The Atlanta Olympics brought a huge influx of Irish to that great southern city in 1996.
They weren’t slow about bringing the GAA with them and quickly formed the Clan na nGael club to formalise the interest brought about by the burgeoning men’s football team.
Hurling followed in 1999, Ladies football in the early 2000s and finally camogie three years ago. Most of the male playing members are Irish with about 90% of the women American-born.
This Saturday night, to coincide with the visit of the Boston Celtics to the Atlanta Hawks, the NBA fans of a relatively non-Irish neck of the woods will get to see an exhibition of Gaelic football skills right there on the hardwood, about a half an hour before the main event.
It was the brainchild of Paul Gleeson, the Consul General of Ireland to Atlanta, along with the club’s fundraising officer Paul Bradley, a Cork native and a Mayfield clubman.
And of course there’s a Kerryman involved too, club PRO David O’Donoghue from Killarney, who, like so many Irish expats, rediscovered the GAA through a desire to reconnect with home.
First and foremost, Saturday night’s co-piloting with the undeniable slickness of US sporting event marketing will lead to interest from new players and grow membership.
But O’Donoghue points to an even more interesting angle: bringing together the small but scattered Irish community which calls Atlanta home.
“We’re a little bit disparate as a community and we’re not huge in numbers, relatively speaking,” he said yesterday.
“Our club is a reasonably sized group but we’re outmatched by the Irish traditional music scene down here. So this is a great way to bring them and us together and try and promote Irish culture and the image of Ireland in the southeast.
“It’s a great initiative. As of Monday, we had 70 tickets sold of our allocation of 100 but I’m very confident we’ll sell the whole lot. For the small community that we have, it’s quite an achievement.”
Sadly there’ll be no hurling. Hawks officials were, at best, reluctant to allow the clash of the ash on their pristine wood. Months in the planning, Clan na nGael sent along Eamonn Gormley’s “Fastest Game on Grass” YouTube production in the hope that the NBA club would be attracted by the utter exoticism of it all.
I can’t help picturing what the scene must have been like at board level, a few suits huddled around a laptop, appalled by the brutality of Kilkenny players or Waterford players. They have enough to deal with, trying to keep their own players from causing a riot.
“Yeah, Eamonn’s video was a bit too authentic for them, a bit too real,” laughs O’Donoghue.
“But we’re hoping they’ll let us do the hurling next year. They’re a bit worried about having sticks on the court I think. We had planned to use tennis balls and put our best hurlers out there and make sure the balls didn’t go too far but they were just a bit nervous of having the hurleys hitting the hardwood — it’s obviously very expensive.”
The Irish Heritage Night is a common marketing tool in US sport and is particularly suited to baseball, both at Major and Minor League levels. Every city with even a hint of Irishness will dedicate a summer evening to the Irish and normally what it lacks in authenticity, it more than makes up for it in the sort of offensive stereotyping we’ll never overcome.
But it is however extremely rare that an NBA team, especially a southern one like Atlanta, would agree to combine an Irish night with a GAA exhibition and this is a huge credit to the club itself as well as all those involved in the ever-evolving South East Division of the North American County Board — geographically spread out across several states but extremely active, organised and enthusiastic. Interestingly, most of the South East clubs emphasise hurling, reflecting a pattern in the US outside of the major Irish cities.
The Gaels of Atlanta will have six or seven minutes to impress on Saturday so the plan had to be well thought out. That’s where Colm Egan, the NACB Games Development Officer in Chicago, stepped in with valuable advice.
“He told us to emphasise skills that are different to basketball,” points out O’Donoghue, “things that Americans aren’t used to seeing. Soloing the ball, long kick passing.
“In our heads, we were thinking we’d play up the similarities to basketball but his advice was to make ourselves look different.
“Given the fact that it’s the weekend before Thanksgiving, we expect the arena to be sold out which will be about 18,000 people there for tip-off. When we’re on, there’ll be hopefully about 11, 12,000. It’s by far the biggest exposure we’ve had down here since forming the club.”
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