New York, New York: Memorable week for Gaels from The Big Apple
By Michael Devlin
When New York lined out against Mayo in the first round of the Connacht Championship back in May, the stateside brogue could be heard out on the Gaelic Park pitch.
Seven players in the New York panel were born and bred in the boroughs. Michael Creegan and Shane Hogan started the match, while Tiernan Mathers and Ryan Kerley came off the bench.
It was a sign of the ongoing youth development work within New York GAA that has been moving from strength to strength over the last two decades. More proof came last Friday at the finals of the 2019 Renault GAA World Games in Croke Park, where the native-born football final was contested between two New York teams; Freedom, a developmental squad, and Liberty, a selection made up of older players.
On the day, Freedom conquered Liberty on a score-line of 4-8 to 2-8, with proud son of Queens Mathers playing an instrumental part in the win.
“My ma is from Down and my dad is from Armagh, and I’ve been playing football since I was six years old.” says Mathers, who plays for the Shannon Gaels club in the Big Apple, and broke into the NYC county panel this year.
“Gaelic football has always been my sport. Hurling went back and forth for a while, but Gaelic has always been the one. I first kicked a football when I was three, or maybe earlier than that. It’s always been in the family. There’s ten of us, seven boys and one girl, then mom and dad are coaching.
“It feels unbelievable to win it out in Croke Park, like something out of your dreams. I’ve always been here. Actually for the last World Games [in 2016] I was playing hurling in the final and we lost, but now three years later, it’s unbelievable to win it in the football. It was game after game, we pushed through and fought, it was something else.”
A key part of New York Freedom’s win was Mathers’ accurate free-taking from the ground, a skill he says he learned from not only watching Dublin’s Dean Rock, but also a player from his mother’s homeland, Down’s Ambrose Rodgers.
“I’ve always been at it. It’s just practice, practice and practice that keeps getting it. I’ve watched everybody, from Dean Rock to someone back in Longstone, Ambrose Rodgers. Back in 2010 I was here watching him kicking in the All-Ireland, unfortunately they lost to Cork.”
Across the codes, and north of Manhatten in Yonkers, Caolan Walsh was nine years old when he was part of the first crop of New York-born youngsters to pick up the hurl. Now in his early twenties, Walsh and his team mates were getting their hands on silverware at Friday’s finals as New York defeated London in the native-born hurling final.
“My Dad from Blarney, Cork, my mom is from Ballinasloe in Galway, so I guess I just grew up always playing GAA,” says Walsh. “I was one of the first guys playing hurling in New York when we started St Barnabas.Coming up, my dad was always involved up through the ages. It just got more and more popular.
“Football was always bigger, but starting with us guys, we were the first New Yorkers to play hurling. In the younger ages, we now have Feile teams going back every year, we have 16 Premier teams going back to Ireland, so it’s great to see how far hurling has come in the past few years.”
Walsh and several of his team-mates were part of that New York side that lost the hurling final at the last World Games. This year, they were determined not to suffer defeat again.
“Coming out this year, we didn’t want to lose in Croke Park again. We took that feeling and used it was motivation in the past three years to train and get better, and it showed.”
Like Tiernan Mathers, Walsh says the feeling of gracing the Croker turf and playing the game he loves is something truly special.
“I didn’t grow up here, but just hearing from your parents, and when I come back every summer, I know how important it is. How many guys like my dad and our coaches that just say what they would give to play a game here. They tell us we gotta get to the final and get to Croke Park. It’s huge, you feel how important it is, the history and everything.”
While the men did the hurling-football double, New York also won Native Ladies’ Football Championship to cap off a memorable week back in the homeland. Their message on Facebook after the games said it all.
“This is down to the hard work of all our management and players as well as our clubs and the New York Minor Board. This week was a combination of every CYC, Feile team, Cúl Camp, Spring and Fall Season, county and club training session coming together. Our players got the opportunity to perform and play on one of the biggest stages, and perform they did. Words can’t describe how proud we are and how grateful we are to the coaches who have pushed these players every step of the way!”