There was only one thing on the minds of young boys and girls in Gaelic Park in The Bronx on Monday morning, and that was learning to play Gaelic football and hurling at the 2010 New York Cúl 4 Kids Summer Camp.
For some of the older kids, however, a welcome distraction from the sweltering heat came just in time when Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen arrived at the GAA pitch in the Bronx to meet the children from the weeklong football camp and share some of his pitch skills with them.
It was a nostalgic time for Cowen, the first ever Irish prime minister to visit Gaelic Park in an official capacity, as he once played football in New York for the Offaly team when he was a student.
Cowen was greeted by 164 young children of Irish descent running drills, kicking footballs and balancing hurley sticks on the newly constructed astro turf at Gaelic Park.
Cowen, after a brief meet and greet with camp staff, New York GAA board members and some parents, set aside the adult talk and got stuck in with the kids. In mid 90-degree temperatures the Taoiseach spent a considerable amount of time with a young group of boys and girls who were learning the skills of hurling.
Cowen borrowed a hurley and sliotar (hurley ball) from a young man named Owen and began to show his little spectators the correct way to shoot with a stick. After several demonstrations of his former hurling skills, Cowen returned the hurley to the child and coached a few of the boys and girls to do the same.
Noticing an idle football out of the corner of his eye, Cowen marched towards it -- pausing every few seconds for pictures with some of the children -- and set it up right in front of the goals. It was clear by the way he tugged up his trousers and rolled up his sleeves that he was ready to relive his former football days at the park.
As he positioned himself for a penalty shot, 12-year-old Conor Mathers couldn't believe his eyes.
"I really didn't expect him (Cowen) to start shooting against me," Conor told the Irish Voice.
After shooting a wide the first time Cowen borrowed another football and tried again, this time missing as Conor, who plays with Shannon Gaels, dived to the ground to save the goal.
Seemingly enjoying his moment away from the headaches of politics, Cowen wasn't ready to throw in the towel, but another three superb saves from young Conor saw him give up.
After shaking the goalkeeper’s hand, Cowen whispered, "I hope you'll be goalkeeper for New York someday," to Conor, whose mom Stephanie is from Co. Down and dad, Collie, from Co. Armagh.
Conor couldn't but hide the proud smile on his face.
Standing by watching Cowen in action were three young boys all under eight. When the Irish Voice asked if they knew who the taoiseach was they all nodded in confidence.
A young man named Evan donning a helmet said he was the leader of Ireland and was an "independent something."
His friend Patrick said he is "like the president but not the president, he is the president of sport I think," but Eoin set them straight saying he was the taoiseach of Ireland and the government.
Mary, who joined a group of smaller children all about six, told the Irish Voice her “mom said he (Cowen) is an important man from Ireland and gives her family money in Ireland.”
As all the children gathered for a picture with the taoiseach, word spread that the Secret Service was in the park.
“Can the Secret Service come into the picture,” asked a little boy with brown hair.
One young girl donning a yellow t-shirt broke away from the group to shake the hands of a Secret Service agent. She squealed with excitement as one of the tall men in a grey suit paid her some attention.
“He was a real Secret Service man,” she told her friends as she returned to the group for the photo.
New York GAA President Larry McCarthy described Cowen’s visit to Gaelic Park as “an honor.”
“We are delighted that the taoiseach has taken time to visit us here and especially during the kids camp,” said McCarthy.
“It also gives us a chance to show him the redevelopment of Gaelic Park and what we do here.”
Summer camp leader Roger Slattery, whose parents hail from Tipperary and Clare, said a visit by Cowen was a sign of the “wonderful support we get from the government in Ireland.”
“The taoiseach’s visit just shows that everyone wants to keep the tradition of Gaelic sports alive around the world,” said Slattery.
Cowen stopped by at one of the drill camps to speak with summer student Siobhan MacCourt, 20, who was recruited for the week to teach the children football skills.
As she ran them through their paces, Cowen had a few friendly words with MacCourt about her time in New York and gave her words of encouragement.
MacCourt, a student at Maynooth College, is in New York playing football for the summer with the Fermanagh team.
“I didn’t expect him (taoiseach) to come and speak with me so it was a surprise but a nice surprise. He is very nice,” said MacCourt still a little red-faced after her encounter.
As Cowen left the park, the children went back to their drills and football games. One young man ran with some friends and under his breath he could be heard saying, “I think that Irishman would be a good goalkeeper, but he’s too old to play with us.”