WALTER Palmer is a bit unfortunate. He shares a name with that dentist who shot poor Cecil the Lion. A lot of people would like to shoot that Walter Palmer. And when Dessie Farrell and myself are out and about with Walter he makes us feel small. That’s ok. Dessie and I know that some people would like to shoot us also.
Walter is a former NBA basketball pro, a second round draft pick who played for the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks and then had a career which seemed to bring him all around Europe and included a stint in Argentina. Walter is 7’1” tall. Dessie and I are not.
We met Walter when he was working for an organisation called UNI World Athletes, a global platform for bodies representing athletes in different sports. For the past few years a key focus of the GPA has been our player development programme through which we help players deal with the pressures that come with having normal working careers as well as careers as elite sports people. Career and education support, life balance issues, stress, depression, meaningful rest, those sort of issues.
Although many people still like to view the GPA as some sort of underground force trying to destabilise the GAA and establish a world GAA league on pay per view and then drinking ourselves to death on the profits, we are actually about the business of enhancing the experience of amateur athletes, helping them to be their personal best so that we can preserve and grow the culture of the game long term. To do this, we have to go out and learn. I am glad to say that in recent years we have learned much from this outward looking approach from the likes of the New Zealand rugby people in terms of their holistic approach to issues of player wellbeing. I’m glad also we are often consulted by major professional bodies on our programmes and how to educate sporting bodies about the more subjective measures of an athletes well-being.
Back to Walter. A few years ago Walter became interested in the work we were doing and a fan of the sports we represented. He introduced us to a guy called Sam Kennedy, who was then the Chief Operating Officer of the Boston Red Sox and has since gone on to become the club’s president. Sam ended up watching a GPA presentation on hurling. That presentation was made in the boardroom at Fenway Park. I remember looking out over the diamond and the outfield and thinking how perfect it looked. Sam announced the following day that before the presentation “I knew nothing about hurling, now I can’t live without it.”
Here we are 18 months later bringing hurling back to Fenway Park, the place the writer John Updike called that “lyric little bandbox of a ballpark.” It’s a beautiful spot at the heart of Boston life, as are the Irish community.
It is over six decades since Fenway has experienced the pulse of hurling. Christy Ring played here in 1954 and the local media dressed him up in a baseball uniform for publicity shots and advertised him as the Babe Ruth of hurling (which would make Glen Rovers the New York Yankees and Cloyne, the Boston Red Sox. I can live with that). Christy must have been uncomfortable with the baseball gimmick. He was invited by the media to drive a sliotar over the Green Monster, the famous left field wall in Fenway and failed to make the distance each time. (His team mate Liam Dowling from Castlemartyr managed the feat). It was Ringy who scored six points that Sunday afternoon though.
Eighteen months on and so much has come together so quickly. I am looking out of a hotel room across Boston Common and I can see three lads with sticks pucking a ball around. Fenway’s capacity is down a little at the moment as the stadium is reconfigured for college gridiron but tomorrow it looks like a full house of 30,000 will watch Dublin play Galway in the Super 11’s Hurling Match making the biggest crowd to watch a GAA game in North America since the 1960s.
When Dublin and Galway run out onto Fenway tomorrow to play Super 11’s the occasion will be the result of a lot of things coming together over the past few years. The game of hurling, this format of the game and the venue together make a special cocktail which provides us with a platform to present hurling to larger audiences. Over the past few years Super 11’s as a format has received some criticism from people who basically don’t know what they are talking about. For Tom Barry (former chairman of Kilmacud Crokes Hurling) Seamus Hickey (Limerick) Donal O’Grady (Cork) Mattie Kenny (Galway) and all the players this must be particularly galling as they have put so much work into making this happen.
The problem with exporting the world’s greatest game has always been the need to find a venue that with a pitch 160m long x 90 yards wide. That is considerably longer and wider than any gridiron, rugby or soccer pitches. So we have always ended up either playing games with small-sided teams or in GAA venues with small capacity. I don’t think I ever played an All Star game in America in front of more than a couple of hundred people. Being honest the apathy of the public to the All Stars games was matched by the apathy of the players. We were and are doing the game and our emigrants a disservice through the All Stars model of exhibiting our games.
Super 11’s take the best elements of hurling and distills the game so it can be played in a venue like Fenway Park. The game in its Super 11’s format is faster, more focused on key skills and very enjoyable to play. We have been lucky. While some people have sneered and described the idea as a gimmick a lot of players have seen the big picture. It has been a slow journey. We have played the games, first as trials in Galway a few years back. Then before an All-Ireland final replay a couple of years ago and most recently in Notre Dame two years ago. That experience in Indiana gave is a feel for the response that hurling gets when shown to people new to the game.
