A Patch of Ireland in The Bronx

Players battle in a Gaelic football match on opening day of Gaelic Park in The Bronx. (Patrick McGovern/NY City Lens)

Players battle in a Gaelic football match on opening day of Gaelic Park in The Bronx. (Patrick McGovern/NY City Lens)

Seamus Dooley came to the Bronx from Ireland in 1972, when he was 23 years old. When he needed a place to find work, make friends and stay connected to Ireland, he knew where to go: Gaelic Park in the Bronx. The park, which is home to Irish sports of all kinds, has been an integral part of his life for the last 42 years.

Gaelic Park sits on 240th Street in the Bronx, in the shadow of the elevated 1 train. It opened in 1928 and has served ever since as a meeting place for Irish immigrants. Every year, from April to October, it is home to the Irish sports of Gaelic football, hurling, and camogie, a version of hurling for women. After renovations in 2007, the park now holds seating for 2,000 spectators and features artificial field turf and lights for night games.

“Welcome back to Gaelic Park,” he announced over the stadium’s loudspeakers on a sunny day in early April. “What a great place to be after such a miserable winter.”

Dooley, who is a part-time announcer for games at the stadium, started as a Gaelic football player, then coach. On this bright afternoon, he sits at a small table next to the playing field, microphone in hand. This is opening day for the Gaelic sports season, a Gaelic football tournament featuring clubs from the New York City area and one from Boston as well.

Many clubs feature players representing their home counties in Ireland. Counties Cavan, Kerry, Westmeath, Leitrim, and Longford are some of the teams playing in the tournament. The clubs serve not only as an outlet for Gaelic sports, but also help newly arrived immigrants find work and connect with friends from the old country.

Kealan Hickey, 23, a native of County Cork, gravitated towards Gaelic sports after he immigrated to the Bronx in October 2012. He plays Gaelic football for County Kerry, because that is where both of his parents are from.

“It’s my native sport, I grew up playing it,” said Hickey. “It’s nice to be able to continue playing even though I’m in a new country. There’s a big social aspect to it as well, a lot of bonding.”

Gaelic football is a combination of soccer and rugby, while hurling is played with a curved stick and has components of field hockey and lacrosse. The action in the tournament is fierce, as players battle for possession of the soccer-like ball. During a game between Leitrim and Longford on opening day, a fight breaks out.

“Come on now boys, you’re holding up the show,” says Dooley over the loudspeaker. He not only announces what teams are playing and the scores of the games, he also provides a sort of running commentary during the day’s games.

Dooley spots one of the athletes taking a drag off a cigarette during a break between games.

“All right lads, no smoking,” he broadcasts. “No smoking on the field by anyone.”

Despite a sparse crowd watching the action on opening day, Liam Bermingham, chairman of the board for the Gaelic Athletic Association of Greater New York, sees an increase in the number of athletes playing Gaelic sports, especially at the youth level. Because of stricter immigration standards post 9/11, fewer Irish are immigrating to the United States. So many of the growing number of athletes in the youth ranks are American born, said Bermingham, with other nationalities represented as well. This influx of non-Irish born players means a changing face for the sport.

“Times are changing,” said Bermingham, “It’s very tough to get here legally. But the growing number of under 21 athletes playing Gaelic sports is great to see. Many different nationalities are now drawn to the sport, it’s not just Irish born anymore.”

Besides the games themselves, Gaelic Park provides other comforts of home difficult to find elsewhere in the city. The snack bar at the east end of the stadium offers Club Orange Soda, a popular drink in Ireland, as well as an assortment of English candy bars. Instead of ketchup for hamburgers, YR Sauce, a prevalent condiment in Irish households, is offered.

“It’s a wonderful thing to see,” said Dooley. “We come here as immigrants, and everything is new. But here, we keep our traditions. We don’t let them fall by the wayside.”

Changes are coming to Gaelic Park as well. According to Bermingham, the banquet hall attached to the stadium is going to be renovated. The current facility is doing to be demolished and a new headquarters for the New York Gaelic Athletic Assocation will be constructed.

“We’re growing, it’s an exciting thing to see,” said Bermingham.

The final game of the tournament this day featured Cavan against Westmeath. After a very physical contest, Cavan won the match and were tournament champions.

After the victory, Harrison Silke, 23, from County Meath, a forward for Cavan, celebrated with his teammates.

“It’s a way to stay connected to Ireland,” he said. “I’m just glad I get the chance to play here, you know?”