The Rockland GAA will celebrate its crowning achievement, the opening of its new clubhouse, with a weekend of events starting on July 7. Chris Clarke recently sat with a group of club founders and early supporters to get the story on how Rockland grew from small beginnings to a GAA powerhouse.
It’s about 3:30 p.m. on a recent weekend afternoon. The field of the Rockland Gaelic Athletic Association in Orangeburg basks in the afternoon sun and for the moment the only thing that makes a sound is the gentle rustling of nearby trees and the occasional buzz of a passing insect.
It’s not long before this seemingly perfect scene is sporadically interrupted by children’s laughter and screams. A group of under-8 boys descends upon the lower pitch just off and to the right of the Famine Memorial.
Co-manager Niall McKenna gives a few instructions as the kids chase the small sized O’Neill’s ball from one goal to the other. A curly haired boy picks up the ball and takes off. He’s pursued by another his own age and the two boys eventually fall to the ground.
It’s not long before their teammates join in and add to the pile up. The coaches tell them to get up and play on, but even they can’t help having a smile as the resilient kids carry on as if nothing has happened. The lower field is packed.
Jimmy O’Flynn stands next to one of the smaller goals as his side attempts a practice match. He tries to track down some wayward footballs as the kids try and take their scores like their heroes 3,000 miles away in Croke Park.
On the full length upper field, way over in the opposite corner, the Rockland under-8 hurling side whack a soft sliotar back and forth. It’s one of six hurling teams Rockland have from under-8 to men’s Junior A. For lack of a better term, it is organized chaos as the kids practice the different techniques from picking up the sliotar properly to balancing it on the end of their hurley.
Beyond the blades of grass they occupy, nearly oblivious to its existence, the newly built Rockland GAA Clubhouse sits at the end of the pitch. A beautiful, inviting building oversees the activity in front of it.
When Enniscrone, Co. Sligo native John Crawley first organized a bunch of local boys to line out for Rockland in 1972, little did he know how far the club he founded would grow.
“I was at a feis in Yonkers,” Crawley tells the Irish Voice in front of a group of other Rockland GAA members at a roundtable of sorts inside the new Rockland GAA Clubhouse. “I just began to think that there was no reason why Gaelic games wouldn’t work in Rockland.”
For Crawley, not only has Gaelic Games worked in Rockland, it has thrived. Rockland has nearly 400 kids involved in 15 different teams including football, hurling, and camogie.
With 65 active coaches, Rockland is hoping to add another 20 thanks to the completion of the foundation coaching course through coaching development officer Owen Mooney. In addition to their underage teams, Rockland is looking forward to hosting its annual summer camp for which an additional 150 kids are already registered.
From the original seed planted by Crawley 45 years ago, Rockland GAA has grown into one of the most successful clubs worldwide. Sitting alongside fellow Rockland members Tommy Fennell, Paul Rowley, Emmet Woods, Phil Traynor and current chairman Marty McKenna, Crawley speaks candidly of the humble beginnings of the Rockland GAA.
“I remember Jack Brady bringing two 2x4s for goal posts so we could practice and play games behind the vacant old school grounds off of Lincoln Avenue,” he recalls. John Crawley still has a glint in his eye for the club he founded. The memories fondly come back as he tells one story after another. “Through Paddy Markem (who was involved at the time with St. Barnabas) we set up our first game. On our way down to the Bronx I realized we didn’t have any sweaters to play in. I stopped off at an Army/Navy Store and bought a bunch of green and white shirts.”
To this day, green and white are the primary colors of the Rockland GAA. Crawley mentions the same phrase as if to ring it home from those infant years of the club – the togetherness of the people.
“The camaraderie between the players and most of the parents was amazing to watch unfold. The community really came together to help preserve what we were trying to do,” he said. It’s one of the constant themes of the Rockland GAA as they have watched themselves grow from an idea to a reality which will be shared with everyone when the clubhouse officially opens on the weekend of July 7 with an array of games, live entertainment and other celebrations. For ticket information and a full schedule of events, visit www.rocklandgaa.com.
It’s been quite the journey for the Rockland GAA since those first years as they have implemented several stages to build up their club.
In 2000, the club became the first Gaelic Athletic Association outside of Ireland to purchase its own field. Located across the street from the Rockland Psychiatric Center on Old Orangeburg Road in Orangeburg, Rockland GAA purchased from the state the land they had been using since 1978.
