Staring at a waterlogged Breezy Point pitch that looked more like a swimming pool on the morning of the Breezy Gaelic Sports Team Building Day last Saturday was worrying to say the least.
The storm-shattered community needed a day of fun to escape the stress of the past months, and the day had been planned for months in aid of Breezy Point Disaster Relief Fund and the Gaelic Players Association Education Program.
Despite the stress of dealing with a waterlogged pitch at six in the morning and a dislocated shoulder later in the day, that’s exactly what the people of Breezy Point in the Rockaways got.
The inches of rain that had fallen ceaselessly for a day and night beforehand could well have put a dampener on the day, but with organizers like Irish Deputy Consul General Peter Ryan and his wife Theresa, the matter was handled in no time. Water was pumped off the pitch in time for crowds with a passion for Gaelic football to arrive.
Irish J-1 visa students came to see what was happening, Irish Americans came to support friends who had been badly affected by Hurricane Sandy last October, and locals came to feel their community knit back together beneath the fun and competition of Gaelic games, the beat of loud music, the sweetness of baked goods and the hearty taste of barbequed food.
“I have friends who live here so it’s good to come and support them,” said Irish American Brendan Loud.
“It’s a great cause,” his friend Tim Spellman agreed.
Both looked forward to learning some tricks of the trade from the Irish GAA all-stars who traveled for the event, including Kevin Cassidy, Eamon O’Hara, Barry Cahill and Dessie Farrell. As the footballers, both novice and experienced, headed outside the Point Breeze clubhouse to warm up and ready themselves for the day ahead, there was an air of anticipation for what was to come, the hope of good weather and determination to have some fun.
Every person at the event also held a strong thread of awareness leading back to the image of this community as it had been and was now.
“It’s all about fun and enjoyment,” said all-star Eamon O’Hara from Sligo.
“We’re just trying to pass on our tradition of Gaelic football and the basic skills and just having a bit of fun with it, but really there’s a bigger picture out there.”
The destruction of Hurricane Sandy was such that it brought members of the Gaelic Players Association (GPA) back to New York again and again to help those whose lives had been devastated.
Donegal all-star Kevin Cassidy was familiar with the stories of grief and horror from those colleagues who had come before him to help with the rebuilding effort.
“It’s just fantastic to get the chance to come here and meet the locals and do anything at all to help them,” he said.
The man behind the GPA’s work at Breezy Point, CEO Dessie Farrell, said that the devastation left behind after Hurricane Sandy had had a big impact on both him and his players, ensuring their return to the wounded community on several occasions.
“The whole idea was to get the CYO program back up and running because it’s so important to the kids and we’ve all benefited from our experience of sport throughout the years,” said Farrell.
“It was probably going to be forgotten or put way down on the list of priorities, so we said we’d just try and get that moving again. Today was a follow on from that.”
Praising the actions of the GPA in helping to rebuild the community, head of the CYO Tony Burti, said, “Since the beginning, when the storm hit us, the GPA have helped us rebuild this place. We had a gym that held CYO basketball games and it was totally destroyed. They came and they got us back into shape and today we’re having a great fundraiser.
“It’s the first real fun day that we’ve had in Breezy Point since the storm hit. We’ve been stressed with getting our houses back. Most of us are not back. I just got back last week.”
The next generation of Gaelic footballers looked to be already practicing their moves as little legs would try to follow the example of the more sure-footed adults as soon as a space cleared on the pitch.
“What’s really encouraging is that the Breezy kids never knew what Gaelic was,” said Tim Devlin, a Breezy Point based organizer.
“I would say there’s a very small percentage of them that would, but after today if you look behind you right now, look at the goals, they’re all kicking balls in. I think what’s going to happen from here is that we are going to form a Gaelic club in the Rockaways. It baffles me why there never was one, but we are now going to form one and get it up and running.”
The 20 sponsored teams on Saturday battled it out on the Breezy Point and Roxbury pitches for the Breezy Cup, which would be won by the less experienced players, and the Irish American Cup, which would go to those more experienced.
When the games took off so did the atmosphere, and between the beats of pop music and Irish classics, the new players grew in confidence and the more experienced showed them how it was done.
“We were amazed how some of them took to it,” said Farrell. “There was a team entered from Breezy Point here and they really took to it, and we were surprised how capable they were.
“And that might kick start something, a GAA team in the Rockaways area. So if that happened it would be fantastic.”
American Rob Sheeley of the Manhattan Gaels football club encouraged those new to the sport to be persistent. He recalled how he ventured into the unknown with Gaelic football and went from playing sports like basketball, baseball and soccer to a game that was counter-intuitive to everything he knew. But it only took one training session to get him hooked on the Irish sport.
“Today was an excellent experience. People got together to really make a difference,” he said.
“To be able to just do anything is great, and to be around the people who are willing to set it up and organize it is encouraging and inspiring. It’s great to be a part of it all.”
At around 4 p.m., the winners were escorted to the stage by the Breezy Point Catholic Club Pipe and Drum Band to receive their well-earned cups. Of the 20 teams who had competed, it was the NYPD Gaelic Football Club team and the Breezy Gaels team that won the day with the Breezy Cup and the Irish American Cup respectively.
Peter McCormack, NYPD Gaelic Football Club president, originally from Ballybofey in Co. Donegal, was delighted for his team’s win and the opportunity to partake in the cause.
“We were invited out here today to participate in the Breezy Point recovery efforts and we’re delighted to be here to help the residents recover and raise money,” he said.
The NYPD team will also travel to Ireland in October to play an international tour in Croke Park, and will continue to give back to the Irish community when they visit McCormack’s hometown of Ballybofey to play members of the GPA and All-Ireland champions in a charity game.
Saturday was a great success all around, drawing the community in with open arms and letting everyone go only when as much fun as possible had been squeezed from the day.
Children took advantage of bouncing castles and played their own sports while the adults took advantage of good food, played Gaelic football with tireless energy or cheered enthusiastically from the sidelines.
“It was great to see everybody here and raise a few bob in the process as well. The Irish American community have been very good and have given a lot of sponsorship and donations as well, so all told it was a great success,” Farrell said.
The sun shone down on the people of Breezy Point on Saturday in a day of fun and team spirit that celebrated the tough times behind them, brought hope for better days ahead and garnered a team spirit for any obstacles they may face in the future.