A good story about Gaelic Park in the Bronx. For some of us this was part of our childhood, for others it was a subway stop. For the Irish in Ireland it was the minor leagues.


April 12, 2009

The Fading of the Green


DAN GREANEY’S brown-flecked blue eyes can still see half a century ago, when thousands of spectators roared at his every move, piled into stands at Gaelic Park, spilling out along the hillside and packed in around the sidelines. He is 71, his ruddy cheeks now spotted with age, but he can hear the cries of the beer sellers and the bands, heavy with fiddlers, behind the field where generations of Irish and Irish-American athletes once clashed.

Gaelic Park, a 2,000-seat stadium that sits in the shadow of the el at Broadway and 240th Street in Riverdale in the Bronx, was always more than just a sports field. It was the place where New York’s Irish went to make connections and to meet potential spouses, to mingle with friends from the old country and to discover new ones.

From the 1920s on, players battled ferociously in the Irish sports of hurling (a combination of baseball, lacrosse and field hockey) and Gaelic football (which blends elements of soccer and rugby) while fans caught up on teams back in Ireland. Amid the alien concrete landscape of America, where streets were filled with strangers, Gaelic Park was a haven.

“There was so much activity here, so many teams, so many players,” Mr. Greaney said one Sunday afternoon, surveying the thin spread of fans gathered under a drizzling gray sky. “They removed all that stuff.”

Where rickety wooden stands once teetered toward the sky, there is now a scattering of empty picnic tables. On the field where players once barreled into one another, cracking heads and bones in brutal pursuit of the ball, a referee’s whistle regulates play. The beer sellers and the Irish bands are absent.

Though the great waves of Irish immigrants had long since passed, by the 1980s New York’s concentration of Irish immigrants earned the region the status of an Irish county in the eyes of the Gaelic Athletic Association, which is based in Ireland and oversees hurling and Gaelic football (the rest of North America is considered a second county).

But from 1990 to 2000, the number of Irish in New York fell from about 390,000 to just over 300,000, according to census data. And while the booming Irish economy of the 1990s has started to skid, the reversal has yet to staunch the number of Irish returning home.

Gaelic Park, where the season officially starts next Sunday, has felt the impact of these shifts. The number of hurling teams has fallen to four from nine; men’s Gaelic football teams have been slashed to 27 from 32. On the women’s side, nine Gaelic football teams have withered to five.

“What we find is the people who are actually managing and running these clubs are the same old faces,” said Larry McCarthy, chairman of the Gaelic Athletic Association of Greater New York, the group’s local branch. “They are not being replaced.”

On this Sunday, a cluster of young men were warming up, cheerfully smacking small, hard balls against a wall bearing the words “Absolutely No Ball Playing in the Area.” Players scrabbled for the ball, sticks crashing in rapid fire.

But old-timers acknowledge that crowds are not what they used to be, that the park’s centrality to the Irish experience is fading as older players start families and feel the tug of American options.

“The type of immigrant coming out of Ireland now isn’t dependent on that social structure,” said Mr. McCarthy, who teaches management at Seton Hall. “There are a lot of people in New York, Irish immigrants, who have never been to Gaelic Park.”

And while the park is currently in its best physical condition ever — a $3 million renovation provided a new turf field and night lighting — other forces have taken their toll. Tightened immigration laws and stricter border security after 9/11 have drained the park of players and spectators, further challenging its historic role as the heart of New York’s Irish community.

“The funny thing is, for years Gaelic Park was going very well because there were so many Irish here and we were trying to get the field renovated and done up,” said Peter Slattery, 39, a hurler turned coach. “Last year is the first year it was done with the new surface and made a massive improvement. But it’s a shame that there are so many people gone, that it didn’t happen years ago.”

‘The Worst Place Ever’

When Therese Crowe arrived in 1962 from Tipperary in Ireland, the Bronx seemed to be all concrete. Back home, jobs were scarce, and relatives and other adults tracked every move she made. And so at 27, she exchanged her lush, intimate village for a land of pavement and tall buildings, surrounded by strangers with a bewildering assortment of accents, languages and activities.

“I wanted freedom,” said Ms. Crowe, now 74, with cropped blond hair and eyes ringed with dark eyeliner. She was sitting in a dimly lighted banquet hall next to Gaelic Park, chairs stacked on tables. She looked around and sighed. “It used to be fabulous years ago.”

Growing up in Ireland, Ms. Crowe had heard of Gaelic Park; everyone had. She envisioned a vast stadium, grand and glittering. Instead, she said with a laugh, “it was the worst place ever,” an expanse of balding fields dotted with “a couple of little huts.”

It didn’t matter. Thousands streamed into the park every Sunday, filling the stands with familiar talk, familiar food and, most of all, the feeling of home.

“You met everybody,” said Ms. Crowe, who has volunteered as the park’s nurse for more than 30 years. “If you were lonely, it was a great place to go.”

In the crowd was Terry Connaughton, a barrel-chested athlete who in 1952, at age 19, had emigrated from western Ireland. His oldest brother had left before him, sending back the family’s single suit for the next sibling to wear on the journey.

When Mr. Connaughton was growing up, his village was home to 100 people and four pubs. There were no movie theaters, no television sets. Entertainment consisted of one main activity: hurling.

“I was involved practically since the day I was born, like most of the people,” said Mr. Connaughton, now 75, sitting on the sidelines of Gaelic Park. “I would be playing every single day. Because back in the day, as the fellow says, Ireland was poor in my time. Very poor.”

On Mr. Connaughton’s first Sunday in New York, his brother took him to Gaelic Park. He joined a team and played for the next 20 years.

Over that time, he joined the Police Department, met his future wife in the stands and found a second career as the owner of a local restaurant. Even after he stopped playing, his life remained interwoven with Gaelic Park, and he served three terms as president of New York’s Gaelic Athletic Association.

