Authored by Mark
Over the years I have written quite a bit about the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) here in America more commonly known as the North American County Board (NACB). Before I go any further I must thank in advance John O’Brien Sr. for his assistance on digging into the past – questions I had for him on GAA in North American were answered like they happened yesterday, even the street address to a bar for a meeting held in 1959 he rolled of the tip of his tongue. Most people would have to think for a few minutes just to tell you what city the Convention was held in 5 years ago, never mind the date and actual street address. Being the modest man he is John will probably have my neck for saying this about him but he is an absolute wealth of knowledge when it comes to information on Gaelic games right here in North America.
The organization (NACB) as it known now was officially formed in the 1959 with the first Convention being held in the Cavanaugh’s Bar at 3132 Market St, Philadelphia on February 8th and 9th. The bar was owned by the Philadelphia Divisional President Mickey Cavanaugh who, from what I have been told, was a very generous backer of Gaelic games in North America. The meeting was called to order the President at the time John Courtney from Buffalo. The following clubs and delegates were present at this 1st Convention: Baltimore: John Marron; Boston: Patrick Green, William Howe, Tom Curran and John Collins; Buffalo: Bertie Cronin and Mike Allen; Chicago: Joe Kilroy and John Herlighy; Cleveland: JJ Hennelly and John Ryan; Detroit: Dan O’Kennedy and JJ O’Rourke; Hartford: Jim Foley and John Mullarkey; Los Angeles: Patrick Lynch; Montreal: John O’Brien and Billy McGee; New Haven: Eddie Brissell and Joe Maskey; Philadelphia: Michael Cavanaugh and Jim Harvey; Pittsburgh: Tom Donahue and Peter Donnelly; Rochester: Tom O’Keefe and Sean McGinty; San Francisco: Daniel Boyle; Syracuse: Al Kissane;
Toronto: Mike Lawlor and John Sinclair; Trenton: Pat Egan and Bob Gillard and finally Washington who were represented by a letter they sent.
How times have changed. What is interesting is that apparently due to an already existing rotation of cities by alphabetical order the 1959 Convention should have been held in Montreal, having been held in Detroit the year before. But a phone call from Cleveland based and North American GAA legend Henry Cavanaugh to the then Chairman of Montreal, John O’Brien resulted in the location being changed to Philadelphia. One of the reasons was that with the Convention back then being held the weekend before the start of Lent that the weather in Montreal that time of year would have made it very difficult for the majority of delegates to make it.
Reaching out to Croke Park
So at the Convention in 1959 the 1st board of officers to serve consisted of Chairman John Courtney, Vice-Chairman Mike Culhane, Secretary Pater Donnelly, Treasurer Bill Garvey, Registrar Jimmy Harvey and Coordinator was Henry Cavanaugh. The coordinator was not really an officer’s position but rather Cavanaugh was the go-to person for all things GAA. He knew how the games were administered inside out in Ireland and how they could be best administered here in North America. His position was ultimately to be one of the most important in the development of the NACB in that he helped co-ordinate the expansion of the games here and worked on establishing a working relationship with the powers
that be in Ireland at Croke Park.
In 1960 Cavanaugh along with a Buffalo based priest by the name of Fr. Peter Quinn travelled to Ireland to present their case to Croke Park for the NACB to receive County Board status. Fr. Quinn was a native of Ballina, Co. Mayo who won 2 All-Ireland Football medals with Mayo in 1950 and 1951. Without this support they both knew along with their supporters within the NACB that the games would not be as successful in this country. What followed from this development meeting was quite amazing, the county Down Senior Men’s Football All-Ireland winning side of 1960 were brought over by the GAA in Ireland to America to play a round of 4 games in the cities of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia. Fr. Peter Quinn who was instrumental in bringing the County Down side over for the exhibition games played in the game in Philadelphia. Quinn incidentally was elected as Honorary President of the NACB in 1961.
In 1960 the NACB Convention did eventually make its way to Montreal with the following board being elected: Chairman Mickey Cavanaugh (Philadelphia), Vice-Chairman Mick Culhane (Pittsburgh), Secretary Peter Donnelly (Pittsburgh), Treasurer Bill Garvey (Rochester), Registrar John O’Brien (Montreal), Coordinator Henry Cavanaugh (Cleveland) and Assistant Coordinator John Hehir (Boston).
The NACB and Cleveland
The Cleveland connection with the GAA in North America went back further than just Henry Cavanaugh, in the 1930’s and 1940’s Pat Lynch and Pat Duffy were major leaders in getting the games and teams up and running. Al O’Leary, who was born in Cleveland but raised in Lorrma, County Tipperary returned to the city after serving a stint with the US Army whilst in Ireland of all places. He returned to Cleveland when his mother decided it was time to go back. An avid hurler, O’Leary helped start the Cleveland Hurling Club which eventually became known as CJ. Kickmans in 1959. Over the years Al was and still is very active in the Irish community in North East Ohio, and has been involved with one of the
country’s newest hurling clubs – the Akron Celtic Guards.
As mentioned earlier John O’Brien was elected as registrar in 1960, at the time he was based in Montreal but a few years later he would make the move to Cleveland where to this day he is enormously active in the Irish community where he serves as President of the West Side Irish American Club. The Kiloom, Co. Roscommon man migrated to Montreal in 1956. He was a member of the Cleveland St Pat’s team that won 3 Senior Men’s Football titles from 1962-1964 and also played in the exhibition games against Co. Down.
