“Match tonight. Gaelic Park. Be at Madison and 49th at five.”
No chance to see McSorley’s, or to ransack The Strand. John Riordan, once of this parish and now manager of Manhattan Gaels, brought his work ethic with him when he moved to New York, clearly.
Many readers will have visited Gaelic Park, the couple of Irish acres far along the subway line from Manhattan. The old venue, with its clanking trains and American scoreboard, hosted two junior football games the night I visited, a hundred or so souls in the small stand.
The experience never lacks texture. As soon as we entered a gentleman from Waterford told me he learned of Ronnie Delany winning gold in Sydney in 1956 while lying in a hospital bed in what was then Rhodesia, the radio crackling in the African heat. Then a lady from north Kerry told me that New York now has five junior B hurling teams. The kid who hit me up for a raffle ticket to support the Féile team might have been at any club game in Ireland apart from his accent, more Bronx than Ballyhaunis.
I was in a different venue on Wednesday night: the New York Yankees, though regarded by man in America as Darth Vader in striped tops, were kind enough to accredit me for a game against the Montreal Blue Jays, so I rolled up on the subway for the experience.
The game itself I’ll be writing about later, and I claim some credit for being able to focus on anything other than the vast array of food available to the fourth estate in Yankee Stadium. This was so plentiful and varied I wondered if I was in the right place, until I heard an embittered voice behind me complain loudly about how those damn fools in the office had screwed up his schedule Goddammit, and then I knew I was with my own kind.
The obvious cliche here would be, of course, to compare the two. After the game in Gaelic Park the team beer and pizza before heading off into the New York darkness; they chatted about work and family and where could you get this and where could you get that, the conversations which spark up after games all over the world. In Yankee Stadium the players’ discussions centre on that extra holiday home or two, presumably.
But for this observer the two evenings were on a continuum rather than separated. The kids, for instance, scampering around Gaelic Park as their dads played were wearing Yankee caps and basketball shorts, occasionally using the O’Neill’s ball to show off skills that would be better deployed with the Red Bulls, maybe, than Manhattan Gaels.
Certainly the immigrant experience in America shows the generational drift towards assimilation through sport: when the great Lou Gehrig signed for the Yankees back in the 20’s, his grandfather, who had emigrated from Germany, asked if he was going to be the Yankees’ striker, illustrating the transition from the old country’s game to the new world pastime in a single sentence.
Yet even that generational shift comes with nuance. Manhattan Gaels’ opponents on Monday night were St Raymond’s, a team comprised of American players, not Irish emigres. The work of the New York minor board brings through US-born players all the time, even if those kids are also playing American football and baseball at school.
Gaelic Park and Yankee Stadium aren’t that far away from each other, and not just because they’re separated by a few stops on the subway as it rolls up through the Bronx. (Anyone with a historical bent who wonders about visiting the Polo Grounds, which hosted the 1947 All-Ireland football final, needn’t bother.
It was demolished years ago for public housing, though some Irish-Americans are considering a memorial plaque to mark the 70th anniversary of the game next year.
Incidentally, the Polo Grounds’ dominant personality was Irish-American coach John McGraw, long-time manager of the then New York Giants baseball team. He coached with a length of rope in his pocket that had been used to hang a man..
For anyone who knows me, by the way, you know I intend to return later to the matter of the food in Yankee Stadium. As indeed I returned to the food in Yankee Stadium itself.