That sense of coming home will be shared by the 17 other Gaelic footballers that the Pittsburgh Celtics will field in the All-Ireland Junior Sevens in St Jude’s, Lyons’ home club.
That none of them were born nor have visited here before is irrelevant – for these second and third generation Irish-Americans, this week has been one of discovery and belonging.
Lyons, an All-Ireland U21 winner with the likes of Stephen Cluxton and Alan Brogan in 2003, moved to Boston in 2011 after securing a job. When his wife secured an orthopaedic oncologist position in Pittsburgh, they relocated to Pennsylvania’s capital where he now works with digital agency Barkley REI.
Coming from the GAA-rich Boston, Lyons was surprised to discover a largely self-sufficient GAA community in “Steel City”. Pittsburgh GAA was formally established in 2010 to accommodate the ladies footballers, the Banshees, but the Celtics’ history goes back to 1976. Gaelic football, though, has been played in city since the 1930s. “The steel capital of the world, a lot of Irish were drawn by the industry and the demand for workers,” says Lyons. “That formed the backbone for the players there today. They’re essentially the grandkids of those Irish who came over and they have convinced their friends with them to play.”
Since 2002, the Celtics have claimed the Mid West Division title eight times. Their bounty, the Tom O’Donoghue Cup, is named after the Listowel man who is regarded as one of the father figures of Gaelic football in Pittsburgh, a former chairman of the North American Board. Two of his grandsons, including captain Ryan Dowd, now play for the Celtics.
Although Pittsburgh has become a prosperous place to live, it isn’t the first place Irish emigrants or J1 Visa holders consider as a port of call. Recruitment has been an issue for the Celtics but Lyons was taken aback by the club’s passion. “It’s the strength of character of these lads to go and play. Like, when we play in Detroit, Cincinnati, Columbus and Buffalo. These are not 20-30 minutes drives. When we play Detroit, we leave at 6am on a Saturday. It’s a 600-mile round trip to play in 35 degrees heat.
“This isn’t a birthright that these guys have; it’s a love for the game through their ancestry. There is one guy who has no connection with Ireland but loves the game. He can’t wait to be among Irish people playing football. It gives them a sense of identity, which is an issue in America at the moment because a lot of people are lost and don’t have something to relate to.”
Every Sunday during the summer the Celtics hold three camps across the city where 60 kids, aged between seven and 15, learn about Gaelic football. This trip to compete in tomorrow’s Junior Sevens, a stable tradition of St Jude’s on All-Ireland final weekends since 1990, will help to promote the club. “They loved the idea of it in Pittsburgh because none of them had ever been to Ireland,” smiles Lyons. “To play in a competition on top of visiting makes it even more special. A couple of them arrived in Ireland and drove straight down to Ballybunion because that’s where their heritage is and they visited the house where their grandparents were born.”
The club are sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), who are world leaders in the concussion research and in that regard have teamed up with the GAA.
Like Philadelphia to the east, it is a predominantly Democratic city in a state that voted for Donald Trump by a margin of just over 40,000 votes last year. In a June speech defending his decision to leave the Paris climate agreement, Trump declared he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh not Paris” only that Pittsburgh backed Hilary Clinton and, having transformed from an industry-dependent city, support the Paris accord. As Trump’s administration preaches isolation, Pittsburgh shouts otherwise.
In their own small way, Celtics do too. Last Tuesday they travelled to Crossmaglen where Joe Kernan conducted a training session with them while GAA president Aogán Farrell hosted a reception for them in Croke Park yesterday.
All-Ireland final tickets have been tough to secure but Lyons hopes to be able to see his old team-mate Cluxton in person lift the Sam for a fourth time. That 2003 triumph they enjoyed was all the sweeter after many of them had been on the receiving end in the previous year’s final against Galway. Tommy Lyons’ decision to introduce Jim Gavin and Declan Darcy as coaches/selectors in ’03 played a significant part in Dublin getting it right the second time.
Lyons’ memories of Gavin are only good ones. “One thing I remember about Jim was everything was about quality and doing things right. Executing the skills to the perfect degree. Tommy Lyons was the first manager to commercialise Dublin and he really helped improve the county’s profile and Dublin people were putting flags in their cars and you had never really seen that before. Pillar (Caffrey) was involved too but you could see that Jim’s head was in the right place.”