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Children welcome President McAleese at the opening of the youth field at Pairc na Ngael.

Gaelic games have new future in San Francisco

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Children welcome President McAleese at the opening of the youth field at Pairc na Ngael.

Hard times are falling on communities across the country, and even in the affluent San Francisco area, belts are tightening and the economy is in decline. But on a recent December afternoon, on an island in the middle of the Bay, on a plot of land surrounded by cracked concrete and crumbling buildings, a lively celebration was gearing up, one that defied the growing gloom all around."

By the day's end, Ireland's 2007 and 2008 Gaelic football All-Stars had faced off against each other in front of over 2,000 fans, and San Francisco's Gaelic Athletic Association (SFGAA) had formally opened three new world-class fields, named a Pairc na nGael.

Players and fans of Gaelic football and hurling are ecstatic. Before the park materialized, they had never had their own base. They were "wandering aimlessly," with "no real homes . . . a rudderless ship," according to Pat Uniacke, President of the SFGAA Treasure Island Board of Directors.

In just eight months, workers and volunteers turned unused land owned by the U.S. Navy into high-quality pitches, where players can now pass a football or strike a sliotar without tripping in a gopher hole or having to surrender the pitch to other sports. But the new fields on Treasure Island go far beyond sport in their significance to the Bay Area and the Irish-American community. The second phase of the project involves a 25,000-square-foot community center and clubhouse, and will be open to any organization that wishes to use it. The space will host feiseanna, banquets, conferences, and the like and serve as a center where people can gather to socialize and celebrate - a physical hub in an increasingly virtual society.

This new foothold for Gaelic games is also a link between families and across decades. Irish President Mary McAleese praised this aspect when she appeared later the same week at the opening ceremony for Pairc na nOg, the new youth field that is part of the same project. In front of children from 25 area schools dressed in brightly colored football jerseys, McAleese recalled the largely Irish immigrants who came to San Francisco in the 1850s "with so little - but they still had the love of their games. And here we are a century and a half later, in very different times, honoring their memory. To the Irish-American families and the dignitaries, fans, players, and volunteers who attended the opening ceremonies that week, the new GAA center is more than just well-kept grass for games and competition. It's a knot joining America back to Ireland, and the Irish-American past to its unwritten future - a knot that's being tied and tightened even as you read.

A Long Time Coming

Work was finished on the fields less than a year after the lease was signed, but in a sense they were 155 years in the making. Ever since Irish immigrants played Gaelic games in San Francisco as far back as 1853, they've never had fields of their own.

In the decades since, participation levels have waxed and waned, largely in relation to the economy here or in Ireland and to the resulting immigration rates. But the sports and the culture have always lived on, in one way or another. McAleese likened it to a baton handed on from generation to generation. That baton has never been dropped, but now - with a home base - Gaelic games are much better positioned to grow.

As is the culture at large. John O'Flynn, another key SFGAA board member and chair of the Irish Football Youth League, sees Gaelic games as "a very important cog in the wheel in promoting Irish-American culture." The games get people together who might not know each other, and those connections last throughout life.

Ray O'Flaherty, a native of County Offaly and owner of a popular Irish pub an hour's drive south in San Jose, considers the games as an important cultural link to bygone days. "It keeps us living with the past, with stuff we all did when we were young people . . . it's the preservation of our traditions."

Indeed, the desire to preserve Irish culture and pastimes inspired the very creation of the GAA back in 1884 in Thurles, County Tipperary. At the time, hurling and other Gaelic games seemed threatened by British rule and the general dilution of Irish language and identity.

Those threats seem distant now, but other things challenge the growth of Gaelic games in the U.S. today: the periodic declines in Irish immigration and competition for the youths from other sports, like soccer. Supporters of the games see Pairc na nGael as a counterforce to those factors, and a unique opportunity to build community. The games also link Irish Americans to their Hibernian roots in another, more direct way. Many of the youths know little of Gaelic culture or of Ireland itself. But every two years or so the GAA raises money to send some of the underage teams back to Ireland to take part in the FZile na nGael, a tournament for youths.

"It's a process of acculturation," says Liam Reidy of the SFGAA, "to take them home to Ireland where a lot of their parents and grandparents were born and raised." For many, it's their first real exposure to Ireland beyond family stories and a Gaelic surname. So what may seem to some like merely sport or competition is in fact a link to the past and a gateway to Ireland.

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