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Pat Spillane: Big challenge to keep GAA clubs alive thousands of miles from Ireland

The volunteers who do this work are the unsung heroes of the GAA

Pat Spillane in Chicago

Pat SpillaneSunday World

I feel so privileged to have been a member of the GAA family all my life.

I had a wonderful playing career; made great friends and have cherished memories of those by gone days.

Then I embarked on a roller-coaster ride with the Sunday Games which lasted thirty years.

Better still I have penned a weekly column for the Sunday World since October 1991 and am very proud of having never missed an edition.

Every week I look forward to writing my piece and then seeing it in print on Sunday.

It has given me a unique platform to offer my views on a diverse range of topics.

Mind you, not everyone agrees with my views.

But as Oscar Wilde noted there is only one thing in life worst than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

But in recent years another GAA related activity has given me the greatest pleasure.

I have travelled all over the world as a guest of GAA clubs in places like Vancouver, New York, London, San Francisco, Boston, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.

Last week I added another city to the list: Chicago.

I was the guest of the Padraig Pearse’s GAA club in Chicago.

It was a momentous year for the club. On the thirtieth anniversary of their foundation they won both the Chicago and North American senior football titles – the latter for the first time.

Pat Spillane in Chicago

I’m fond of quoting Charlies Kickhams’ famous line about doing it for the ‘honour and glory of the little village.’

But that quote has become obsolete. The GAA is now a worldwide organisation.

It is a 21st century global village with clubs in overseas locations providing the glue that unites the Irish diaspora.

It is about people freely volunteering their time to ensure Gaelic games and Irish culture continue to be fostered outside Ireland

The challenge of keeping GAA clubs alive thousands of miles from Ireland is a big one.

The volunteers who do this work are the unsung heroes of the GAA.

Chicago is one of the GAA’s international crown jewels. It has its own stadium Gaelic Park complete with banqueting facilities.

It employs a full time coaching officer working under the auspices of Munster GAA. On the flight over I met Pat O’Shea, the former Kerry manager is the Head of Coaching in Munster GAA.

He was travelling there to oversee a seminar for GAA coaches from all over north America.

He was telling me about a significant growth in the number of GAA clubs been established in the US whose teams are made up entirely of players who have no connection with Ireland.

The US GAA finals were played in Chicago last August. There were competitions in every grade from senior down to junior C in football, hurling and camogie.

Clubs travelled from regions as diverse as Seattle and the Cayman Islands. It is one of these great stories we rarely hear about in Ireland.

Indeed, at the recent US GAA Convention a proposal was passed that US GAA enter a team in the All-Ireland junior club championships comprising only of American-born players.

2 September 2018; RTÉ Sunday Game presenter Michael Lyster, right, with panalists, from left, Colm O'Rourke, Joe Brolly and Pat Spillane ahead of Lyster's final Sunday Game broadcast prior to the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

This year’s senior football championship in Chicago was superb. I’m not writing this because I was over there last weekend. I actually watched a lot of the games as they were streamed live on Facebook.

Aside from the football co-commentators John Quinn and John Murphy are priceless. Be warned they’re not exactly PC but very amusing.

What made the football so fascinating was the presence of so many star players from Ireland.

What about this for a list of GAA Who’s Who.

Parnell’s had Connaire Mackin (Armagh), Rian O’Neill (Armagh), Barry O’Hagan (Down), Ryan Johnston (Down), Michael McKernan (Tyrone) and Conor Myler (Tyrone).

Wolfe Tones had Enda Smith (Roscommon), Cian McConville (Armagh), Sean Powter (Cork), Barry McHugh (Galway), Gary Mohan (Monaghan) and Stephen O’Hanlon (Monaghan)

John McBride’s were powered by a Mayo contingent including Enda Hession, Jack Carney, Eoghan McLaughlin, Matthew Ruane, Oisin Mullin, Fionn McDonagh and Paul Towey.

Incidentally the latter scored an incredible 1-17 in the Chicago semi-final which McBride’s lost to Parnell’s after extra time.

Ironically, Padraig Pearse’s had fewer big name imports than their rivals namely Daniel O’Mahony (Cork), Brian O’Donovan (Limerick) and ex-Monaghan star Dessie Mone.

They still came out on top which gave me a rare opportunity to quote Greek philosopher Aristotle at their function. As he wrote ‘the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.’

