Patrick Kavanagh only wrote a little about Gaelic football, but what he wrote was wonderful. He understood its place in rural Ireland and his observations on the language of the game and its rhythms were perfectly judged.
This was an understanding that extended beyond Ireland. In one article he wrote of how his brother told him a story of how, on a lovely Sunday morning, he was strolling around San Francisco on the edge of the Pacific Ocean when he saw ‘men of a rural Irish complex’ hurrying along with little bundles under their arms.
A short distance away, he came upon a Gaelic football match: ‘Everything was at home: there were the men running up and down the unpailed sideline slicing at the toes which encroached with hurleys and crying: “Keep back there now, Keep back there now.” And all around the pitch, the familiar battlecrys of the Dalcassians were to be heard: “Gut yer man”, “Bog into him.” Not a man of them had ever left home and the mysterious Pacific was just a boghole, gurgling with eels and frogs.’
This arresting sight, the feelings it created and the thoughts it provoked were, to Patrick Kavanagh, ‘something queer and wonderful.’ Kavanagh was writing back in 1950 when the stream of emigrants flowing out of Ireland had swelled to a huge tide of humanity. That tide flowed freely through the 1950s and when you go to America now, the imprint of that generation is readily apparent. It reshaped Irish emigrant communities that had been growing even before the Great Famine of the 1840s – those communities, of course, overflowed during and after that Famine, greening American cities for decade after decade. More recently, the surges of emigration through the 1980s and over the last decade have brought renewal to Irish-America.
The great sweep of the history of Irish emigration to America can be seen through sport. This is true from the generations of Irish emigrants and their descendants who took to baseball and American football, for example. It can be seen in the Irish athletes who won Olympic medals in the colours of America (glorying in beating British athletes, in particular).
And it can be seen in the history of Gaelic games in American cities.
Here, in Boston, Gaelic games are thriving, not least at the magnificent facilities in Canton. But you don’t have to go out to Canton to experience the manner in which the GAA means something different to emigrants – and promotes sentiments that are different to home.
Earlier this week, on Boston Common – a wonderful public space in the heart of city – two young Irish men pucked a ball back and forth to each other. They looked like students over on J1 visas for the summer and the city moved around them as they swung their hurleys. Hardly a word was spoken, just the ball flying over and back and over. It was, in its own way, utterly compelling – and it echoed a largely forgotten past.
In the early days of the GAA, in 1888, when a team of hurlers and athletes came over to raise money for the Association at home and to establish the GAA in America by putting on exhibitions, it was to this very piece of land that they had come.
They had arrived in Boston to huge acclaim and a banquet was put on in their honour by Irish Americans. The banquet saw ward politicians compete with each other to pay homage to the visitors on the eve of their match.
The following day, Boston Common was thronged to see the GAA men compete in athletics events against local men – and also to see them put on an exhibition of hurling. That exhibition was – as the euphemism would have it – keenly contested: At least three players got properly injured as the city echoed to the sound of breaking timber.
The thing is, though, that was not the first hurling that was played in Boston. In many significant Irish communities in the decades before the founding of the GAA, men had played hurling on green spaces in America. They had done this in New York in the 1780s and San Francisco in the 1860s, for example – and they also hurled in Boston.
During the 1870s and early 1880s, crowds of up to 6,000 people turned out to see hurling matches played by teams of Irishmen on parks and fields around Boston, as Paul Darby has written. The rules they played by had evolved sufficiently to include the use of referees and the game saw the players fill recognisable positions of play.
Among those who turned out to spectate were people drawn from the expansive working-class Irish enclaves of South Boston, but also families from the city’s expanding Irish middle-classes. Indeed, the local press reported that ‘nearly all of the prominent Irish Americans in Boston and vicinity’ attended to see a game that was so old that it ‘takes us back into the remotest antiquity’.
They even played for the Boyle O’Reilly Cup – donated by the Fenian John Boyle O’Reilly, who had earlier escaped from penal servitude in Australia for revolutionary activities in the 1880s. A statue to Boyle O’Reilly stands in the Fenway in Boston and his support for hurling helped the game prosper until the establishment of the GAA in 1884. Although it should be said that such were the disputes over the Boyle O’Reilly Cup that the Massachusetts Courts were called on to adjudicate between the rival clubs in a series of lawsuits.
The hurlers of Boston adopted the GAA’s rules for the game and then in June 1886 what appears to be the first game of football played under the rules of the GAA in America was played on Boston Common between teams from Kerry and Galway.
Looking back at those years from the vantage point of a new millennium, it is extraordinary how the organisation of hurling and Gaelic football has changed.
On the streets of Boston, men, women and children wander around wearing the jerseys of counties or clubs. On the T (the local tram system) young men and women travel to training, or to GAA meetings, talking of matches and of their lives in the city.
It is an expression of local identity and national identity given additional meaning in this international context. It is also a connection to home that transcends several centuries.
Hurling on Boston Common – and football along the sea in San Francisco – a timeless ritual of pleasure and place.
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