Players sensed that too. In Notre Dame I was really impressed by the attitude and intensity that guys like Jackie Tyrrell, Lar Corbett, Eoin Kelly and others brought to the visit and to the game. They got it. Super 11’s won’t ever replace hurling as we know it. It isn’t supposed to. But it gives us a chance to showcase the game in interesting and prestigious venues like Notre Dame and Fenway. It’s a format that I would like to see presented as an exhibition sport at a future Olympic Games. I have no hesitation in saying that our hurlers represent the best of the Olympic spirit in a more faithful way than even much of athletics does these days. It offers a format for hurling that emigrant groups can take up and play as a form of training or even in leagues using municipal facilities that are two small for fifteen-a-side.
Players like the lads named above have in fairness seen that from the start. Playing hurling in front of around 30,000 people in one of the world’s most iconic sports venues with the game being broadcast live in the region feels a lot more worthwhile and memorable than many of the basically private functions which players have participated in on US trips for decades. Lots of drink and few spectators is the abiding memory of those junkets.
Tomorrow at half-time, groups of kids who play hurling locally in Boston will play a game at half time.
In Fenway Park! Home to the Red Sox. Imagine what that means to those kids. This game they play out at Canton and other places on weekends? This game that their parents go on about? We’re playing it in Fenway Park. It’s live on telly and in the papers. Boston has come alive the last few days. There is an entire festival of activity taking place around the match. There is music and drink everywhere (alright not much new there) and a special gig being performed by The Dropkick Murphy’s, perhaps the musical entity which best represents the connection between the Boston Irish and Fenway. There’s a couple of Dubs. Dean Rock and Paddy Andrews coming to town to wave Sam around and be presented to the Fenway crowd. The Galway and Dublin teams are decamped in different hotels and treating the event with serious competitiveness.
Johnny McCaffrey and David (Dotsy) O’Callaghan gave a workshop on skills of the game to a large crowd at Boston College the other night. AIG had shirts and sticks there for everybody which was sort of a loaves and fishes miracle as many more turned up than expected. We have been particularly lucky in finding that Declan O’Rourke and John Gillick at the Irish end of AIG are very passionate about hurling and Danny Glanz the US connection in the company has a huge amount of experience. Danny formerly worked with the NBA and as Global Head of Sponsorship is the living link between the All Blacks and hurling. As always Aer Lingus have been rock solid partners to the GPA and Super 11s project and critical to making this event happening.
The Mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh a longtime friend of the project is tossing the coin and quietly rooting for Galway. He will be accompanied by Boston’s new Consul-General, Fionnula Quinlan and by Pat Hoarty who hurled against Cork for the New England selection in Fenway back in 1954.
Pat is 91 years old now and came here from Galway many, many years ago.
The players will parade behind the Brian Boru Band from Boston an arrangement which needed some cultural differences to be bridged before it could be finalised.
“We need a band.”
“Good we can get a band.”
“Yeah for before the game”
“OK. What sort of band.”
“Like an Irish marching band”
“St Paddy’s Day sort of thing”
“Cheerleaders? Dancing girls? Pomp oms?”
“No. No. The players march behind the band.”
“The players march behind the band? Where?”
“Around the field.”
“Around the field?”
“Eh. So people can clap them and see them. I think. ”
The Red Sox Baseball people have put a huge effort into making this weekend work too. Fred Olsen and Kathleen Harrington (good Cork blood in those veins) have been especially helpful. The field looks perfect, the pitchers mound from baseball season has disappeared, turf has been brought in from a farm in Atlantic City as the pitch has been relaid. Couldn’t be more better.
We are conscious this weekend of the opportunity and honour this game represents and of the fact that we are following in footsteps. Hurling has been played in Fenway twice before. In 1916 and again in 1954. De Valera spoke here to a full house in 1919. Years later, Dan Breen came here to watch baseball.
For decades, the local Irish community has played Gaelic Games here and in 1999 I was privileged to play at the opening of the fine facility they have now out in Canton.
This weekend seems like a special connection between hurling, the Irish and America. When Christy Ring played here 61 years ago the local papers reported an attendance of 4,108 in Fenway. Just about every seat will be taken tomorrow.
The development of hurling has reached a crossroads. Everybody who is truly passionate about the game wants to share hurling and bring it to new audiences.
This is a moment. Where next?
Answers on a postcard please…