NY GAA during the COVID-19 Pandemic: One Man’s Story

NY GAA player Shane Hogan preparing to kick out

Shane Hogan didn’t always think he was cut out for Gaelic football. The brother of a footballer, son of a hurler and grandson of the founder of the St Barnabas GFC in New York, one would think that the Gaelic games should be in his blood. However, his first experience picking up a ball was a discouraging one — at least to start. After watching his older brother play, he wanted to give football a shot himself. “I was kicking the ball and I kept missing, kept putting the ball over the post,” Hogan recounts. “I was like, ‘Wow, I suck at this.’” Fortunately, someone assured him, “No, that’s actually really good! That’s worth a point!”

From there, he took up an invitation to try out for a team, and the rest is history. Now, residing in his native Yonkers, just north of the city, Hogan participates as a member of the New York Gaelic Athletic Association. Formed in 1914 but rooted in a tradition of Gaelic sports going as far back as the late 1700s in the city, the NY GAA is the county board that regulates club football and hurling in the New York metropolitan area. New York are also one of the two overseas county boards to participate in the Connacht Senior Football Championships, the other being London.

On the sidelines

Or, at least, they participate when there’s not a global pandemic to deal with. Hogan sat down with me recently for an ever-popular Zoom call. He says that the move to shut down the NY GAA was quick but decisive. “It was a weird situation,” he says. “We started training in January, and we were training three times a week, training as hard as anybody.” Hogan recalls training on a Tuesday in March and being told by the coach that the next session was in doubt. A text came from the boss the next day, cancelling Thursday’s training. One more message sealed the deal: “Guys, I think it’s going to be a little longer until we get back.” 

That initial two-week hiatus turned into the cancellation of New York’s participation in the 2020 championship. Like all of us, Hogan says that “we didn’t know how severe COVID was going to be.” Still, during the pandemic — perhaps despite it — the NY GAA continues to provide a much-needed sense of community for many. Before lockdown, Hogan tells that, between Gaelic Park in the Bronx and the Aisling Irish Community Center in Yonkers, “you could walk into any bar or restaurant, and you would know at least 7 people.” Hogan, who pays the bills working as a doorman and a bartender, even has connections on the job. “My boss is actually the manager of one of the other teams out here,” he says. “He’s been my coach for when we’ve travelled over to Ireland.”

Making a difference

It doesn’t look like the boys will be travelling anytime soon, however. Nevertheless, the NY GAA is still playing a powerful part in supporting the local Irish community during the COVID pandemic. The board has partnered with local community centers, including the Aisling Center, to create Sláinte 2020. Their website describes the initiative as “a collective fundraising effort to assist the Irish community in the tri-state area during the COVID-19 crisis.” The fund focusses on members of the Irish community who would not be eligible for traditional forms of aid, often due to undocumented status. 

As part of the initiative, NY GAA players participated in a charity run to raise funds. Johnny Glynn, the former Galway hurler and current trainer for New York’s football squad, organized the run. Hogan relates that when Glynn first told him of the idea — “we’re going to run the length of Ireland… about 15 miles each” — he responded cheekily: “Can I drive?” In the end, Hogan and many of his fellow footballers did lace up for the 1,000K run. Between that effort and other donations, the group has raised approximately $170,000USD in aid of at least 160 individuals.

A new normal

As far as the virus itself goes, Hogan confirmed that, “thankfully, nobody here [in my family]has caught it.” Fortunately, the same has been true of his family still living in Ireland — an extended family consisting of grandparents in Tipperary, and cousins scattered across Galway, Meath, and Roscommon. This is in the midst of the over 400,000 confirmed cases and over 32,000 deaths in New York City alone as of the 30th of July, as well as nearly 26,000 cases and just under 1,800 deaths in the Republic of Ireland as of the same date.

Nevertheless, the pandemic has impacted life in a number of ways. Hogan’s recent trips into the city from Yonkers have been disquietingly quiet. “When this all broke out,” he says, “the city kinda turned into a ghost town.” A coworker of his let him know about a livestream camera set up in the oft-bustling Times Square. When Hogan went online to check it himself, he said, “I could count out six people — that was it.”

Life is starting to return to normal, though. Even though Nua Eabhrac won’t be hosting Galway as planned, 31 July marks the return of club matches in the “county.” Hogan hasn’t skipped a beat in the middle of everything, keeping up with the return of club matches in Ireland and commenting on the safety of games compared to more sedentary get-togethers of a similar size. Like anyone in love with their game, one would think that the return to the pitch has been front of his mind since the first day of lockdown.

This year may not have been what we initially expected it to be. (A friend of Hogan’s joked with him, “I can’t believe I wished this year a Happy New Year!”) Yet, neither was kicking the ball over the bar. Hopefully, we can each still learn to find a way forward and take a point away from it.

Still looking for your fill on GAA news? Check out our article on the new club in East Belfast!

About the author

Nicholas Boonstra

Nicholas is a freelance writer based out of the Greater Boston, Massachusetts area. He avidly loves all things Irish, and also keeps himself involved with music, faith, and West Ham United. He is ecstatic to be part of the Babylon team, and is proud to bring his own American flair to it!

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