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1 October 2009 Edition

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More than a game BY MATT TREACY

Chronicling Gaelic games Stateside

ANYONE who has ever visited New York, or indeed any of the big American cities, will probably be aware of the huge role that the GAA plays in the lives of Irish people, both those new to the Diaspora and into second, third and even more distant generations.
Ciara was certainly amazed at the fact that you could emerge from a train at Van Courdlant having travelled up through Harlem and the Bronx with all the noise and frisson and sometimes hint of danger that that entails and suddenly be walking down a quiet road as though you were approaching Parnell Park on a balmy summer evening.
A new book by former Antrim footballer Paul Darby, Gaelic Games, Nationalism and the Irish Diaspora in the United States, seeks to provide a detailed history of the Association there since its origins. The key theme is the way in which gaelic games and all that had to do with them became and remain a central identifier for Irish people and people of Irish descent but more importantly that it was the focus of much of the social, economic and political life of the Diaposra over more than a century.
Irish people in the States are sometimes criticised or ridiculed by Irish based ‘liberals’ and anti-national elements for their allegedly sentimental view of the ‘ould sod’ and their allegedly reactionary backward nationalist views on events here as well as the defence of their own community interests in the States, which is sometimes perceived as not altogether PC.
That of course is to neglect why so many Irish people happen to be there in the first instance, historically of course dating back to the Famine and later the large scale emigration of republicans and others when the Free State had no place for them in after 1923. Indeed, more recently tens of thousands of young people left the Six Counties for economic and political reasons in the 70s and 80s and tens of thousands left the South as part of the mass emigration presided over by Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil in the 1980s. That all of that might have contributed to a certain level of antipathy to what forced them to go is perhaps understandable.

Darby provides a general overview of the connection between the American GAA and the republican struggle at home which was particularly important at key phases such as between 1916 and 1923, during the hunger strikes in 1981, and most lately of course during the Peace Process. He makes the point that, particularly in latter years, the GAA had often been a minority voice in highlighting what was happening in Ireland but that when major events took place the GAA was invariably at the centre of the enlarged interest of the general Irish population.
He also details the various internal politicking that went on particularly in New York around the central figure of John Kerry O’Donnell and the fact that for many years the New York GAA Board was not actually affiliated to Croke Park. One of the main reasons for continuing the separation in the 1980s was that by remaining apart the New York clubs could continue to bring over inter county players to play in the city competitions which still generate huge interest.
However, that issue was overtaken by larger events, particularly following the suspension of Galway hurler Tony Keady for the 1989 All Ireland final after he had played for the New York Laois team. By 1988 the New York Board had agreed to affiliate with Central Council and New York once again became officially represented and of course they now participate on an equal basis in the championship.
And of course club players from Ireland still go to play in the States, although the numbers of people emigrating are unlikely to reach the same levels as before due to the increased restrictions in place Stateside. The same job opportunities are no longer available given that the American economy is also going through difficulties.
There is little doubt however but that the games continue to flourish and are probably stronger now among the children and even grandchildren of Irish born people than at any time previously. I can attest to this myself having met young in-laws with the sort of accents you would normally only hear in films about the Bronx and Brooklyn in the 1950s!
Darby’s book provides a comprehensive overview of the history of the GAA in the US mainly from an administrative and sociological perspective and as such is probably the best and most accurate account of the GAA there to date.
• Gaelic Games, Nationalism and the Irish Diaspora in the United States. By Paul Darby. Published by University College Dublin Press. ISBN No. 9781906359232. Price €28

And finally a postscript to the analysis of the football final. The Cork players’ strikes may appear to have faded into the past but Chris from Cork is convinced that one of the factors in their defeat was the fact that Conor Counihan was hampered by the unwieldy selection process brought about by the players’ actions.

An Phoblacht Magazine


  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
  • It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
  • There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.

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