Another huge advocate for the GAA out of Cleveland was the late Sean Gannon, a native of Newport, Co. Mayo. Sean first came to Cleveland in 1962 and was a member of the Cleveland St Pat’s Senior Men Championship winning side, having only been on the country for 2 weeks at the time. Soon after this Gannon would also become involved in the administration of the games in North America. He was elected vice-chairman in 1979 and went on to serve as NACB Chairman in 1980-82. Sean also spearheaded the revitalization of Cleveland St Pat’s in the 1980’s – ‘90’s and in 1988 spearheaded the permanent move for the team to the playing field at the West Side Irish American Club, where they still play their home games. Sean died in May of 2002.
The GAA in America
Whilst it is hard to argue that the GAA has been a major factor in bringing the people of Ireland together through sport, music and language over the last 125 years there has been a similar effect here on the other side of the Atlantic. If you look around the big Irish cities in the US you will see the impact that the GAA has had on these Irish communities. Boston currently boasts over 45 teams with over 2000 registered players. Go 2,700 miles west to San Francisco and you will see another 20 odd clubs and an absolutely thriving youth program that in the last couple of years has made a direct contact with the Catholic Diocese. This connection has allowed for Gaelic Football to become part of the school curriculum thus opening up the sport to a potential 26,000 students across the city. Only one word can describe this – amazing.
Having only been in America for 11 years I have talked to many that came here many years before. A common theme between us was that when it came to building a connection with the Irish community in Cleveland the GAA in some way was involved. For some it was at a GAA dance at the old WSIA on Madison, where they make a contact for a job, a wife and a football team. I was no different, all except for the job part that is! I remember going to the current WSIA one Sunday afternoon because someone told me ‘they play your kind of football out there and you might meet someone to point you in the right direction’. And yes I did, his name was Sean Gannon Sr and he pointed me in the direction of a pair of cleats, a pair of socks then threw me a jersey and told me to stretch out for I’d be in any minute. And that was that I was connected with a GAA club right here in Cleveland, St Pats GFC.
Cleveland itself has an amazing GAA history going back to c1918 with the Cleveland Young Ireland’s Football team. Players on this team included the late Pat Duffy, Jim Mannion and Phil McGovern. There are stories of how the team would take the night boat to Detroit for games. After the game they would attend a dance then the night boat back to Cleveland. It is believed there were also active clubs in Pittsburgh and Buffalo. Henry Cavanaugh was President of the Cleveland GAA in the 1930’s. Games were played at local venues such as Gordon Park, Edgewater Park, Puritas Springs Park and Shamrock Field. It is thought that none or very little Gaelic football was played in the city from the late
1930’s to mid 1940’s. It is in 1948 that there is record of the current club Cleveland St Pat’s GFC being formed.
In 1949 Pat Lynch, Henry Cavanaugh and Pat Duffy in conjunction with contacts in Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Buffalo formed the Midwest Gaelic Football League. Games were played at Brookside, League Park, Shaw Stadium and West Tech. A new practice field was eventually located at E110th and St Clair. In the fall of 1950 Katherine (Murphy) Kearney was elected secretary of the Cleveland GAA. At the same time a Midwest select team travelled to Boston to play a New England select team. The Midwest team was coached by Pat Duffy and had 2 Clevelanders on the team; Mickey Prendergast and Gene O’Donnell. The Midwest would win by a single point. Throughout the 1950’s it seems there were several different Gaelic Football and hurling teams in Cleveland. It would be the Cleveland St Pat’s team that would go on to dominate the North American GAA scene during the 1960’s winning 3 national titles in a row.
Over the next few decades members of the Cleveland GAA would become greatly involved with the National GAA – John O’Brien, Sean Gannon, Henry Cavanaugh, John Herlighy, Al O’Leary to name but a few. St Pat’s GFC would continue alone through the 1970’s. It was not until 1980 that another club, St Jarlath’s spearheaded by Tommy Weir would come onto the scene. They became a powerhouse within the Midwest during the 80’s and again in recent years winning 2 National Junior B titles. A strong and consistent leadership has helped St Jarlath’s become a very relevant team in not only the Midwest Division but also when they appear at the NACB Finals.
As it stands today these are still the only two clubs in Cleveland; St Pat’s GFC and St Jarlath’s. Both clubs have had their equal share of struggles over the past few years but both clubs have stuck at it and made the best out of the bad times. The hope is that with the NACB Finals coming to the Rock N Roll City of Cleveland this summer that this will help both clubs in their development efforts and keep the GAA alive in well in city where it has been around in some format for nearly 100 years.
A blast from the past .... Cleveland GAA, August 1952. Front Row L to R: Micky Prendergast, Brendan Morris, Micky Cafferty, Tom Finnegan, John Marron, Martin Lowry, Mike McHugh Back Row L to R: Eddie Murphy, Marty Kilbane, Jack McDonough, Frank Moran, Tom Maher, John (Stonewall) Chambers, Fr. Jim O'Donnell, Jim Ruddy, Eddie Campbell, Owen Lowry.