With the recent trend of emigration and the resulting need for young people to feel connected to home, GAA can provide a vital and much needed foothold in a new country. Last month, Damien O’Connor was part of the Kerry team that won an unlikely New York championship, and the Laois footballer gives a unique insight into Gaelic Games overseas.
“It’s a surreal experience going training. We’re living in a kind of Irish street, McClean Avenue it’s called, and around six or half-six in the evening, the street would be full of Irish just standing around with football boots, everyone waiting for a lift to go training.”
“Where we were training was about 15 minutes away. There could be about 10 of us in the back of the car, and if the traffic was really bad you could be sitting on the highway for an hour or two hours without moving before you got to training.”
O’Connor was joined at the Kerry New York club by Down senior footballer Keith Quinn, the only other inter-county player on the team. “We had no really big names, but a lot of good, strong footballers; a lot of Kerry boys who played under-age with Kerry and had been on Kerry senior panels before moving to New York but hadn’t made the breakthrough.”
“We had one Irish-American lad on the team as well, James Huvane at cornerback. He wasn’t bad at all.”
“The facilities wouldn’t be as good as at home; we trained on an astro-turf field looking into Manhattan, there were 10 or 12 big pitches but all we had was soccer goals which you can’t really play proper football in. Some of the coaching styles would be completely different to what you’d see over here as well.”
Unfancied Kerry managed to advance to the final where they played Leitrim, who were on course to win their fourth title in a row. “It was like a proper county final day” says O’Connor, “we had a parade and the national anthem, a good crowd; it was a good experience. The game itself was great, it was tough, there were three or four lads sent off in it.”
“It wouldn’t compare to winning anything with Timahoe [O’Connor’s home club] or Laois, but at the time it was a great feeling because going into the game, no-one really gave us a chance. Leitrim had about ten inter-county lads, boys on inter-county transfers who had played with their counties this year, everybody just overlooked Kerry.”
O’Connor, who featured for Laois against Louth in the Leinster Championship earlier this year before moving to New York, is also quick to praise the quality of football on show in the city; “There’s a good standard of players. You don’t see too many lads standing out; the heat is the real killer. During the summer you could be playing in 35/36 degrees, and on an astro-turf pitch where it’s a couple of degrees warmer.”
“Coming down to the latter stages of the Championship the standard is very high; there are a lot of good footballers. You’d want to be at the top of your game to play well out there.”
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and it just felt like the right time to do it,” says O’Connor on leaving home and going to America. When asked what advice he’d give to anyone thinking of making the same decision, the 21-year-old has no hesitation; “Make the most of the experience, have the craic and do as much as you can while you can. It really is something to remember and something you can always say you did”.
Full credit and thanks to Peter Marney for all images.