The field that Mr. Connaughton played on — the “Sahara Desert,” as the Irish papers called it — is now gone, replaced by artificial turf. The dressing rooms, with their unpredictable water temperatures, have been renovated. But it is other things that he misses.

“One thing is for sure, there’s less people attending the games now than back in the day,” Mr. Connaughton said. “Almost 100 percent of the Irish immigrants would come here. Today it would be 20 percent, maybe, tops.”

The Ireland he knew is also changing.

“Young people have almost everything they have in this country,” he said. “Irish people coming out here today? They go skiing.”

New World, Old Pastime

Even a generation after Ms. Crowe and Mr. Connaughton emigrated, little had changed in their homeland. When Peter Slattery was growing up there during the 1970s and ’80s, schoolbags were still packed with books and a hurling stick, and in rural villages, the hurling pitch remained the central gathering place.

“From the time you’re a kid, that’s what you’re taught,” Mr. Slattery said. “All your idols are playing it; all the kids you know are playing it; everybody’s playing it.”

Hurling unified the community and provided identity. Mr. Slattery and his five siblings grew up with the game, but when it came time to find work, they struggled. Listening to stories spun by cousins home on holidays from America, Mr. Slattery began to dream of a different life.

In 1992, Mr. Slattery made his move. He immigrated to the United States, settling in New Jersey and going to work as a bartender. Like Ms. Crowe a generation earlier, he felt an initial shock.

“I loved it and all that,” he said, “but there wasn’t that many Irish up around here. There’s no point in talking to an American person about hurling because they won’t know what you’re talking about.”

One day, a priest named Father Bolland walked into his bar.

“How is everything going?” the priest asked in a Galway accent.

“Great, great,” Mr. Slattery recalled replying.

“There aren’t too many Irish around here,” Father Bolland observed. He passed along the number of a local hurling club where he had played 30 years before, and a few weeks later, Mr. Slattery joined the team.

At Gaelic Park, Mr. Slattery found the conversations he craved, along with news about teams back home. He tried to make it to Gaelic Park every Sunday, whether or not his team was playing, and frequently staggered home at 3 or 4 in the morning after postgame nights at the pub.

But when Mr. Slattery finally retired from playing, he noticed that everyone else seemed to be retiring or moving away, too. He stayed involved, suiting up when there were too few people to field a team, but other players just disappeared. Mr. Slattery began hearing talk of teams disbanding. Clubs started to fold, one by one, and two years ago, he realized that his team could be next.

“It’s very hard to have a championship with less than five or six teams, but if it goes below four, you’re going to have big problems,” Mr. Slattery said. “We’re always trying to recruit new guys. But the numbers are dwindling all the time.”

‘Can You Play Camogie?’

As Geraldine Lavery, then a trim 34-year-old with long dark hair, stepped out onto the field, a shiver raced through her body. It was June 2007 and the first day of the Cul Camp, an Irish camp making its debut in New York.

More than 80 boys and girls from 6 to 9 years old were arrayed in hurling and Gaelic football practice stations around the field. Not all of them were Irish. She was overwhelmed.

“I saw in front of me the future of Gaelic sports for my children,” Ms. Lavery recently recalled. “I had a rush that just came through me.”

Her involvement began in the late ’90s, just weeks after she arrived from Ireland. A young teacher uncertain about her next steps, Ms. Lavery stopped at a pub down the block from Gaelic Park. There, a friendly Irish waitress started peppering her with questions, most important of which was: Did Ms. Lavery play camogie, the female version of hurling?

“Once you hear that accent, the first question you ask is can you play football or camogie,” said the waitress, Pauline Coll, who is now a close friend of Ms. Lavery’s. “You serve her a cup of tea. ‘By the way, can you play camogie?’ It’s just something automatic that comes out of my mouth.”

Ms. Lavery joined a camogie team and soon began playing Gaelic football as well.

“Had I not had the Irish sports and the Gaelic sports the first two years, I would have gone home within the first six weeks of being here,” said Ms. Lavery, who is now dean of students at St. Jean Baptiste High School on the Upper East Side.

Both women were participants in the Ladies Gaelic Athletic Association of New York, which was founded in 1991. When a president named Nollaig Cleary was elected, she asked Ms. Coll to found a youth program for girls.

“Patience, hard work and lots of phone calls,” Ms. Coll said of her strategy. “Initially I’d say to one mother: ‘Oh, you know Gaelic football. Why don’t you bring your daughter up?’ It’s a very tight-knit community, and if your daughter is doing it, my daughter should do it, too.”

Ms. Coll recently moved back to Ireland. But results of her efforts are clear. More than 300 girls play in a program that began with 35. The boys’ side has undergone a similar transformation; today, as many as 600 boys play on local teams.

The leader of the boys’ youth program, Roger Slattery (no relation to Peter Slattery), retired from playing in 1979, but when his first son, Ciaran, turned 5, he wanted to play.

“My father hurled here in Gaelic Park when I was a kid, and I hurled in Gaelic Park when I got old enough,” said Mr. Slattery, now 53.

Every Friday and Saturday night, his household in Castle Hill in the Bronx crackled with debates between his father and his uncle over Irish clubs. Hurlers visited the house, photographs of their exploits adorned the walls, and radios broadcast the games. Every Sunday, they all trooped to Gaelic Park.

It’s a tradition he has tried to pass on to his American-born sons.

“There comes a place where family, work, children come along and our priorities change, and we can’t devote the time that we have to,” Mr. Slattery said. “And we miss it.”

He paused. “Maybe we’re living a little vicariously through our children at this stage,” he continued. “We never wanted to be spectators on the sidelines. But now we have a chance to get back involved.”

Dennis P. Cleary