John Riordan.


When Sam Maguire went missing on the streets of New York

Next week in New York the county board’s centenary celebrations will end on a high note with the launch of the extensively researched Fergus Hanna 100-year history of the GAA in New York, writes John Riordan.

When Sam Maguire went missing on the streets of New York

Hanna has worked for 15 years, availing of newspaper archives to build an incredible record of the ups and downs of Irish sporting life here while also retaining his own unique perspective having covered the games here over the course of a few decades prior to returning to Ireland.

In amongst the countless names who have made their mark, no matter how significant or otherwise, there are enough strange, funny and even absurd anecdotes to go some way to explaining how unique life can be for the Gaels in New York.

It’s one of those essential history books that may not appeal to the masses but will be leafed through with relish by the characters involved, relatives of long dead players and everyone who met friends, employers and future spouses on the days when Gaelic Park was teeming with Irish immigrants.

But it wouldn’t be the GAA if there weren’t moments when absurdist controversy, ludicrous grandstanding and poor choices set the agenda.

One of the wildest yarns from the annals which will have the dust blown off it next week but barely seems believable now is the one about the Sam Maguire going missing while enjoying a trip to New York in 1980.

The new Minister for the Diaspora, Jimmy Deenihan, was at the centre of the entire embarrassment, unluckily dragged into an internal power play while charged with minding the trophy during a Feale Rangers tour of North America.

Deenihan was captain of club and county at the time and Roscommon were the beaten finalists in Croke Park.

That paved the way for the hapless Rossies to be implicated too and in particular, a legend of the local GAA scene, Terry Connaughton.

Pitted against John Kerry O’Donnell — the Gaelic Park leaseholder and long time kingmaker of the New York GAA — Connaughton found himself at the wrong end of a prank that quickly veered from pointless to malicious.

Falsely suspected of having stolen Sam and — even more implausibly — defacing the trophy with “Up Roscommon“, “Brook Inn Bronx NY” and “IRA”, Connaughton was even questioned by a police officer he knew while the FBI were even briefly involved.

Whereas Sam should have been safely stored at Gaelic Park on a Saturday night prior to a photo call in Pittsburgh the following day, it mysteriously went missing, causing consternation both locally and back home.

Deenihan was due to bring the cup to Pittsburgh for the publicity opportunity with baseball’s World Series champions and American Football’s Super Bowl champions, the Pirates and the Steelers.

John Kerry — as controversial and polarising as he was a benevolent custodian — had claimed that the trophy had been stolen by a Roscommon supporter because they had lost the All–Ireland and the frantically scratched-on slogans were supposed to back that up.

Connaughton dismissed the whole thing as a publicity stunt by O’Donnell and was always confident it would miraculously show up.

Poor Deenihan, meanwhile, was a relieved man returning to the Kingdom with Sam while Kerry County Board chairman Frank King blasted the “degrading mischievous skulduggery” of the whole episode.

It’s hard to fathom nowadays that the sort of rancour so unique to the GAA would lead to such an intensely stupid defacement of a treasured football symbol.

But there are heartwarming stories too, going right back to the late 1700s and on into the first official meeting in late 1914.

The cycles of economic success and depression both in New York and of course in Ireland are chronicled as an ever imposing backdrop.

I’m only new to the scene over here but I’m glad that someone had the wherewithal to get this all on paper. It can’t have been an easy task dealing with all the minutae and the politics, the bitterness and glory grabbing.

Terry Connaughton is still going very strong. A calm and witty elder who has seen it all and can always find ways of looking back and smiling. Even the night when the fire trucks were called to deal with a fire started by the burning of ballot papers during a particularly tense election in the late 1980s.

He’ll be there at the Irish Consulate next Tuesday. As will all the other living volunteers who, above all, loved the games and deserve a book like this to preserve their roles forever.

The ghost of John Kerry O’Donnell will be there too, I’m sure. He’ll probably laugh off the night that Sam went missing, maintaining his innocence with a wry smile and wondering what all the fuss was about.


Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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