New York is that it is "a short holiday."
"The reality is that you rarely left the Big Apple with too many dollars in your pocket after a few nights on the town," Spillane said, although he admits he "did slightly better" financially that many of his fellow travelers.
Spillane says that "a lot of the dollars spent on bringing players out from Ireland is not what could be described as GAA money, claiming that there is "thriving gambling business run in conjunction with the big games in the championship," with wealthy individuals betting heavily on the outcome of matches.
"Shooting from the Hip" came about as a result of a late-night conversation October 1997 in New York’s Denim and Diamonds Nightclub between Spillane and Sunday World sports journalist Sean McGoldrick, a native of Manorhamilton, Co. Leitrim. McGoldrick previously worked for the Sligo Champion and the Irish Press.
Spillane said that McGoldrick asked him if he ever planned to write his biography. McGoldrick offered to help and 12 months later "Shooting from the Hip," the first book from any player from the great Kerry teams of the 1970s and ’80s, was launched by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
McGoldrick, who ghost-wrote the book, told the Echo Monday that in relation to the chapter on the GAA in New York, Spillane was "talking about his own era of the 1970s, not necessarily about the current years."
Asked for his reaction to the references to the New York GAA in the book, New York GAA president Moloney said that he did not want to dwell on what happened in the past.
"We are talking about the future and it looks bright and we hope to advance the GAA to where we want to go," Moloney said. "We are the strongest Irish organization outside of Ireland and we have gained a lot of respect over the past few months."
Although "Shooting from the Hip" is written from Spillane’s personal experience, his knowledge of current GAA affairs is open to question. The book says that the current president of the New York GAA board is Mike Cassidy. In fact, it is Moloney, who has been credited with doing much to improve the GAA and its image.
Moloney said this year’s senior hurling and football finals "were both clean games" with no outside players other than the three weekend sanctioned players.
In relation to Spillane’s description of Gaelic Park as having been "basically a large drinking den," Moloney said he didn’t see much difference between players in Ireland going to a pub after a match and players in New York gathering together socially in Gaelic Park.
Moloney added that the picture of the GAA in New York that Spillane is painting is over. Moloney also felt the timing of the book was bad in that the New York GAA has now made necessary changes.
Indeed, Moloney wondered if Spillane is an authority to voice an opinion on the GAA in New York, adding that not a lot of players were brought out from Ireland in the ’70s because there were a lot of players already in New York at the time.
Across the Atlantic
In dealing with his travels across the Atlantic in the 1970s, Spillane says that the only perks for GAA players were the annual (and illegal) trips to play in the latter stages of the New York championships.
Spillane writes that legend has it that one Kerry player, who wasn’t even an established star, "earned enough money from his transAtlantic trips to build his house."
"Then there was the Kerry dual player who earned twice the normal fee by playing both hurling and football on his weekend visits to Gaelic Park," according to Spillane.
Spillane was just 18 when he made his first trip to the Big Apple in 1974. "I let it be known that I was interested and I got fixed up fairly quickly," he cryptically stated, adding that he stayed in an apartment with an IRA man who was on the run from the North. Over the years, Spillane played in both junior and senior New York championships with a variety of teams, including Donegal, Clare, Kerry and Tyrone.
Spillane said that in his innocence he imagined Gaelic Park to be a fabulous stadium. "After all, it is situated in one of the most famous cities in the world and one which boasts one of the biggest concentration of Irish emigrants anywhere," Spillane writes. "Unfortunately, the reality couldn’t be further removed from the myth. Seeing Gaelic Park for the first time is one of the greatest letdowns any GAA person from Ireland is likely to experience."
In the 1970s, recalls Spillane, it was a decrepit, run-down place which "hadn’t seen a lick of paint in donkey’s years." He adds that the shower rarely worked, and that the majority of seats around the field were broken and the pitch itself was rough and bereft of grass up through the center. "It was basically a large drinking den," Spillane said.
He acknowledges that there "have been marginal improvements to Gaelic Park in recent years," perhaps alluding to the changes that have taken place since Manhattan College assumed control of the lease of the city-owned facility.
He says that his fellow Kerryman John Kerry O’Donnell, who held the lease on Gaelic Park for many years, deserves great credit for keeping Gaelic games alive in New York.
"Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough money invested over the years in upgrading the facility," Spillane said.
He also says that football in Gaelic Park was not for the fainthearted.
In saying that the GAA in New York is "the banana republic of the association," Spillane alleges that "rules mean nothing."
"I played in one New York final for Donegal during which we made 13 substitutions," Spillane recalls. But he adds that if there was a touch of lawlessness about the football at Gaelic Park, it "was a child’s picnic compared to what went on in hurling."
And ironically, news of Spillane’s new book comes just a week after there was all-around praise for the New York GAA following last week’s hurling and football finals.
However, the chapter entitled "Foreign Fields" does end on a note which gives room for thought. According to Spillane, one of the reasons New York football has never developed is because of its use of "imported players." He says that local players who train hard become disillusioned when they are replaced by imports in the playoffs. There are many in the U.S. who would agree with this.
"Shooting from the Hip," is published by Roscommon man Donal Keenan, through his company, Storm Books (£9.99).