Three weeks ago, three Kilkenny All-Ireland-winning hurlers, Derek Lyng, Michael Kavanagh and John Hoyne, were turned back by US immigration officials at Shannon, despite the fact that all three were in possession of letters of invitation to play from Waterford Hurling Club in New York, had letters from their employers stating they were away just for the weekend, and each had letters of sanction signed by all the relevant people in the GAA in Ireland.
The following week, it was the turn of three Limerick players, all again turned back at Shannon in similar circumstances. The reason given by the immigration authorities, on both weekends, was that because the players were getting expenses, and because they would be playing in front of a paying audience, they needed special 'temporary worker' visas, and not the tourist visas under which they had expected to travel.
Maurice Foley is one of the main men behind the Limerick club in New York, and in light of more recent events, he is left perplexed and angered at what he sees as an inconsistency in the application of this rule.
"Earlier this year, Sligo came out and played New York in the Connacht championship. They received between thirty and thirty-five thousand dollars from the New York Board towards their expenses," Foley claimed.
"Last Sunday week, the Galway football team were here, playing New York in the FBD league. Normally the entrance fee at Gaelic Park is $10 on Sunday for that game, it was $20. Add in the fact that New York gave Galway $12,000 to travel to New York, towards air-fares and expenses, plus bus services and so on in New York now I ask you, what's the difference between those players from Galway and Sligo, and our guys who were stopped? I want to make it clear, I have no problem with what happened with Galway or Sligo, but none of those players had special visas, yet the guys who were stopped coming over to us were told that because they were playing in front of a paying audience, and because they were getting expenses, they would need special visas. That's something that was never heard of before".
Foley has a point. A couple of weeks ago, an Immigration official at Shannon laid out the new attitude to GAA players travelling to New York, for this newspaper.
"If there are fees being charged, tickets being sold, if someone is making a profit, they are not allowed go over without the appropriate visa," the official stated. "It doesn't make any difference if the individual isn't making money if they're playing for an organisation that's making money, then that organisation has to petition for them, and they have to go in as a H1, or a temporary worker." Clearly, that didn't apply to the Galway footballers last weekend.
The problem however, doesn't rest with the US immigration authorities. For decades, GAA players were allowed to travel with impunity to play with New York teams in their championship, no intervention by the INS. In the recent cases however, there is absolutely no doubt in the minds of either Kavanagh or Eoin O'Neill, two of those stopped on separate weekends, that Immigration were acting on a tip-off, a tip-off that seemed to suggest that these were professional athletes taking the jobs of individuals based in New York. Though they had no obvious signs of being hurlers, their arrival was anticipated, claims Limerick inter-county star O'Neill, too much was known about them, where they were going, who they were playing for, playing against, how much was being charged at the gate, who had paid for the tickets. The question is, who is making the phone-calls?
Not Croke Park, states GAA PRO Danny Lynch emphatically. "I read where Monty Moloney of the New York Board hinted at that," an angry Lynch said yesterday. "That is one of the most spurious and ridiculous statements I've heard, and I would now respectively suggest that he re-consider those remarks. That suggestion is very upsetting, even to me personally. I have relatives in America, I've played there myself in my time, so I appreciate their situation. To suggest that we would be contacting American Immigration over individuals is a load of nonsense".
The answer probably lies in New York itself. Given that the footballers are still travelling without problem, speculation is that it is a disaffected individual from another hurling club in New York. Upset perhaps at some perceived illegality or even involved in some of the heavy gambling that can go on in those games, armed from the regular Thursday night New York GAA Board meetings with the names of those travelling, when these things have to be read out, the phone-calls are made, the authorities at Shannon have to act, and the individuals are stopped (the 'benefactors,' the travel agency used by individual teams, would be common knowledge within New York GAA circles).
IT'S an embarrassment for the players involved, a loss to their teams in New York, but it goes beyond that. With their passports now stamped 'refused admission,' those six players now no longer have the luxury of being able to simply pass through US Immigration at Shannon, without having to apply to the Embassy in Dublin for a visa. If this situation continues, many future US-bound GAA players could well find themselves similarly affected.
"That would be a pity," says Dessie Farrell, Chief Executive of the GPA, the independent players' representative body. "These weekends are one of the few outlets available to GAA players, and as long as everything is above board, which it appears to have been in these cases, it would be a pity if that was jeopardised, due to the action of one or two individuals. We will certainly be exploring this further, though it will probably make more sense for us to work through the GAA on this one, rather than going directly to the US Embassy."
According to Danny Lynch, if they receive such an enquiry, the GAA are likely to respond positively. "We haven't been contacted by anybody on the matter, from club, county or anywhere else all we know is what we've read in the newspapers. It's one or two steps removed from the GAA at the moment, but certainly if we get specifics to show that these were bona fide players that were stopped, we would be prepared to make representations to the American Embassy, to try and clarify the situation."