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Irish sporting legends take to New York stage to tell remarkable stories

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Henry Shefflin & Ger Brennan in Times Square on Thursday (Photo Credit: Sean McPhail)
I had the pleasure of hosting a couple of Irish sporting legends last night at the New York Athletic Club in New York.

They were called Sam Maguire and Liam McCarthy and neither of them spoke a word.

That is despite that fact they are, arguably, the two most famous sporting figures in Ireland.

Every year thousands dream of Sam and Liam, people vie and will almost die to get their hands on them.

Even the Queen met them on her recent visit to Ireland.

Women will scream and breakdown when they are spurned.

Grown men will cry bitter tears.

In recent years Liam has pretty much taken up residence in Kilkenny, a source of great annoyance to other Irish counties, especially those in neighboring Tipperary, who managed to snatch him away in 2010 for a while.

Sam is more of a flirt, showing up quite often in Kerry but taking a fancy to Dublin this year.

His re-appearance there after a lapse of 16 years brought the capitol city to a halt and thousands hailed him as the long-lost savior.

40,000 showed up in Merrion Square in Dublin to see him.

Meanwhile Liam drew 25,000 in Kilkenny

Sam and Liam of course are the Sam Maguire cup and Liam McCarthy cup which are given to the winners of the football and hurling all Irelands respectively.

They are more famous in Ireland than the Vince Lombardi trophy is here.

I was invited to meet them by the Gaelic Players Association, who are seeking to bring the extraordinary story of the amateur athletes who vie for those trophies from every county in Ireland to Americans.

In an age when Manchester City soccer star Carlos Tevez refuses to play even with a $47 million dollar contract, the best athletes in Ireland, playing the most beloved games there of hurling and football, are complete amateurs.

Two of them came attached to the cups last night, Ger Brennan of the Dublin team which won this year's football All Ireland and the legendary Henry Shefflin of Kilkenny whose hurling team hoisted the Liam McCarthy cup as All Ireland hurling champions.

Listening to the incredible commitment of these amateur players, 12 months a year, to the games they love was a humbling experience.

There are no NBA style lock outs, no star players demanding new contracts. Each player gets about $1,000 a year in expenses and goes back to his regular job once the cheering has stopped.

In every town and parish in Ireland the GAA is an incredibly unifying force.

In an Ireland where institutions such as church and state have almost fallen apart in recent years, the GAA has stood firm.

It is a vital force, giving hundreds of thousands of young kids, male and female, a place to go, to become part of a team, to share community values.

At a time when emigration is rampant many of those same young Irish will first connect with a new community in America or Australia or Britain through that same GAA which has a worldwide reach.

The GPA association heads, Cork hurler Donal Og Cusack and former Dublin footballer Dessie Farrell were on hand to talk about the vital urgency of what they are doing through grassroots organizations all over Ireland.

They nurture the sports and, even more importantly, provide a solid community base for so many young Irish people.

As American Ireland Fund CEO Kieran Mcloughlin pointed out suicide is the number one killer of young Irish people these days -- a shocking statistic.

It is organizations like the GPA which can help stem that tide by getting kids all over Ireland involved in team sports and creating a support network for them.

The 200 or so Irish Americans on hand were certainly taken with the message-- an amateur sport in a professional world that is not just surviving but thriving and which is giving back in spades to the Irish people.

There are many things wrong in Ireland but the GAA and the Gaelic Players Association are vital unifying forces at a critical time,

For more information go to http://gaelicplayers.com/

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