For generations, Irish immigrants were coming to Gaelic Park, the Bronx, to play all types of sports. Gaelic Park is a relatively small, bur cozy 2,000-seats stadium that sits at 240th Street and Broadway in Riverdale, the Bronx.
Gaelic Park has always much more than merely a sports field. This is the place where the Irish of New York City went to meet their potential spouses, to make connections, to talk to their old country friends or to make new ones.
It all started in the early 1920’s when Irish players ferociously battles their Gaelic football matches, a sort of blend rugby and soccer, and Hurling, a typical Irish sport that contains elements of lacrosse, field hockey, and baseball. This all was happening right in the middle of the American alien landscape of concrete, but for the Irish, Gaelic Park was a bit of haven.
In earlier days, this place was bustling with activity. There were many teams here, so many players, but they have removed all those things, and where at one day rickety wooden stands were teetering toward the skies, there are now only a few scattered picnic tables. The Irish bands and the beer sellers have long been absent….
The status of Irish immigrants in the New York area even went so far that in the early 1980’s, the Gaelic Athletic Association (an Ireland-based official organization that administrates Hurling and Gaelic Football) recognized the U.S. region as an official Irish ‘county’, though by that time, the big waves of immigrants from Ireland had long passed.
But during the 1990’s, New York’s Irish population fell from some 400,000 to around 300,000, as many Irish were returning home as the Irish economy had pretty much gotten on the right track.
Gaelic Park has also been feeling the negative impact. The number of Irish Hurling teams went down from nine to four, while the number of men’s Gaelic football teams was slashed from 32 to 27, and on the women’s side, the number Gaelic football teams went down from nine to five.
The clubs still are run by the same old guys as before, but there are no replacements available. No new blood. Crowds are also not like they were in the old days, the Irish identity is fading, older players have started their own families, and youth are more attracted to American sports options.
On top of that is the Irish immigrant of today not so dependent on the typical Irish-American social structure as before. These days, you can find lots of Irish people New York, Irish immigrants, who never have set a foot in Gaelic Park.
And that while Gaelic Park is momentarily in its best condition ever. A couple of years ago, a $3 million renovation was completed that included new night lightning and a brand new turf field, but other forces and influences took their toll.
Stricter immigration laws and tighter border security after the terrible 9/11 happenings have dramatically drained the park of spectators, clubs, and players, which further challenged the historic role of Gaelic Park as the heart of the Irish community in New York.
Larry McCarthy is chairman of the Gaelic Athletic Association of Greater New York, and he said that despite the fact that there are numerous Irish immigrants in New York, many of them have not been to Gaelic Park once.
Apparently they don’t care for watching a Hurling match. Today there are less and less people attending the Irish games than back in the day when nearly all Irish immigrants would come to watch the games.
Today that number would be maybe a mere 20 percent, maybe, tops. Young people nowadays have almost everything they want around here, he says. Irish people coming out here to watch a game today? They go skiing!