The end of New York City’s number 1 subway line runs adjacent to Gaelic Park’s clubhouse goals in the Bronx. The MTA’s train yard tracks split and wrap themselves around the storied venue, offering patrons a uniquely bland metallic facade once they pass through the green gates.
The similarly-coloured, American-style scoreboard gives the eyes some respite, yet the intermittent sounds of empty janky carriages coming to a slow, grinding halt is a rarity for any sports stadium.
It is a dichotomy of sorts for many of those showcasing their native sport on the artificial surface.
The venue represents a new chapter, the beginning of a new life, and engaging the Irish community is as good a starting point as any for an Irish émigré in the Big Apple.
So it was for Laurence McGrath, who emigrated from Donegal to New York in 1986. He, like many before and after him (including this writer), made his way up those rickety tracks to the city’s Irish-American GAA headquarters.
“This is a place where, for years and years, you had a home away from home. So many Irish people have passed through Gaelic Park,” says the New York county board chairman.
“It was a place to source work, accommodation and make new friends. That’s what Irish people have been doing there for 90 years now. That’s very important. It remains so to this day.
“The GAA here is like a family to me, it is my family.”
Remnants of the old clubhouse, a relic of generations past, still stood behind tall wooden screens only nine days ago.
When Division 1 league champions Mayo take to the field against New York’s senior footballers in the Connacht Championship this Sunday, a temporary stand will take its place and in the process assuage the extra ticket demand for the high-profile fixture by freeing up an extra few hundred seats.
After that, work will finally commence on an exciting new two-storey, 12,000 square foot facility. The $4.5m (€4m) project — $2m (€1.79m) of which was contributed by Croke Park — was due to open last March. It will include a function room, bar, medical office, two development offices and downstairs changing rooms.
McGrath says it will provide a modern home, not only for New York’s GAA community, but for New York’s Irish community as a whole.
While the bricks and mortar will be laid shortly, the foundation of the county’s on-field longevity have been in place for a few years now.
Part of the revenue generated will go to financing a new playing field, as well as re-investing in a burgeoning underage structure. Key to its success has been Simon Gillespie, New York’s underage development officer for almost a decade.
“It definitely has grown in terms of numbers of players playing, especially at the hurling and the girl’s level, and, at the boy’s level, I would think that the standard of play, with the amount of help we’ve gotten from Connacht Council, has significantly improved.
“It’s been a lot of hard work over the last few years, but we have three Féile teams and an U16 team in boys and girls going back to Ireland this year, and we had a college team go back and play in Corn na Mac Leinn, which is Division 3 of the Sigerson, and then we have the five American teams going back for the World Games.
“Underage football started here in 1970, so there was up to 20 juvenile clubs until the 70s and early 80s, but that dwindled down to six in the mid 90s around the time of the Celtic Tiger, but in the last 10 to 15 years a lot of second- and third- and even fourth-generation American kids picked up the game.
“Right now, we have 15 juvenile clubs; five of them play hurling and 14 play football, so we have ballpark in the region of 2,500 kids, but also have a pretty strong girl’s programme and a decent camogie structure as well.”
While they have been in the minority at senior level, all through the 80s, 90s and 2000s, Irish-American players have been represented very well.
In the National Football League final of 1950, a teenager named Jackie Hughes played centre-forward for New York in their win over Cavan.
Against Mayo on Sunday, five home-grown players will tog out for the 26-man panel. One of those is 24-year-old Shane Hogan, who is a shining example of the work put in by the likes of Gillespie and fellow officer Micky Quigg, but also the importance of taking American teams to Ireland to compete. Hogan made his inter-county debut at 17 and has as much passion, dedication and grá for the sport as any native Irishman. In fact, last week you could find him in the middle of Gaelic Park refereeing a junior match and he also helps out with the underage teams.
“I’ve been playing since the age of five. My dad is from Tipp and my grandparents are from Roscommon and Meath. They’re GAA crazy and had me watching all the games on a Sunday and after watching my brother play I fell in love with it.
“It’s one of those things that I don’t see I could live without. I can’t really live without playing GAA. it’s really changed my life for the better.
“I didn’t think I’d be going back to places like Ireland and England to go play Gaelic football, so it’s incredible.”
In 2007, we were in Leitrim and in 2008 we were in Cavan. In 2010, I started playing with the colleges team. We were travelling then to Birmingham, so we went back, won the Division 2 shield, went back the next year, played in Manchester, won the Division 2 and just barely missed out winning the Division 1 the following year.
“The same year, they started sending the New York team back for the Connacht Minor championship against really good Galway and Roscommon teams.
“The interesting thing was they were supposed to play in Hyde Park, but they ended up switching it to Croke Park, which any Gaelic footballer knows is just the Mecca. We did get a hammering, but I scored a point that day and it’s a memory I’ll never forget.
“Every year, the first person to see me is always my dad. He’s always got a tear in his eye. He’s always so proud, as are my grandparents and I’ll get calls and text from Ireland wishing me good luck.”
Like many metropolis GAA organisations outside of Ireland the future depends on unpredictable immigration swings.
“If you look at the history of New York GAA for the past 105 years, if Ireland does well economically, New York GAA does badly in terms of membership and numbers,” says Gillespie. “When things are going well in Ireland, graduates are less likely to come over and if you’re less likely to come over then obviously there’s less visas.
“The recent thing that’s going to kill us is the H1B visa; it’s so difficult to get and the Green Card is impossible to do, so I can see that being an issue, but there’s a readymade supply of Irish Americans that are parents and they’re the ones that can sustain the growth.
Relying on Irish people is not sustainable.
“We’ve seen a lot of uptake in Irish-Americans and there’s a lot out there, so if we don’t get the traditionally Irish people, then hopefully we’ll get the Shane Hogans 10 years from now coming to the fore.”
For now, New York GAA is thriving. Manhattan College, situated behind the railyard, share dibs on the pitch but throughout the summer months, Gaelic Park is a feast of GAA activity.
One hundred and seventy kids attend Cúl Camps during the day and there are two games, five nights a week, as the adult league and championships get underway.
On Saturdays, $5 will give you access to three or four games, Sunday’s $10 fee can get you anything up to seven games (players too are expected to cough up).
There are Senior, Intermediate, Junior A and B football teams. Senior, Junior A and B hurling and ladies senior and junior football teams.
The new clubhouse will return Gaelic Park to the heartbeat of Irish-America, re-energising that family spirit Laurence McGrath first felt 33 years ago and continuing the trend Gillespie has tapped into at underage.
“If you build it they will come.”