Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Putting the American in the North American Finals

The flavour of the North American finals is changing. What was once an annual gathering of Irish immigrants is gradually attracting many more natives. The first North American finals that I attended was 8 years ago here in Boston. The US still held an allure for many young Irish and the Celtic Tiger had still not quite reached adulthood. With the exception of some football teams playing on the fringes of junior level, the vast majority of players and spectators were from the old country. As for the Yanks swinging a hurl - there'd be more hope a Kilkenny man kicking a football. It was a given that an American would never swing a hurl in a competitive game - it was one of those things that you did not even question - or even imagine. The only hurls ever gripped by American hands were the ones sold to tourists as souvenirs. There was not much of an urgent need to attract the locals, and some of us might also have even felt that the games should by right be the preserve of "Irish" Irish. The following year I traveled to San Francisco, the only time I have visited the city and hopefully not the last, San Fran is a great spot. If you have never been there you should go and visit. When we got to the waterfront I could not believe that out there in the bay was Alcatraz Island. I had to shake myself into reality that I was really looking at a place that I had only ever seen in a movie about it as a child.

Back to the finals. San Fran in 2001 was practically all Irish from Ireland, not the "I'm Irish" variety. The Chicago Wolfe Tones won the senior football final and wrested the title from St. Brendans who had won it the previous year in Boston. The Tones or St. Brendans always put out a team that would scare the life out of many's a county team at home, and there was one junior hurling competiton with teams from Boston, Chicago, and San Fran only (nary an accent that was not Irish within shouting distance of those games), and while not that unusual, American accents were a distinct minority at the event in general never mind on the field of play or even assisting on the sidelines. I remember that there was a ladies junior side that went by the name of OC Roisin. The "OC" stood for Orange County in SoCal (Southern California). They seem to like using those kinds of abbreviations down there, "HB" for Huntington Beach, and you all know what LA stands for. Anyway, the ladies from the OC had a distinct look of soccer players about them, but they were fit and eager. "I wish they all could be California.......", I'd better stop there. If I remember correctly, they beat out our own Boston Shamrocks in the Ladies junior final. A week after flying back to Boston from San Fran the planes hit the twin towers and the pentagon. End of story.

Boston hosted the 2008 finals, and things have changed - a lot. Neither the Tones nor Brendans from Chicago made it, and Chicago's football team that did (Padraig Pearse) did not even make the final. The junior hurling winners were from Philadelphia and while I'm not sure whether any of the players were American Born, there were certainly plenty togged out on the line who were. The best game of the finals was the junior B quarter final between the New England Celtics and Charlotte (that place is in North Carolina by the way). The Celtics are 100% American Born players, and except for the coaches and supporters, no Irish accented players have ever featured in the side on the field of play. Charlotte did feature some players from Ireland, but they too have a plentiful American representation in the side. The game went into extra time and the final score was along the lines of 3-22 to 4-15. Not bad if you like up and down the field stuff and plenty of scoring - and the Americans like that kind of thing. To digress, many respectable sports loving Americans feel thatsoccer barely qualifies as a sport since the concept of a 0-0 draw to them after 90 minutes of play leaves them to wonder what the point of even having the game was. Physical, fast, a lot of scoring. Gaelic games have all 3 in abundance, the locals call that kind of thing sport. Charlotte went on to win the junior B title, while the Celtics have moved on to the Junior A level in the Boston division.

There are now Junior B and C grades of hurling, and the vast majority of these players are from the good ol' US of A. It seems that the seeds of hurling are being planted in the United States, and not necessarily by Irish immigrants, but by the Americans themselves. Milwaukee and St. Louis, hardly bastions of Irish immigrants, have two of the largest hurling clubs in the U.S., though they compete in the lower junior divisions. How long before they move up is anybody's guess, but if the interest holds and the game is passed on to kids to learn and hone their skills then it is fair to say the sky is the limit for the sport in this country. Two such teams that featured in the finals this year for the first time are under the umbrella of the Boston North East Division, the Barley House Wolves from Manchester, New Hampshire and the Portland Marauders from Maine. The Wolves are an interesting story. The club was founded three years ago by a group of National Guardsmen who had just completed a 12-month tour of Afghanistan. As an effort to hold the group who had served together, they formed a hurling club since many had the skills of ice hockey or lacrosse, so they felt that they had the basic skills and would all be at the same level for the new sport. Some of the servicemen went back to serve another tour and brought their hurls with them so as not to lose the skills that they had practiced. I had a conversation last year with one of the founding members and he mentioned a few things that make we wonder where we are headed. One was a desire to introduce the game to kids. There are also youth leagues running in New York, Boston, and elsewhere that are coaching hurling to American Born kids. Some of these kids who entered the leagues 8-10 years ago are beginning to join the local clubs and there are more than a few who have the shape of a good footballer.

As the games across North America begin to encompass more and more Americans, both football and hurling, it will be interesting to see where we end up a decade from now. The Men's senior football final in Denver 5 years ago featured a side from San Francisco that had a majority of American Born players. While they did not win, the fact that they made it there was a talking point. There are efforts being made by the divisions of the North American Board to promote the game to the youngsters, but there is also an interest beyond that from the natives in taking up the games. Last week Ireland beat Australia in an International game that is neither Aussie Rules nor Gaelic Football. It was an obvious source of pride and satisfaction to beat the Aussies. Someday will the Irish be trying to beat the Yanks, or the Yanks trying to beat the Irish, in International Gaelic Football - or Hurling - or both?

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