Maybe it’s my fault I didn’t search hard enough (or the time after Boris fell), but the only Gaelic football story I read this week as of Thursday morning was the link sent to our WhatsApp group by my friend in Cork. Which is a dereliction of duty considering the week that’s been going on there.
Alas, no, I’m afraid the journalist he invited us to read was not enthusiastically anticipating the weekend of real football that we are lucky enough to look forward to. I guess that kind of feel-good doesn’t normally generate your usual WhatsApp fodder; the text group isn’t the best place to seriously anticipate the Tailteann Cup final and All-Ireland SFC last four.
It was a link to a simple, no-frills list of footballers coming to America for the summer. In other words, total clickbait. But it was illuminating in its quantity, the breadth of which offered the sender the chance to crack that he might be next in line for a call, such was the recruiting frenzy in the United States. He had just come out of retirement to act as an All Islands sweeper keeper on Bere Island. Everything is possible.
Lazy people like me had heard that Rian O’Neill was drawn to a Chicago club shortly after the heartbreaking penalty shootout loss to Galway. But it wasn’t until I saw the vast array of talent making the trip for a summer of a lifetime that certain things dawned on me.
For one thing, this once-annual rite of passage hadn’t happened in three years. It’s long in the GAA. It sparked the unbelievable memory of a so long one-way travel ban between the US and the EU, which only recently ended in early November.
Pandemic restrictions on travel have caused a lot of real-world impact, far more severe than those felt by the Gaelic Games, but for pockets of Chicago, Philly, SF, Boston and New York, the lifeblood of the infamous summer penalty felt like an extinct blow.
To varying degrees, the big cities made the most of it and replicated the realities of every other GAA outpost in North America relying solely on local, homegrown players. Pleasant seasons, competitive championships, and a distinct absence of money-driven rat race for teachers and students who excel in their chosen sport have allowed everyone to find their new niche.
It also occurred to me that the change in pace and timing of inter-county fixtures this year had thrown the market into utter disarray, just in time for its spectacular revival.
The deadline for signing up sanctioned players to play as guests of the New York and North American County Councils is July 1, a perfect time for players on the quarter-finalist lists defeated in both codes. There was just enough room to breathe or – more likely – answer missed calls from +1 numbers.
When I saw the roster, I made a few calls to old contacts in the Bay Area, Chicago and Boston to get a sense of the sentiment on the field and it’s almost universally positive.
Whether you’re a GAA member focused on nurturing young local talent or a purist determined to build a club of homegrown Irish immigrants who are in it for the long haul not the quick buck, this latest infusion of top ballers seems to be taking on a fresher, more positive feel than it might have in 2019.
This was before the idea that an opportunity to travel to play like that felt cast in stone. It hasn’t always been a smooth process and there’s reason to be cynical. Some of my earliest memories of the GAA are of late 80s stars playing in America and facing suspensions for doing so in a less than kosher manner.
For the first half of my 12 years in New York, I actively opposed this and took part in the Association in a way that reflected the need in a different way. Meanwhile, tougher immigration laws meant tougher interrogations of young players at airports. One way or another, there was always a way through.
And then it stopped.
It’s no coincidence that New York’s delayed 2020 season and its regularly staged 2021 season saw senior football championship victories for the first time ever for an all-American team, St Barnabas of MacLean Avenue. Most other cities didn’t rebound as quickly and representatives from San Francisco didn’t even travel to Boston in 2021 for the North American Championships, such was the lopsided way pandemic conditions rebounded in the United States. .
But now they are back and some names are impressive. Two 2021 All-Ireland winners in Michael McKernan and Conor Meyler who both head to Chicago’s Parnells club while compatriot Tyrone Ruairi Canavan will line up with St Patricks in Philadelphia.
Chicago clubs made the biggest splash and the most eye-catching of all was John McBrides who signed seven footballers from Mayo including Enda Hession, Paul Towey, Eoin McLoughlin, Oisin Mullin and Matthew Ruane.
They will have time to impress the locals and the objective will be to train their club for the national championships which will take place in Chicago on the third weekend of August.
For most counties, it will still be in-season for the all-important domestic club championships, allowing everyone to live life to the fullest, as much as possible.
But there is also a new sensation in this somewhat post-pandemic GAA landscape in the United States. Some of the rules are the same; each incoming player must commit to a minimum sanction of 30 days. But the rules of the game have been tweaked slightly and to an extent enough that some of these elite guys are going to have to be patient with lower level players and a bit of a bench seat while adjusting to the age-old condition of 13 players.
Last November, a rule was passed that every North American team, senior through junior D, must have at least two American-born players on the field. With young Americans having multiple summer commitments of their own and not necessarily of their heritage, this will prove problematic for clubs that have traditionally relied on opening the coffers for the visiting star.
On the other hand, if you were born in the United States in a city like Chicago, you can play junior with one club and senior with another, if you are good enough to do so. This allows some of the more progressive youth development clubs to retain their own identity and also watch players who have grown up in their system test themselves against the cross-county elites.
That won’t always be possible, however, with GAA rivalries and tensions being as they are, the spoils won’t always be shared so generously. Some would describe this as chickens coming home to roost – even one person I spoke to accepted this as the price of doing business over the years – but the bigger story is that the GAA in North America has continued to grow and this influx will only serve to energize the overall story.
With the return of summer players, that in some cases means that many clubs have gone back to two teams – which seems tiny compared to clubs back home, but means a huge lift on this side of the Atlantic.
By the time the national championships take place in August, there will likely be around 5,000 registered players on the North American board. And during this weekend, there will be almost 120 games played. Only 10 of them will be senior clashes between the big stars.
There will be plenty of entertainment for neutrals enjoying Sundays in Canton, south of Boston, and at Treasure Island in the Bay Area and at the particularly impressive facility being built at Gaelic Park in Chicago.
And the best boon of all will be the cause of the national development of young players who will benefit from training sessions given by these famous players at Cúl Camps and others.
As one GAA member whose focus was primarily here told me, the modern traveling GAA player only needs to ask once to give back a little to their temporary home. With this in mind, it may be best to go back to the old ways.