An Irish Hurling-Green: A Ballad for the Gael’

Full many years, ’neath foreign skies,
A stranger have I strayed,
I’ve mingled in their sportive joys,
And heard their music played;
But still the dearest spot on earth-
Which links me to its scene-
For cheerful, hearty, guileless mirth,
Is an Irish hurling-green… (The Gael, May 1887, NY)

Organized games of Gaelic sports have been played for over a century in parts of the United States, and sporadic informal play by new Irish immigrants reported even longer.
Odds are that Irish immigrants to the Rocky Mountain Region in the 1800’s would have been found swinging a pickaxe or shovel instead of a hurley (stick used in Irish hurling).
Whether or not Gaelic sports were played to any degree around mining camps, railroads,
and other areas where the newly arriving workforce congregated is unknown.

Remarkably, it wasn’t until 1996 when Dubliner Shay Dunne called a meeting with other Irish nationals living in Colorado and established the Denver Gaels, the first Gaelic sports organization in the Rockies.
Through tremendous efforts by coaches, players, families and sponsors the “Gaels” today
have members from all along the Front Range, and field competitive teams in Mens Football, Hurling, Ladies Football, Camogie (Ladies Hurling) and Youths Football.
Most of members today are young Americans who joined the Gaels with little or no experience in GAA sports but have proven to be very capable Gaelic players.

The Denver Gaels are part of the North American County Board, which is made up of approximately 125 Adult and Youth Clubs in the U.S., outside of New York City ( NYC has own New York County Board). These clubs participated in Divisional Championship competitions to qualify for the North American Finals in their respective sport and grade of competition.
In 2000, the underdog Denver Gaels traveled to Boston for the North American Finals and won their first North American Championship. Through the years the Gaels teams have impressed opponents with their feisty play and increased level of skill.

Last month a group of Denver Gaels committee members, coaches, players and supporters gathered to discuss the continued success and perpetuation of Gaelic sports in Colorado, with a specific focus of developing the Youth teams. They discussed broadening visibility of GAA Youth sports through programs at schools, PAL, YMCA, Parks and Recreation centers, special events, and helping kids/parents with equipment/travel expenses.

The Denver Gaels first fielded Youth teams in 2004 and began with a bang.
Martin Concannon, who grew up playing Gaelic sports in Ireland, played on the Mens teams and also coached the Youth teams that year recalls fondly. “The Denver Gaels hosted the North American Finals in Boulder that year…we ended up winning both the Youth U12 and U14 B Finals… We still had a lot of those kids playing up to this year in San Francisco at the Continental youth games. A good few of the kids have went off to college in Nebraska, Okalahoma, CSU, School of Mines and Metro.”
The later part of Concannon’s thoughts hides an underlying problem to the continued growth of the Youth Teams, and perhaps the Denver Gaels in general. A considerable number of the kids who started the Youth teams are now heading off to college. Many of these kids are sons and daughters of the Irish coaches and players. As their number decrease they will have to be replaced by kids from the general population with less ties to Ireland and Irish culture.

In a recent letter to Denver Gaels members, Alan Murphy, Gaels co-founder, player and coach echoed Cocannon’s praise and support for the kids in the Youth teams, but also made points of concern and called out for a concerted effort to recruit more kids.
He said in part, “…Our youth organization is very proud of the incredible high standards our kids have set since the club was formed in 2004. The club has participated in five U.S National finals and won four. Two of our players have represented a U.S National selection and played against teams from New York, Ireland and England. Our kids have represented their schools at the highest levels in academics, athletics, basketball, football, soccer, band and baseball with kids participating on state championship winning teams in athletics and football. Our kids have excelled in the classroom with some of them studying for business and engineering degrees amongst others. We thank them for sharing such a valuable part of their young lives with us while we keep an eye on their progress in the future.
We believe this is a vital time for Irish Culture in the U.S. During the past eight years National Security has slowed the emigration process and the influx of students has stalled. Our goal is to promote Irish Culture through sports, music and dance. We would ask you join in our quest with your kids or grandkids and make sure our Irish Culture is a great part of Denver’s future.”

Alan Murphy’s son Ryan is on of the kids who started with the first Denver Gaels Youth teams in 2004 at age 12. Now he is a Freshman student-athlete at Colorado State College in Fort Collins where he is a 6’7” wide receiver trying to balance his time between 5-6 hours in the afternoon at football meetings and practice, class time and studying to maintain his 3.6 GPA. “It takes dedication to both the sport and the schoolwork to get it all done, and I have to really manage my time well.” said Ryan who took some time to answer a few questions from his campus dorm room. When asked about his fondest memories playing with the Gaels he replied, “I really enjoyed getting the opportunity to travel across the country with my friends on the team. It was really fun to compete with other teams from across the United States.” Ryan also gave testament to his overall positive experience on the Gaels teams. “The GAA was definitely a positive influence on my life. I have made friends there that I will know for the rest of my life. As a student athlete in college, I can definitely say that the GAA has helped me to become a better overall athlete.”

The desire to keep Irish culture in sport healthy and provide youth with positive experiences has been challenged in different periods and places in the U.S. over the past century. According to Paul Darby in his book, “Gaelic Games, Nationalism and the Irish Diaspora in the United States” (UCD Press 2009), the health of Gaelic sports over these periods of challenge was reliant on fluctuations of Irish immigration, socio-economic and political conditions of specific GAA cities, and the local resolve and dedication of
individuals in working together to preserve and promote their sport.
Darby, who’s book focused on the Irish immigrant hot beds of New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, concludes with the argument that if the current immigration levels remain, the future of GAA will depend upon reaching out to young people living in America, including those not of Irish descent.
Darby also recognized that Irish in the U.S. historically have sought to appreciate and preserve their ethnic specificity and culture.
Somewhere in it all is the answer to the future of the Denver Gaels.

If you know of anyone who might be interested in playing with the Denver Gaels, they welcome any age and no experience necessary. Also anyone who would like to help
in any capacity are welcome to contact by email (if you do not have internet contact call the Celtic Connection and we will connect you with the Gaels)
For more information check out the Gaels website
The next meeting is Monday night January 18th at 7pm at the Celtic Tavern in Downtown Denver at Blake and 19th.

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