In what has become one of the most memorable moments of TG4’s documentary GAA USA, Emmett Woods told host Dara Ó Cinnéide how the club got the loan for the field. “
We went to the banks and we got 20 families to put up their houses. Twenty people signed the dotted line. I’d say out of those 20 people, most never told their wives, including myself. I never told my wife, I don’t even know if she knows now, this might the first time she’s ever heard that,” he said.
It’s one of the most compelling clips about the GAA worldwide – that a group of strangers from different backgrounds could come together to ensure the future of Gaelic games and the Irish culture.
From then it has been all systems go for the men and women of the Rockland GAA. Putting into motion what they hoped would be the first of many phases in the continued development of the club, the chairman of the club at the time was Tommy Fennell. An NYPD detective born and raised in the Bronx, Fennell had very little background in Irish culture.
“My sons had played soccer in school and their friends started playing this sport I had never heard of,” he recalled. Since retired from the force, Fennell talks about how special it was for him to get his kids involved at a young age.
“I had some of the best experiences of my life here. I was with my family. I watched my kids grow up in this club. I watched my son Brendan last week play in an exciting Intermediate semifinal in which they won right here in Rockland. It doesn’t get much better than that as a father.”
Speaking of his growing involvement with the club, Fennell looks across at Rowley and Woods. “These guys started to come into the club after they moved up here from the city, and they were part of a group of guys that the club were very fortunate and gifted to get. What they have done and what they continue to accomplish is extraordinary.”
Speaking of their passion for the GAA, Fennell says, “I saw they loved not just the game, but the whole thing – they were in pursuit to preserve.” In 2000, Fennell was made chairman of the Rockland GAA. “They put me forward to become president of the club. That’s when we really started being aggressive with trying to grow the club among American-born parents.”
Fennell and Rowley also talk about how the club started to be aggressive about fundraising. “We raised over $184,000 in one year thanks to our journal and dinner dance. A far way to come since John Crawley held his self dubbed ‘Crawley Specials’ nearly three decades earlier in which the club pulled in $2,089 during a dinner dance,” said Fennell.
Crawley laughs when he tells the group that back then it was a “bring your own alcohol” event. Fennell still remembers when they started to really think about purchasing the field. “When these guys first came to the meeting about buying the field across from the psych center, I thought they were crazy. We all did. But they came with a plan, they came into that meeting with the plans that said we are going to do this,” he said. “The enthusiasm after that was massive. When we held our dinner dance and made all that money, that’s when I realized these guys were serious.”
When Rowley first moved to Rockland in 1991, he was still involved with the Longford Gaelic Football Club based in New York City.
“I knew Kevin Lennon from home who was heavily involved in Rockland. His mother used to always have our home club’s jerseys on the line after washing them. When Killoe [Co. Longford] came out here in 1997 I wanted them to play the Longford club, but through Kevin, they had already planned to play Rockland,” Rowley says.
“It was a tough, tough game with a lot of rows and at the end there was a massive brawl. It was one of the worst I had ever seen and some players landed in hospital. I really had a bad taste in my mouth about the Rockland club after that.”
However, Rowley says one man changed his mind and opened up his eyes to what kind of people were involved in the Rockland GAA. “It was an ugly scene and there was no after party for either club. Terry Greenan was very disappointed at what happened and a few days later we had a dance on in the Tower View in Queens and Terry came down to represent Rockland and to apologize. He had been very disappointed with had transpired during the match,” Rowley says.
“It was a tough position for him, but that was him – the ever quintessential Terry Greenan. Level headed, knew when to speak and when not to. I had sworn to myself when I left Paddy’s Field that night after that brawl, I would have no association with Rockland again.”
Rowley looks up from the table and looks at his peers all around him. He throws on a smirk after his heavy tale and says, “Who would’ve thought I’d ever end up being the chairman of the club?”
Rowley eventually transferred to Rockland, and praised Woods for constantly pushing him to do so. “I knew it was the right thing to do. This was my parish. This is where I was going to raise kids, this is where I was going to grow up,” Rowley says.
He talks about the easiness and openness he felt when he started to get involved off the pitch with Rockland. “I watched Terry, Tommy, and Kevin and their frankness and solidarity. There were never issues within this club,” he said. Rowley looks up and nods his head toward Fennell. “It came from you guys and it came from you, Tommy Fennell. I’m not saying it to patronize him, but he led with the guidance that there was only one concern – the club and the kids -- and he never strayed from that. He never showed ego in the years he chaired this club.
