'Dreams do come true': Shannon Gaels open New York City's second GAA pitch

Shannon Gaels advocated for the pitch's development for years and were able to convince the city to lease them the ground — and part with the cash — after the club privately developed a smaller, adjacent pitch at the park around three years ago for $2m
'Dreams do come true': Shannon Gaels open New York City's second GAA pitch

The ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new Shannon Gaels pitch in New York. Picture: Michael Dorgan

In New York City’s concrete jungle, green shoots are rising at a public park in northern Queens.

These are no ordinary shoots at Frank Golden Park. In fact, they are part of the groundwork in developing future generations of GAA talent in the Big Apple.

The park is home to Shannon Gaels, a GAA club formed nearly 20 years ago in the Irish enclave of Sunnyside in Queens.

And those shoots are from a new full-sized playing pitch the club opened last weekend that is now home to around 420 Shannon Gaels players from Under 7s up to adult level.

The pitch is a hugely significant milestone for Gaelic Games here since it is the only full-sized GAA pitch in the five boroughs of New York City besides the Gaelic Park surface in the Bronx.

The project cost $5.2m (€4.48m) and was funded entirely by city funds after Shannon Gaels members helped in the long planning process.

Shannon Gaels advocated for its development for years and were able to convince the city to lease them the ground — and part with the cash — after the club privately developed a smaller, adjacent pitch at the park around three years ago for $2m.

Its success and proven benefits to the wider Queens community helped sway local elected officials to go all in on the new pitch.

The new Shannon Gaels pitch in New York. Picture: Michael Dorgan
The new Shannon Gaels pitch in New York. Picture: Michael Dorgan

City contractors put down a new grass surface over what was previously a beaten-up field sprinkled with worn-out baseball diamonds. They installed new goalposts, netting, a scoreboard as well as concrete seating. A green area behind the seating was also redeveloped with new benches, trees, lights, a new pavement, and an accessible ramp leading to the pitch.

The initial plan to develop the seven-acre site was hatched in 2009 when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg visited the club’s first training area in Sunnyside while on the campaign trail. Asked what he could do for the local Irish community, he was told to source them a GAA pitch in Queens. From there the wheels were set in motion to develop Frank Golden Park — which is about five miles away from Sunnyside — and Bloomberg was re-elected mayor.

“The field of dreams has happened, dreams do come true,” Danny Browne, Vice-Chair of Shannon Gaels told attendees at the opening ceremony on Saturday. Browne is also the chair of the New York Minor Board, which has around 2,500 boys and girls playing under its tutelage.

“In order to grow apples, you must plant apple trees, and apple trees will produce the apples,” he said.

Like Shannon Gaels, the New York minor board is flourishing but playing pitches and facilities have long been in high demand — and private ownership of land is out of reach for amateur clubs due to the city’s notoriously high property prices.

Without proper playing pitches, how do you inspire the next generation? Shannon Gaels members hope their new pitch will bridge that gap and help them nurture the stars of the future.

Kids playing on the new Shannon Gaels pitch in New York. Picture: Michael Dorgan
Kids playing on the new Shannon Gaels pitch in New York. Picture: Michael Dorgan

Shannon Gaels have men’s Junior A and Junior B football teams as well as a ladies Junior football team — made up of almost all American-born players. For those players, Gaelic Games are a direct connection to their Irish heritage and the new pitch offers them a space to experience it first hand — and they are just as passionate about the game as their Irish-born brethren.

The sourcing of public land for a pitch and the make-up of the Shannon Gaels club is also a blueprint for developing and sustaining the game in New York.

At adult level, the majority of clubs in New York are named after counties in Ireland with their players usually made up of ex-pats from those counties, short-term visa holders, and summer transfers.

However, the ability of club counties to sustain themselves is becoming harder with Irish immigration declining and those clubs not having feeder players coming up through the underage ranks like a Shannon Gaels. The pandemic laid bare how important it is to have a New York-sourced team — be they American-born or permanent immigrants.

The Shannon Gaels ‘parish’ model of focusing on American-born kids from the surrounding community is already proven here.

St Barnabas, who hail from Yonkers and the Woodlawn area of north Bronx, have won the last two senior county football championships with all America-born players. Rangers, St Raymond’s, and Rockland GAA clubs are also following the parish model.

“I don’t think it’s going to look back, every year we just see it getting stronger and stronger,” Shannon Gaels chairman Robert McDonagh said. However, asked if the ultimate goal was to lead his club to senior county glory, McDonagh was not too fussed.

“I’m not about winning trophies. Development, development. Keep planting the seeds, everything else will fall into place.”

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