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The GAA in America pre-1947

In his book ‘The Clash of the Ash in Foreign Fields’, Seamus J. King presents evidence for hurling in New York as early as 1763. It is likely that Irishmen, serving in the British Army, brought the game to America at this time; it is just as likely that the game left with the garrison in 1783.

With the advent of the Irish famine and associated mass emigration from Ireland to America it is not surprising that evidence can again be found for GAA activities in America (New York) in the mid 19th century. However this time Gaelic Games were here to stay, being played by Irish men who had settled in America, not by soldiers who could be redeployed at any time.

Within America the first real attempt to organise Gaelic Games came in 1891, when New York delegates met for the purpose of ‘devising the best means of presenting to the American public and popularising our national sports and pastimes’. The Gaelic Athletic Association of America had arrived. All the evidence points to a disjointed American Association that lacked effective leadership and cohesion.

At the 1908 Annual Congress in Dublin two motions were passed- the first called for America to be considered a Province of Ireland for GAA purposes, the second empowered this American Provincial Council to take control of athletics.

The only tangible sign of a relationship between the GAA in Ireland and the GAA in America at the start of the 20th Century was the 1911 ‘Homecoming Tour’. This tour, undertaken by Irish hurlers now living in America, was a six week tour (16th July19 11-20th August 1911) of Ireland with a match played, against Irish opposition, on consecutive Sundays. The tour was a huge success and 25% of the profits (£104) were donated to the Croke Memorial Fund.

The previous year, at the 1910 Annual Convention, two motions were passed disapproving of Irish teams travelling to America calling it ‘inopportune and inadvisable as calculated to encourage emigration’. The financial disaster of the 1888 Invasion Tour still weighed heavily on the minds of the GAA.

It was not until 1926 that the GAA felt confident enough to give the Tipperary Hurling team permission to undertake a six week tour of the United States (at their own expense). As All-Ireland champions the Tipperary team drew a large crowd wherever they played and financially the tour was a success. Crucially however, the trip revived the games amongst the Irish population and led to a new enthusiasm for the games.

Spurred on by this new enthusiasm the GAA in New York set about re-organising itself. A letter from Thomas Delaney, Secretary of the New York GAA, to the Central Council in October 1926 describes that the Tipperary tour had rejuvenated interest in Gaelic Games in America and that this interest now extended to ‘native born Americans of all races’. Delaney explains that New York had taken the initiative and established a National Organisation; their plan was to have one organisation with centres in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Delaney warned however that even this would be problematic as individual zones will be so large that intensive organising within them would be difficult and travelling between zones could entail ‘weeks of travel by rail’.

Another major obstacle facing the GAA in America (and abroad generally) was the fact that it was usually only the generation which emigrated that played or supported the games of the ‘old country’. Second or third generation Irish-Americans, many of whom had never visited Ireland, would have been far more likely to participate in baseball, ice-hockey or American Football rather than Gaelic games.

The 1929 Wall Street Crash and subsequent economic depression meant that the steady stream of Irish emigrants all but disappeared.

By 1933 the GAA in America realised that for Gaelic Games to survive their attention must be turned to the native born Americans. In April 1933 the Chairman of the Central Council in Dublin commented that ‘a new feature of activities in America was that they were building up minor teams in addition to the junior and senior teams, so that as emigration declined they would have American boys playing the games’. In July 1933 Padraig Ó’Caoimh, General Secretary of the GAA, was instructed to choose a suitable design and donate a cup for the American Minor Championships.

However four years later, in 1937, Father Hamilton, in his report on the 1937 tour of the United States by Mayo, warns that ‘the next few years will be a critical time for the GAA in America. The cessation of immigration from Ireland has cut off the supply of new material from the home source’. He was, however, optimistic that ‘the emergency is being met and the gaps are being gradually filled from the ranks of the American born’.

Records held by the GAA Museum show that the ‘American born’ did not come to the rescue of the GAA in America; P.J. Grimes, Secretary of the Greater New York GAA, wrote to the Central Council requesting help in reviving gaelic games. In his letter he quoted that ‘prior to the depression our average attendance at Gaelic Games was four to six thousand per Sunday…in the year just passed (1936) the patronage dwindled to an appalling figure of four hundred’. In discussing options of how to raise the profile of the GAA in America the Central Council ruled out the possibility of staging the 1938 All-Ireland Football replay in New York, considering the idea as unfeasible.

In 1939 Padraig McNamee, President of the GAA, raised the possibility of cancelling, or at the very least curtailing, the now annual tours to America as attendances ‘were dropping by about 5,000 each year’. The outbreak of World War II severely curtailed the activities of the GAA in America. When the war ended the GAA in America was in a critical condition.

At the 1947 Annual Congress in Dublin Father Hamilton asked that Congress consider playing the 1947 All-Ireland Senior Football Final in New York to help revive the games. This was to have a profound impact on the GAA in America.