It’s raining. No, scratch that -- it’s pouring. Heavy drops thud off the surrounding area like artillery fire in a World War II movie. One end of Gaelic Park is hardly noticeable through the thick curtain of water falling from the sky.
It’s cold, it’s miserable and, for Barry Walsh and his selectors Owen McSweeney and Eamon Devlin, it’s perfect. The trio has the task of leading New York’s college-attending young men back to Dublin for the Higher Education Tournament. They leave for Ireland on Wednesday for the five-day trip.
“This is the first year New York is competing in this particular tournament,” Walsh told IrishCentral's sister publication the Irish Voice.
“We started to get together in November with 28-30 players. Some had to drop out due to injuries, but we have 24 players looking to travel with us now on Wednesday and we start the competition on Friday at the St. Vincent’s Club in Dublin.”
New York has competed in college tournaments in the past, but this is the first time they will be competing on Irish soil against Irish teams. “
This is a great moment in New York GAA history,” selector Owen McSweeney adds. “This is an historic moment for New York. We’ve all been involved at the club level that’s been a great base for us to put this side together. Eight New York Minor Board clubs are represented on this team and since November we’ve had great turnouts for training in the harsh conditions like single digits cold and snow; today it’s raining.
“Thank God it’s a raining day because this could most certainly be our welcome to Ireland, and this allows us to see the boys perform under these conditions. We know the Americans are going to lack a few little things here and there but they aren’t lacking character and they certainly aren’t lacking passion.”
Devlin is the third member of the managerial staff and hopes a team like this can push some of these young men to compete at higher levels here in New York.
“I’ve played out here at senior level with Tyrone back in the eighties and I’ve always noticed the lack of Irish American-born playing the game at senior level. This team here might be the step in the right direction, to close that gap between under-16 to under-21 and then to senior level.”
As the raindrops get heavier around Gaelic Park, Walsh praises what he calls perfect weather.
“We have friends and sources on the ground back in Dublin and it is suppose to rain out of the heavens on Thursday and Friday. We couldn’t ask for better weather than what we’re seeing today. The weather has been so bad back in Ireland that they have already moved the venue of the games to the St. Vincent’s club in Dublin.”
The New York team will be lead by captains Shane Slattery and Eddie Hogan who both relish the idea of leading a New York side back to Dublin.
“This is very exciting for us considering this is the first ever New York team to head back to Ireland for a tournament like this,” Slattery told the Irish Voice.
“It’s a real honor but I also think we have something to prove. We want to show that players born in America can play this game at high levels and we hope this team can show that.”
“All in all its been easy to gel with one another,” co-captain Hogan added. “Considering we have so many different New York clubs represented on this team, we have either played with or against each other at either Feile or at the under-16, 18, and higher levels.”
Jimmy Linnane, as well as others on the squad, has been involved in past college teams to compete in England, and he says it’s smooth transitioning into this team.
“The first week or two was always going to be that feeling out process, but after that I think once we got a couple of training sessions where we were playing together, it’s come together nicely here and we’re excited to get this trip underway,” Linnane said.
During the run-up to the 2017, New York GAA elections last December, the promotion of Irish Americans playing the game became a highly talked about issue. Slattery hopes a team of this quality can show other clubs around New York what Irish-American players can accomplish.
“I think it’s a very important issue for our game here in America. I think teams like this where we can represent New York and travel to play competitive games is very important,” Slattery said.
“Not only does it give players a great way to improve as we’ve trained all winter, but I think it gives younger American-born players something to look up to.”
Most players and managerial staff have played at tournaments at either Feile, CYC, or Minor Board level, but all agree that the mindset stays the same when representing New York.
“It’s business as usual for us. Anytime you have the chance to represent New York, we go in with the same mindset – train hard and come back with a cup,” Slattery said.
Walsh agrees with his captain, saying, “A lot of the lads have been playing since they were eight years old. They have played together and against each other for most of that time so they know each other well. They get on great with each other, they know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and now in this world of social media these kids are a lot more closer than, say, 10-12 years ago where if you were walking down McLean Avenue with a different kind of jersey, you might have a bit of a problem.
“But that is the grassroots here and only for that and its supporters are we able to put this team together. I believe the GAA in New York could do even more for the American-born player as far as the structure and the influence of good GAA men in this area.
“We’re lucky enough to have two great selectors in Owen and Eamon. Eamon played for Tyrone at home and only for immigration would’ve won an All-Ireland medal. There is great experience on the ground here in New York and I think we should have more people like Eamon get involved at the grassroots level and help mold American-born players into great Gaelic footballers.”