Easter week produced a surprise that caught many of its neighbors off-guard despite plans in place for years — the banquet hall of Gaelic Park, the epicenter of Irish culture in New York for more than 90 years, was demolished.
In its place, the New York Gaelic Athletic Association plans to build an updated facility for a new generation of traditional Irish sports fans.
The building, dating back to the late 1930s, was in dire need of renovation, association chairman Laurence McGrath said.
“There was always a place there that was a bar and banquet room for functions like weddings and such,” McGrath said. “And it has been there for a long time. So we could repair and keep repairing, but we decided it was time we put in a new building.”
Construction won’t disrupt any games, McGrath said. The association expects up to 6,000 people at the May 5 opening day of the All Ireland senior football championship game between New York and the team from County Mayo, Ireland.
The building and field, was first leased by the association, and then later by John Kerry O’Donnell and his family, who ran the bar and banquet hall for decades. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority owns the property and leased the field itself to Manhattan College in 1991.
It’s the home of many of the school’s sports teams, including baseball, softball, soccer and lacrosse.
The O’Donnell family lost the separate building lease in 2011.
Last year, the MTA awarded the athletic association a lease for the property under the buildings. At the same time, the association received permission to replace the dilapidated buildings within the footprint of the original, Gaelic Park development committee member Larry McCarthy said.
“Essentially we’re replacing the building,” he said. “We’re putting in changing rooms for our teams, a room for our referees, a medical room, a dining room, a bar, put in some offices into the place. And it will be two stories onto the street, and it’ll be a single story into Gaelic Park. That’s it in a nutshell.”
It’s difficult to overstate Gaelic Park’s importance to the generations of Irish immigrants that left the poverty and political troubles of their homeland. Far from the cozy villages and impossibly green landscapes of home, New York was a cold, concrete jungle of unfamiliar accents and customs.
“It has been a place for meeting people,” McCarthy said. “It’s been the center of people looking for employment. It’s been a home from home for more than 90 years.”
Whether they hailed from Wexford or Galway, Irish immigrants found each other, coalescing around homesickness and a shared love of sports. A group of teenage boys invariably started a game of Irish football, or hurling — a game Americans might mistake for lacrosse, but one that pushes the limits of the human body and the laws of physics.
Pick-up games grew into serious teams. The athletic association formed in 1914, and held its first championships the following year. Teams played all over the city, but a particularly popular Bronx spot opened in 1928. Later dubbed Gaelic Park in the 1950s, Innisfail Park drew masses of Irish immigrants and Irish Americans longing for a reminder of their home across the ocean.
New York teams playing at Gaelic Park grew to world-class quality, rivaling the best players back in Ireland. Teams traveled back and forth to play international championships.
Generations of Irish Americans living in the city either achieved their greatest moments playing on Gaelic Field, or they watched awestruck from the sidelines.
“Young men and women gathered there on Sunday. Many, many of them,” McCarthy said. “Lots of people met spouses there over the years. I’m talking about during the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. That was obviously before social media took over and Tinder arrived.
“But (Gaelic Field) is a huge part of the culture of the Irish in New York, and has been for many, many, many years. Which is why we want to renovate it and do it up and make it better again.”
Rebuilding will cost about $5.5 million. The Gaelic Athletic Association — the Ireland-based parent organization — has pledged $2 million, McCarthy said. The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has committed another $1 million.
“So we have to raise $2.5 million here in New York,” McCarthy said. “We raised a half-million between September and December of 2018, and now we have to go find another $2 million somewhere.”
A fundraising event last December at Manhattan Irish restaurant Rosie O’Grady’s raised $500,000 in one evening, which was a huge boon to the association, McGrath said.
Planners hope to raise the rest through corporate donations. The goal is to have everything complete by next March.
The new building also will house the association’s offices, which are now located in Yonkers. Having staff members closer to the field will streamline the association’s outreach efforts.
“We have two games development officers whose role is to go out and make Gaelic sport popular among Irish American kids,” McCarthy said. “And they need that, especially around the New York area. They work in schools and they work in existing clubs and organize events for them.”
An updated, modernized building will be a great gift to a community that continues to value its Irish heritage, organizers say.
“And that’s why it’s still alive here,” McGrath said. “Nobody get’s paid to do this. We do it because we love it.”