Ó Cualáins finally reach goal and bring GAA to the US

Aogán Ó Fearghail didn’t recognise Emma Mundy immediately.

The newly installed GAA President had been doing the rounds of the crowded main room of the Irish Consulate in Manhattan last Friday night where he was on hand to launch the new TG4 documentary series GAA USA, a four-part series which begins airing tomorrow at 9.30pm.

There was an All-Ireland winning captain in the house as well as a couple of award winning film makers but the members of various New York-based GAA clubs were equally — if not more — keen to grab a selfie with Ó Fearghail.

Still enjoying his new role, he was a willing and able meeter-and-greeter. Mundy explained to the president who she was and suddenly it clicked for Ó Fearghail. The clever promotion of the GAA GO service centred around a simple premise: find a few GAA fans around the world, film them while watching a GAA game in their adopted habitat and capture the reaction as their home county registers a score.

The bond with home completed by technology and the passion of the GAA encapsulated briefly despite the foreign backdrop.

Mundy wore a Donegal jersey while sat on a Manhattan rooftop with the Empire State Building as a backdrop. Once reminded of her starring role, Ó Fearghail and Mundy laughed together at the forging of a unique connection.

In his short tenure at the helm, Ó Fearghail has stressed his passion for the growth of the games internationally and moments like that can only enforce the reciprocation that exists out here and elsewhere.

The GAA GO promo is but a snapshot. For the Ó Cualáin brothers, the untapped well of stories and intrigue has lured them for years. It has long been the ambition of the Connemara natives to tease out the power of the Association in the United States and its fundamental role in the Irish emigrant experience.

Indicative of their interest in the Irish-American experience was their 2012 investigative feature length historical documentary Lón sa Spéir (Men at Lunch) which established them firmly in the mould of Ken Burns as Gaeilge.

Finding out the identities of the long dead and long forgotten immigrants perched on a beam high above Manhattan during the construction of the iconic Rockefeller Center proved elusive but the artistry involved in the pursuit was their true achievement.

The TG4 series has a similar feel. Paced perfectly and shot beautifully, the huge scope of the theme benefits from being extended out over four episodes.

The brothers were keen to produce an all-encompassing account — as much as possible anyway given the challenge presented to them of a severe lack of archive footage. As much as they sought to pay tribute to the wholesome side of the GAA, they give equal billing to what they describe as “the splits, infighting, bribes and gunrunning”.

As early as the first episode, they explore evidence of a ‘pay for play’ culture in the late 19th century and also give a fascinating account of the 1927 Kerry football team’s trip to America which doubled up as a convenient cover for IRA gun smuggling.

But then, a few years later, Kerry would return to New York and play in front of a crowd of 60,000 spectators in Yankee Stadium.

Later in the series, never before seen colour footage from the Polo Grounds will depict Christy Ring in action as well as other greats of the 1950s who represented the Tipperary hurlers as well as the great Kerry, Galway, Mayo and Dublin football teams.

The presenting style and gravitas of Dara Ó Cinnéide is a crucial element to the feel of the series. But he also has a direct connection which adds to his authority on the subject.

He is open and honest about the ban he received in 1996 for having played illegally in New York and the producers use his insight as a vehicle for exploring the less storybook elements of the GAA in America.

“Gaelic games in America have always held a strange fascination for me,” says the Kerry native.

“There were so many furrows to be ploughed and stories to be told that I was drawn to the series from the outset. Like many other Gaels, I have a particular affinity with the United States because generations of relatives and neighbours from home have immigrated to its cities and neighbourhoods.

“During my playing career with Kerry, and indeed after, I have had the opportunity to visit cities like Chicago, Boston, New York and San Francisco and their approach to the games has always intrigued me.

“Their story was worth recounting and, having played there I believe I had a particular insight that would help me present that story.”

Producer Éamonn Ó Cualáin believes the series will be perfectly translatable to the GAA people who never left for similar reasons.

“No club has been untouched by emigration,” he noted over the weekend.

“There is plenty of documenting of the GAA in the USA in book form but this is the first time it has been presented on film. So it was a difficult research process, finding the archive material and so on. We were relying on RTÉ, on the IFI and on Noel Moloney (New York) who proved to be a valuable resource for us.

“It’s a pretty good attempt and we’re confident people in Ireland will be interested. They knew of people leaving and playing in the US but they probably didn’t know what it was like when they got over there.

“They’d hear of their clubmates going to New York and playing for Kerry but the footage and stories pull it all together. The GAA was and is a gel that brought everyone together and that’s what we have tried to capture.”


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