“I knew Fennell wasn’t a GAA man, but it was unadulterated because he never pretended. He never pretended he knew anything about this game. He always told the truth about how he came into the game. That’s why I had so much respect for Mr. Fennell -- because he plowed forward without distraction and with great integrity for a game, the intricate parts he didn’t know a lot about.
“I had been part of clubs where every time they had a meeting, there was a fight. Chairs thrown, people hating each other type of fights. I then came into the Rockland club where it was the opposite and it really impressed me and I thought to myself, ‘I want a part of this, I want to be a piece in this.” SITTING at one corner of the table is Phil Traynor. He has seen four of his kids come through the Rockland GAA, including his daughter Courtney.
“I was living up in Stony Point and I got a call one day from Paul Rowley. I knew Paul through the Longford club and he said if my son Ryan wanted to learn football, there was a team down here for him to play on,” Traynor recalled.
Ryan played in two games and then Rockland won the under-8 championship. At the time, Courtney had no interest in playing football. “A few years later when she was 12, Rockland were playing at St. Joseph’s in Jersey and for some reason we didn’t have enough players. Ciaran Lee was the manager at the time and he came over and asked if Courtney would line out for them. I said that she’s never kicked a ball in her life,” Traynor remembered.
“I turned round to my daughter and said, ‘Courtney, would you go out and play?’ She was standing alongside my mother who was out from Ireland at the time and she said, ‘No daddy, please don’t make me.’ “So Ciaran said to me that he just needed her to stand on the field so the referee could start the game. She ended up lining out and she took off after that. We went to every CYC along with my other kids. I started to get involved – going to meetings, helping with the development of the fields, development of the clubhouse, helping out all the different teams my four children played on through the years.”
Having seen his kids come through the club, Traynor can’t help but thank those in Rockland who came before him. “Those guys were the foundation. All we did was come into this club and only moved it on another step, but you guys started it. We bought the field. We redeveloped the field – put in an irrigation system, flood lights, bleachers, a score board. We weren’t afraid to spend money. The greatest thing I got out of this club was my children.”
Traynor tells the group one of his proudest moments as a father. “I saw my daughter playing in Croke Park, at 16 and a half against 25 year olds. Three years ago, she was 20. New York was playing Wexford and they were ahead by three points,” he says.
“My daughter stepped up and got a goal – tied it up. Wexford went the other way and scored a point. Broke my heart – she was one point away from getting an All-Ireland medal.”
For many of the members of the Rockland club, it’s passion that drives them on to continue to make their club bigger and better. But Traynor says it’s more than that for him, “I love coming over to the field and now the new clubhouse. I enjoy everyone’s company. I love arguing and busting Woodsie’s chops, and when he was in the hospital last year with his knee operations I would go down and visit him and keep him company,” he says.
“There is a great bunch of people involved in this club. They aren’t afraid to put their hand in their pockets for raffl es or for a journal ad, and for other fundraisers we might have. I don’t golf, I don’t rally cars like Paul Rowley -- this is my hobby. I can sit at the gate all day Saturday and Sunday collecting the money and talk to everyone coming in. Why? Because I love this club. I want to leave my legacy in this building. I want my children and grandchildren to see my legacy in this building.
“My youngest daughter is going home with the New York Feile. I’ll be going home with her and it’ll be extra special because they’ll be in my home county of Monaghan and she’ll be playing 10-15 miles away from where I was born and raised. And as her father standing along the sideline, I’ll be watching her play full forward - that’ll mean so much to me.”
Traynor looks up at those around him. He says to the group that he’s done telling his story. His vulnerability has caught up with him as he has possibly shown a side not many have seen. But he takes a deep breath as if he has one more thing to say. He sits up in his chair and faces his body to his right where John Crawley sits.
The founding father of the Rockland GAA has sat for the past two hours or so listening to the stories that have carried his club to where it is now.
Traynor turns to him and says, “Thank you John. For what you done back in 1972, it couldn’t have been easy. You had the dream. You knew when you saw those kids playing on the side of a hill by Yonkers racetrack that there was something there for Rockland to get involved in. None of us would be here right now if it wasn’t for you.
“To you and Tommy, we owe a lot of gratitude – what you did for this club when there was nothing around. You were the foundation.”