The format of the Chicago championship is interesting.

It is 13-a-side, but teams can only have five ‘imported’ players on the field at any one time.

Furthermore, the remaining eight must be based in the city and two of them must be American-born.

The Chicago championship was no different from the football championships in Boston, Philadelphia, New York or San Francisco in terms of the number of star home-based players involved.

This is another unforeseen consequence of the shortened inter-county season.

I foresee the GAA’s version of the Flight of the Earls turning into an avalanche with dozens more players boarding flights to the US within 48 hours of their team exiting the All-Ireland series.

The big plus for the players is that in most cases their US sojourn doesn’t impact on either their inter-county or club careers.

Take this summer, for example.

Paul Mannion played in Boston but returned to feature for Dublin champions Kilmacud Crokes before injury side lined him.

Chicago-based Rian O’Neill, Eoghan McLaughlin and Ryan Johnston return to win county championship medals with Crossmaglen Rangers, Westport and Kilcoo respectively.

Kerry’s Ronan Buckley was in Boston but later helped East Kerry win the county championship. Michael Quinlivan was in New York before returning to win a Tipperary championship medal with Clonmel Commercials while Ruairi Canavan had a glittering U-20 campaign with Tyrone; then played in Philadelphia before helping Errigal Ciaran win the Tyrone championship.

No wonder the players like the split season.

On a more serious note I couldn’t get the ‘sometimes the grass looks greener’ remark made by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar about young Irish people emigrating out of my head while in Chicago.

From what I saw and heard Leo is guilty of burying his head in the sand because we are again exporting some of our brightest and best. I met them in Chicago and heard their stories.

Graduates are fed up playing exorbitant rents in cities in Ireland while earning yellow pack wages. They know their chance of ever owning a house in Ireland are slim, so they are leaving.

I met dozens of them in Chicago. They now consider the Windy City their home. They are earning more money than they could in Ireland and the cost of living is cheaper.

They are not missing Ireland one bit and are in no rush to return. Ireland’s loss is the world’s gain.

Their warmth, vibrancy and youthfulness is what is driving GAA clubs abroad. And it makes me so proud that I am part of the same GAA family.

Mallow hosts the Munster junior and intermediate football finals this afternoon.

The presence of the GAA’s biggest box office star David Clifford is sure to boost not just the attendance but the number of punters who will fork out a tenner to watch the live streaming of the junior decider between Fossa and Kilmurry from Cork.

After the provincial semi-final he said he was beginning to feel tired which is hardly surprising as he has played 31 competitive games this reason.

And there is no rest in sight. In the probable event of Fossa qualifying for the All-Ireland series the semi-finals are scheduled for January 7/8 with the final a week later.

Meanwhile, Kerry begin the defence of the McGrath Cup on January 4 and the first round of fixtures in the 2023 Allianz League are scheduled are the last weekend in January.

The provincial and All-Ireland championship for junior and intermediate clubs have been a big success since their launch in the early 2000s.

However, they urgently need to be reformed as a structural defect has given Kerry clubs a huge advantage.

Let me explain. Whereas Fossa were victorious in a third-tier championship in Kerry Kilmurry won which is effectively a fourth-tier competition in Cork because there are two senior championships in the county – Premier and Senior A – involving 24 clubs.

Twelve clubs feature in the Cork Intermediate which essentially means that Kilmurry are the 37th best club team in the country.

In contrast Fossa are the 25th rated side in Kerry after the eight senior clubs and 16 intermediate teams. So, it will be a major surprise if Fossa don’t win.

The Intermediate is even more lop-sided. Though All-Ireland medallist Paul Murphy is absence Rathmore are unbackable favourites against Limerick side Na Piarsaigh. And here’s why.

Rathmore are the ninth ranked team in Kerry. In the semi-final they comfortably beat Kanturk the 25th ranked team in Cork.

Heaven help Na Piarsaigh. I watched most of their semi-final against Ballina from Tipperary. The standard was atrocious – the Limerick side won after a penalty shoot-out. I fear they face a hammering today.

And if you think I’m exaggerating look at the results.

Since the launch of the junior competition in 2001 only three non-Kerry clubs have won in Munster.

At intermediate level four non-Kerry club have triumphed since 2003 and the last non-Kerry winner was Clyda Rovers from Cork in 2013. I rest my case.


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