New York Colleges footballers hope to leave a legacy
By John Harrington
History was made last week when a New York Colleges team competed in the Higher Education Championships for the first time.
They were highly competitive too, losing by just four points to the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) in the Corn Na Mac Leinn Shield Final.
The level they performed at was a tribute to the huge effort put in by their players – all American born - who trained together throughout December and January.
Some made that commitment despite having to commute seven-hour round trips, and on one night 22 players turned up for training even though two feet of snow had fallen.
Significant private fund-raising was done to make the trip possible with local sponsors GC Warehouse, Commodore Construction, RMD Floors, El Sol Construction, O'Callaghan-Perela Construction, and BAR construction all coming on board, and the team proudly wore jerseys emblazoned with the emblem of Solace House, the New York equivalent of Irish suicide and self-harm charity, Pieta House.
Their cause is particularly close to the heart of New York team manager Barry Walsh, who lost his brother Ciaran to suicide nine years ago and credits his involvement in the GAA with helping him deal with that tragedy.
In return, he has dedicated a large part of his life to increasing participation levels in Gaelic Football and Hurling in New York.
And he believes this first foray by a New York Colleges team into third level competition in Ireland will be hugely beneficial in that regard.
“It was massive, a hugely positive experience,” Walsh told GAA.ie.
“We started out last September when I met Gerry Tully from the Higher Education and we were delighted with the invitation because it was a big part of the jigsaw puzzle to keep the kids playing over here.
“We've been losing a lot of kids after Feile, now we have a very established competition that will look after the 19, 20, and 21-year olds.”
Traditionally in America, once you finish High School you generally stop playing team sport unless you go professional or semi-professional.
But Walsh believes it’s critical to the long-term health of Gaelic Games in New York to keep the first-generation Irish who were born and bred there playing the game for as long as possible.
“It's really important in cementing the game in New York,” he said. “We're never going to see the big immigration we once did from Ireland because of a policy change in America and also because this country is doing so well economically now that people don't have to emigrate in the numbers they did in the '80s and '90s.
“The way I see it from being involved with the minor board, we might only have ten more years of first generation kids coming up.
“Now, at the moment we have two and a half thousand kids, but looking more long term then if we don't instil in these first-generation kids a real passion to stay involved in the game and then to get their own kids involved in the game, then down the line things won't be looking as healthy.”
Walsh is right to keep one eye on the future, but at the moment there are certainly plenty of reasons to be positive about the trajectory of Gaelic Games in New York.
Their U-14 footballers won the 2017 Féile Peile na nÓg Division One Final in some style last year.
To put that achievement into context, in the first 27 years of Féile Peile na nÓg, 14 of the 27 Division One Champions clubs went on to compete in an All-Ireland senior club final within ten years of their victory, while 10 other winners haven’t yet had a full decade to achieve that themselves.
The clubs of New York are clearly producing some very talented players through their underage Academies, but the challenge, as Walsh points out, is to keep the flame lit when the torch is handed on from one generation of American-Irish to the next.
Cathal Kelly was the New York Colleges team's Ireland-based logistics man for their trip here, and from his experience of talking to their players he has no doubt that their visit left an indelible mark that should ensure a lifelong passion for Gaelic Games they’ll pass on to their children and their children’s children.
“The guys really enjoyed it, and you can tell from talking to them that they're all taking away great memories,” Kelly told GAA.ie.
“And the older you get, the more you realise that it's the memories you have of playing on different teams is what makes the GAA such a special thing.
“The memories they take back home from Ireland will be what gets them to encourage their kids and grandkids to get involved in it.
“They've made friends for life on this trip too, and they'll only appreciate that as well in the years to come.”
The American-Irish will always be at the forefront of Gaelic Games in New York, but Barry Walsh believes the long-term health of the game would be all the better if a concerted effort was made to recruit players from outside that traditional community.
One of the most significant developments the GAA has seen in recent years has been the explosion in the number of people with no Irish blood playing Gaelic Football and Hurling abroad, and Walsh sees no reason why that shouldn’t also be the case in New York.
“We want to start reaching out to other ethnic groups,” he said.
“I see kids from other ethnic groups watching the games when we play in public parks and they're absolutely glued to it and are cheering us on when someone produces a bit of skill or scores a goal.
“I saw in 2012 the South London team win Division 4 of the Feile and last year they won Division 2 and are playing Division One football now and they draw their players from a non-Irish part of London.
“If they can do something like that, then why can't we in New York?
“There's great people working on the ground and things are good in New York, but they can be even better.”