From sea to shining sea - GAA in the USA
By John Harrington
From sea to shining sea, Gaelic Games are now being played all across the USA and the numbers participating continues to grow year on year.
Where once Gaelic Football and Hurling were only deeply rooted in the ex-pat Irish community in major migrant cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco, now green shoots are sprouting up all over the States.
USGAA is the governing body for promoting gaelic football, hurling, and camogie across the USA apart from in New York which has its own county board, and one of their biggest challenges in recent years has been accommodating the growth of the games.
New clubs have formed in cities like Portland, Oregon; Butte, Montana; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Little Rock, Arkansas, and one of the most notable aspects of the development of the game in these areas is that it’s been driven by non-Irish who are totally new to Gaelic Games.
“Yes, it's mostly amongst non-Irish outside of the traditional Irish population centres now where the growth is and even within that there's a sizable group that does not even have Irish ancestry,” says USGAA Games Development Officer, Rob Tierney.
“You might have students who were studying in Ireland or maybe people just on vacation to Ireland and they saw it, particularly hurling, and they came back saying, 'Wow, we've got to play that here', and they introduce it whether it's within the college environment or if they look to get a group of friends together and they start off small and they form a team.
“We’ve had new clubs formed in cities you might never almost have heard of and I think it has been aided by the fact we've got a pretty good development program here, we've come out with some solid initiatives in terms of new club development grants, new team development grants, pairing our game development administrators with emerging teams or emerging clubs.
“Things like the Global Games Development Fund which is run by the department of foreign affairs and Croke Park and the World GAA Grant which we’re also very happy to get from Croke Park.
"We also get massive support from Munster GAA who we are partnered with. Pat O'Shea from Kerry and Joey Carton from Waterford traditionally come out once a year and provide massive help in terms of advice. They've been huge a huge help to myself as a Games Development Officer."
There are 142 senior GAA clubs in the USA outside of New York and 19 youth teams.
In the space of a year the number of women playing gaelic football or camogie has grown by 25 per cent, and another interesting trend has been the rapid growth of hurling teams.
“Hurling's growth has been quite tribal,” says Tierney. “You see a lot of folks with beards and tattoos and kilts when we have the national playoffs.
“It's very much a kind of a tribal experience I think for people and that's what they're trying to connect it into.”
It’s a combination of that desire to belong to a community as well as the opportunity to play team sport in a competitive environment that seems to be driving the growth of gaelic games in the USA where it can be difficult to find outlets for both.
“The States would be a more individualistic society and trying to find that group of people that will welcome you can be tough,” says Tierney.
“With us, I kind of think you're in until you work your way out of the group. There's a huge welcome and when you show up we're delighted to get you in and you're included straight away.
“One of the great opportunities we have here and something that aids development is that American sports has a massive drop off after college.
“If you're a handy sports player at whatever it is be it running, lacrosse, football, basketball, you might have played for your high school, you head off to college, and you come back to your city and you're kind of at a loss.
“Yes, there are kind of recreational leagues that's more of an after-work getting together scene. But for competitive sport there isn't a lot here. Hurling, football, camogie are kind of fixing a hole that these athletes have.
“In our own city here in Pittsburgh where I am we've recruited a lot of people that have finished college.
“They didn't play in our youth program which is relatively new. They didn't play there, they came out of college, we're trying to do some recruitment locally as all cities do and then you find these athletes.
“You're just going, 'wow', when you look at them. They're super-fit, they have ball skills. We have basketballers that come out and you can see immediately they have those hand skills.
“They obviously have to work on their co-ordination and the skills when they play hurling and football for the first time, but they show up fit and that's a massive thing for us.”
One of the biggest challenges in administrating gaelic games is the USA is the sheer geographic size of the country as well as the explosion in the numbers playing the game.
The country is divided into ten divisions, and many of those would cover sprawling areas where clubs are located many hours from one another which leads to obvious logistical challenges.
“The South West Division goes all the way from San Diego on the coast up to Denver, and then out to Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin,” says Tierney.
“So that's a massive area of the United States and that's a huge problem in terms of it's hard for them to create a championship.
“In my own division (MidWest) we’re less than five hours away from everybody so it's a lot easier to create a championship situation than in some of those more remote areas.
“Tied into the geography issue then is your meaningful games issue. So, somewhere like Denver would have a massive amount of practices, and the practice to games ratio is very high. Some cities have tried to and successfully created pub leagues.
“Indianapolis in terms of the hurling or Milwaukee in terms of hurling have done massive work in creating city-wide leagues where they have drafts. It's a great social night where they have a draft very similar to what you'll see in American sports.
“It's kind of selling this sport to the Americans in language they know, that's an important thing. So they have tackled the distance thing by having inner-city pub leagues where a pub or company sponsors this team and then they have a great competition.
“So those are our biggest challenges - the practice to games ratio and the sheer geographic area we're working with.”
If you want to really appreciate the growth of the game on the continent of North America as a whole, then look no further than the Continental Youth Championships (CYC) which is the largest Gaelic Sports competition outside of Ireland.
Every year over 2,500 children aged from U-6 to U-18 and representing USGAA, New York GAA, and Canadian GAA play hundreds of matches organised over the course of four days.
“A lot of parents are now starting to look at it as one of their weeks of vacation during the summer and they travel to whatever city is in," says Tierney. "It's Chicago this year, Buffalo next year. There's a rotation that's been created.
“But it's great, it's great for those kids. It's unbelievable when you see these children and teenagers playing these sports.
“Look, it is the future. It's all very well that we have players coming out here during the summer on J1s, I see that as a rite of passage for young people in college, but also you have others who have come out to play and it's not very developmentally sound. You have teams that are only there because of that.
“So, when you see the thousands of kids that are playing in the CYC, it's a really positive thing for the future but we need to do more work to encourage clubs to field teams at youth level and to develop gaelic games in schools and also local youth clubs.
“We’ve had more growth in the last two to three years than in the previous ten, and it’s up to use to make sure that trend continues by doing our best to foster the new generation.”