By Shea Leonard
The East Coast of the United States is well accustomed to dealing with extreme weather, which is just as well for the city of Boston as it prepares to deal with a veritable storm of GAA activity at the end of this month.
Twenty miles south of ‘Beantown’ lies The Irish Cultural Centre in Canton, Massachusetts, and it will be a Mecca of Gaelic games over the Labor Day weekend as 2,500 players descend on the facility to compete in the North American County Board Championships, which are being held in association with RTÉ’s GAAGO service.
The action will begin early on the morning of Friday, 29 August, and will conclude two days later on the Sunday evening when the Senior Football Championship final will pull the curtain down on what is the largest international GAA event outside the island of Ireland.
The Boston Northeast Division last hosted the tournament in 2009, and the increase in the number of hotels rooms booked for competitors this year graphically illustrates the exponential growth of what are commonly referred to as the ‘North Americans’.
“At that stage we ordered 435 rooms. This time we’re at 645,” says Boston Northeast Division Chairperson John Cunningham.
Cunningham was elected in February, and admits the extra workload created by the hosting of the NACBs has made his first year in the post a “challenging” one.
A native of the parish of Teelin in Glencolmcille, Co Donegal, Cunningham came to Boston 14 years ago and initially played with the now defunct St Columbkille’s club.
When they folded in 2006, he chose to ply his trade with Donegal Boston, eventually becoming manager of their senior football side in 2008 and 2009.
It was in 2009 that he entered the administrative side of affairs as vice-chairperson of the board before being elevated to the top position earlier this year.
And it is important role. The Boston Northeast Division is the biggest in the NACB, with 40 teams competing across all competitions. Clubs primarily come from the Greater Boston Area, but there are also clubs from Worcester (Massachusetts), Hartford (Connecticut), Portland (Maine) and Concord (New Hampshire) competing.
“It’s just enjoyable to watch these American kids coming through the ranks now"
There will be in excess of 100 games played over the NACB Championships weekend, with teams coming from as far and wide as Vancouver in Canada and the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean.
The Boston board allocated a whopping $70,000 for the improvement of fields to cope with the huge demands that will be put on the five pitches at Canton.
“Our season here starts in April and ends on Labor Day weekend, but for a short season we have 147 games in the calendar year, and that’s just the games that are held here in Canton,” Cunningham explains, taking time out to talk on a very busy semi-finals day.
“So the fields get a lot of wear and tear. We deal with a lot of elements, the heat especially. It just means that you really have to be on your game to try and keep things looking green out here.”
The fields are just one area that needed to be upgraded, and Cunningham was quick to thank all the volunteers who have helped with the “labour intensive” work needed to get the facility in proper order.
The preparations are almost complete, with one of the last pieces of the jigsaw being a new electronic scoreboard that was still in US Customs at the time of speaking.
“To host the North American Finals this year is going to cost the Boston Divisional Board in the region of $102,000 to $106,000. That’s our budget, and we have tightened our belt as much as we can,” the chairperson said.
“It’s a scary amount of money for us as a small division. There are huge obstacles with the geography of where we are. Our transportation costs alone are $35,000.
“So it’s a lot of money. It’s definitely a little bit worrisome. Like everything else the secret to a good North American Finals will be the support of the local community and have them come out and watch our games.”
And if American people are to be enticed to watch the games down in Canton, the involvement of American players will be crucial to that process.
With fewer young Irish coming to live full-time in the Boston area, the focus is slowly but wisely turning to the recruitment and development of a wider base of American-born players.
According to Cunningham, that process is already reaping dividends.
“The GAA is thriving here, and it’s thriving at all different levels,” he says. “We had a youth tournament here at Canton yesterday, and it was well attended by clubs.
“It’s just enjoyable to watch these American kids coming through the ranks now.
“And, today, we watched Donegal play a Junior A Football semi-final and two of their starting team – Ciaran McDevitt and Mark Dunphy – are Americans. That’s what’s good to see.”
While the North Americans are certainly a priority, the focus will be more local this weekend as the Boston Northeast finals take place at Canton.
Cunningham insists the quality of the Senior Football Championship would hold its own against any back in Ireland, and the two semi-finals last week certainly lent weight to his argument.
Shannon Blues and Wolfe Tones won through to the decider, but only after narrow wins over Donegal and Aidan McAnespie’s respectively in what were two nail-biting encounters.
The Senior Hurling final sees Fr Tom Burke’s (who boast Laois duo Cahir Healy and Zane Keenan in their ranks) take on Galway Boston (who enjoy the services of Tribesmen James Skehill and Richie Cummins).