A little bit of Ireland in heart of Gotham

They may be thousands of miles from home but the players and supporters of New York GAA are able to maintain their links with Ireland through Gaelic Games, reports Brendan O’Brien

It opens and ends in Dublin Airport’s Terminal 2 and the location is fitting, given the building was built to cope with Celtic Tiger passenger numbers and came on stream just as the departure area was in growing demand.

Yet the documentary, entitled An Exile’s Home in the Bronx, ends with Aiden Power walking through the arrivals hall and into the arms of his brother. It was his first trip home from the USA in almost a decade.

Power, from Waterford, is a member of the New York county GAA team which serves as the hub for the programme but, as with most of the best sportsstories, the game provides only the backdrop to a bigger, more important picture.

So, while the makers followed the team in the three months before their Connacht Championship game against Roscommon last May, it is the story of the Irish in the Big Apple and their experiences Stateside that dominate the foreground.

Theirs is a delicate balancing act: lean too far one way and your link with the old sod is ruptured, gravitate in the other and you run the risk of spending your days mentally marooned in the mid-Atlantic, neither here nor there.

New York’s manager Seamus Sweeney first arrived in the city from Donegal in 1994. He hated it but there was little or nothing to go back to. So, he stayed, but he admits himself that he has never integrated into American life.

Sweeney is never filmed without a GAA garment covering his frame. That devotion to the association’s most famous foreign branch and his immersion in the community of Irish expats is hammered home when he remarks how he is 3,000 miles from home and yet still at home.

Without the GAA, Sweeney and thousands like him now and in generations past would have been lost. Swallowed up by the city that never sleeps and spat out into a league of nations that consists of over 800 languages and 8,000,000 souls.

Kenny O’Connor, from Kerry, summed it up best.

“Football here is good because it keeps you connected with friends and connected with work. If you play football and might be out of work, there is always some fella in GAA circles I’d know, somebody who is looking for somebody.”

O’Connor is another to have leaned heavily on the mother country’s NYC network but with his wife, young children and the hundreds of hours he has put into redeveloping his house, he is one of those being slowly assimilated into the new world.

His brother Adrian is following the same path. Like so many, he couldn’t settle at first, returned home only to realise his mistake and “jumped back on the next plane to the States”. He now has a Green Card and an American partner.

The irony in all this is that a programme focusing on such a tight-knit community only got made thanks to a chance meeting at a bus stop when producer Cillian Ó Conchúir met an American stranger on her way to Philadelphia.

Ó Conchúir was in the US on a Fulbright scholarship to teach Irish at New York University. He studied TV, sports writing and radio as well and met another Irishman, Steven McCann, who needed to do a TV documentary to complete his masters.

Ó Conchúir suggested the New York county football side and the pair duly shot a promo based on the Connacht championship match against Galway in 2010, which they used to try and drum up interest in a longer version.

The girl at the bus stop, Katie Curran, gave Ó Conchúir the number of another Irish guy. He turned out to be Robbie Ryan, the head of Setanta’s American network and he jumped on board when he saw the short.

With Setanta Ireland’s backing, they secured funding through the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland Sound and Vision scheme and shot 80 hours of footage leading up to and after the championship game against Roscommon.

Which New York lost. Heavily.

On the surface it seems crazy: four months of training for a game which they are always likely to lose, but then it’s about more than just that 70 minutes. It’s about finding a sense of belonging in a foreign land.

nAn Exile’s Home in the Bronx, Setanta Ireland Monday, 10pm.

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