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Gaelic Athletic Association - Oral History Project

Emigration

gaa oral history project

In an age of global sport, the GAA is unusual in that it supports and organises indigenous games. Hurling and football, as well as the various cultural events associated with the Association, still flourish 125 years after the GAA’s foundation. However, as the history of the GAA and that of Ireland are inseparable, the long tradition of emigration from Irish shores has resulted in the presence of sporting Gaels in many far flung corners of the globe.

Given the size and scale of Irish emigration in the second half of the nineteenth century, which coincided with the establishment of modern sport and the birth of the GAA, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Irish, wherever they emigrated to, were key players in the new sporting landscape. Many Irish, in America, Britain and Australia, chose sporting assimilation. As a result the ranks of late nineteenth century baseball teams in the north-east of America, soccer teams in Scotland and northern England, and Australian Rules teams in Melbourne, Australia, were packed with Irish players. Through sport these recently arrived Irish men could find an entrée into their new society, and for some their choice of sport, especially if they could excel, would provide a living that was preferable to working in sweated industries. As the GAA had to fight for sporting space in Ireland, a battle it would win, so the same was true overseas. GAA games in cities such as Boston and Chicago, London and Liverpool, are recorded in the 1880s and 1890s, and it appears that these first gatherings mixed newly arrived Irish with knowledge of the fledgling GAA, with those Irish who had settled in the previous decades. As more Irish arrived in America, Britain and Australia (as well as Argentina) in the final years of the nineteenth century, so the number of clubs and competitions grew.

The GAA overseas has always attracted new arrivals into its ranks. As such those foreign fields such as the various Gaelic grounds in New York, Ruislip in London and Canton in Boston, have functioned as a first stop after leaving the harbour, airport or train station. At the grounds, and in the network of GAA clubs and pubs, men and women have been able to recreate local parish and county networks overseas, have entered a ready built community that eased them into the world of work in their new home, found them somewhere to live and cared for them in hard times.  The difficulty for the GAA was that the Irish emigrant experience has been one of assimilation. While the GAA, and Irish neighbourhoods may have been the first port of call after arrival, the suburbs and the sports of the new country became the norm during the process of assimilation. As such the GAA overseas has historically thrived, at least in terms of numbers, during periods of high emigration – the 1880s and 90s, the 1920s, 1950s and 1980s – and has struggled during times of economic stability in Ireland.

From its traditional areas of strength, which reflected traditional emigration patterns, the GAA has spread further across the globe in recent decades. From its core area of strength in the US, the GAA has spread west, while it continues to flourish in San Francisco aided by the development of state of the art facilities at Treasure Island in the Bay Area. The GAA has been supported by an educational initiative to spread beyond those with an Irish background amongst the school children of Warwickshire and the West Midlands of England, and has found new homes in the new financial centres of the Middle and Far East.