James Breen leading the charge for native New York hurlers
By John Harrington
James Breen reckons he was going around holding a hurley as soon as he could walk, and when he thinks of his early childhood the thread that runs through most memories is hurling related.
A very common story, but the plot-twist is that Breen grew up in Yonkers, New York, where hurling wouldn’t be the lifestyle choice of most young boys.
Breen’s love of the game came from his father Peter, a native of Castlecomer in Kilkenny, who was still playing club hurling in New York when James was growing up.
The younger Breen didn’t have much of an opportunity to play organised hurling himself until his early teens in the Continental Youth Championships, but always worked hard to hone his skills and by the time he was 18 was playing senior adult hurling with Waterford New York.
It’s a testament to Breen’s ability that when New York won the Connacht Hurling Shield in the Air Dome last January, he was the only native New Yorker on the team that beat Leitrim in the Final.
“It was incredible,” says Breen of that experience. “I think New York hadn't fielded a team for almost 10 years up until that so to be part of first team to go back from New York to Ireland and to win the shield as well, it was a fantastic experience and a proud moment.
“New York GAA did player profiles for social media where they asked us to list our home clubs and it was funny to see mine listed as Le Cheile New York, as opposed to the other guys who were from all over Ireland.”
Breen doesn’t believe he’ll be the only native New Yorker on the panel the next time the Big Apple play a senior inter-county match.
Hurling in New York is now beginning to track the same graph as Gaelic football in so far as there are more and more natives playing the game at senior club level.
“There's definitely guys already coming up that were probably good enough to be on that team that played in the Connacht Shield, but just couldn't commit to it due to college and other things,” says Breen.
“It’s great to see how the game is developing and to see guys coming up now who are 17/18/19.
“There's a lot more Americans that are playing the game now and sticking with it. New York now has a Féile U-15 hurling team and there's also an U-17 hurling team that's going to Ireland this year.
“There's plenty of American born players playing senior club hurling now and New York also introduced a new novice hurling division just below the junior division which is only for American players and there's three teams competing in that so it's coming along well.”
The rising standard of native New York hurlers has been very evident in how strongly they’ve competed in the World Games.
Breen played in the 2016 and 2019 World Games and will be part of the strongest native New York team yet when they come to Derry in July for the 2023 FRS GAA World Games.
“Roger Slattery and Barry Walsh saw the World Games as an opportunity to get together the native New York hurling talent,” says Breen.
“It was mainly guys that would have been hurling in the CYCs when they were U-14. We only managed to get 11 players for that team in 2016 so it's certainly grown a lot since then.
“We won it in 2019 and I think we had around 25 guys try it out for this year's team.
“Every guy on this year’s team is training and playing with a junior or senior club out here so that’s really helping our preparations.
“If we don't have the training with the World Games team we're training with our own club at a high level.”
Breen is hoping to catch up with some relations when he comes to Ireland for the World Games and is keeping his fingers crossed too he can watch Kilkenny in an All-Ireland Hurling Final.
But for him and his fellow New Yorkers the World Games is much more than a social trip. It’s a chance to showcase how the game is rapidly developing in their native city.
“For us it’s a unique opportunity to not only go back to Ireland to play but also to represent our home country, our home county, against players from all over the World and showcase the talent and the quality that's been developed outside of Ireland at grass roots level internationally.
“We’re very excited and really looking forward to meeting the other teams, the other players and it's great to see the hurling native division at the World Games growing as much as it has.
“I think there were on three teams in 2016, 10 or 11 in 2019, and I think there's 13 this year, so it's great to see it growing as well as it has and for New York to be a part of that.”