JOHN RIORDAN: Gaels making a difference in field of dreams

IT was the passion of the Shannon Gaels man who drove Cork’s Paul Kerrigan and Dublin’s Kevin Nolan out to the northern end of Queens to show him the club’s new home pitch for the next 25 years.

Then there was the enthusiasm of the 40 or 50 young boys and girls waiting for the two former All Star footballers back down on the Queens Boulevard where the Clare-coloured Gaels run Saturday morning coaching sessions for the children of Irish immigrants, Polish and Latino too.

It was also the interest shown by complete strangers in him and his team-mates that intrigued Kerrigan on this his first visit to an intimidating city.

“They’re so passionate about the GAA over here,” Kerrigan told me outside the Elks Lodge, a venue in Elmhurst which is compelled to open up its facility to the local community — which in this part of Queens jutting up against Sunnyside and Woodside is traditionally an Irish stronghold.

“The guy who brought us out to see the new Shannon Gaels field told us so much about their club and what they’ve done to build it up. It was really interesting to hear how (city Mayor) Michael Bloomberg and Christine Quinn (the Irish-American local politician who is favoured to succeed Bloomberg) helped them out with getting the field. You see the trouble they went to to get it and now they have it for 25 years which is an unbelievable commitment.”

Three years of fundraising, networking and back-slapping. Where there’s a will, there’s a way in New York City. But the will has to be strong.

Now in his second year as club chairman, Collie Mathers from Killeavy in Armagh is one of the driving forces behind this energetic club. He and his Co Down wife Stephanie are staunch enablers of what the GAA will soon depend on entirely in this neck of the woods: bringing through young American-born players.

Just a decade in existence (in fact they celebrated with a dinner-dance on Saturday night), Shannon Gaels have gradually built up a solid framework for nurturing young talent. This year their first U16 team took to the field of play. In two years, those players will form the club’s first minor team.

“Five years ago we played in the Continental Youth Championships,” Mathers told me by way of explaining how the club has exploded in popularity. “We went to Chicago with six players. This summer, we went to back to Chicago with 11 teams. Recently, we went home to Ireland. We played in an U10s tournament in Killarney at Dr Crokes. We won that. The standard is good both on the field and off it.”

A power couple if ever there was one, the Mathers are contributing more than just their free time to the cause. Their seven sons and one daughter all play for the Gaels.

“We go to every coaching course that there is to keep learning and improving,” he explains as we observe the young ones darting around the hall under the patient eyes of Nolan and Kerrigan, honorary coaches for the day working alongside Niall Sugrue, Tommy Faye and Marie Smith.

“We’re a very family-orientated club. We’re always reaching out. It’s not just Irish — we have Polish and Latino kids too. This is only the second week the U6s have been indoors. Next week we’ll have even more in there. It’s all run on a volunteer-basis obviously but we have the kind of volunteer who will come at a minute’s notice. We’re constantly promoting ourselves and we’re doing very well on the football field as well.”

Back inside, Kerrigan and Nolan pose for pictures with the boys and girls in front of a bright Gaels flag at the bottom of which is written an old Irish proverb: “Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí”.

As is the way with this kind of thing, the English version does not do it justice but we can cheat on the translation slightly now that their field of dreams at Frank Golden Park has come true: keep building the youth and they will come.

“It just shows the potential that’s there,” points out Kerrigan. “The GAA is really becoming worldwide but seeing it in the flesh has brought it home to me. You have other sports competing here like at home. The kids look like they enjoy it and the parents are very enthusiastic too.”

“It connects the younger players with these guys who are stars at home,” adds Mathers. “When Paul and Kevin walked in, they didn’t know who they were exactly but they formed a guard of honour on the way in and applauded them.

“It’s small but it all helps. They’ll never forget a day like this.”

* john.w.riordan@gmail.com

Twitter: JohnWRiordan



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