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Spreading the GAA Gospel at St Pat’s

Sport

CLASS OF 2019 Club chairman Jimmy Feeney (front row, left) with the coaches, volunteers and children from the 2019 St Patrick's GAA Cul Camp. Pic: Marion Lynott

This roving reporter recently spent a week coaching at St Patrick’s GAA Club in Fairfield, Connecticut

Feature
Ger Flanagan

SOME 5,000km away in Fairfield, Connecticut, a small GAA club is going above and beyond to grow the games of Gaelic football of hurling on that side of the Atlantic.
St Patrick’s GAA Club – only in existence since 2003 – have been running their own Cúl Camp for the last nine years and it’s popularity has risen year on year. So much so that it’s now the club’s main feeder platform for introducing Gaelic games to local kids in the county.  
This reporter – accompanied by fellow Mayo men Conor Keane and Gerard Holian – spent a week in the middle of the madness, coaching what many in the club hope will be the next crop of footballers to represent St Pat’s.
On the surface it sounds like a holiday camp, but let me assure you there’s nothing easy about trying to find the perfect balance between fun and education to over 50 kids from under-8s to under-14s for six hours a-day in temperatures exceeding 85 degrees fahrenheit!
Although we were blessed with the application and behaviour of the kids taking part, who were filled with plenty of good-mannered mischief too.
Some were Irish, some Irish-American, or even ‘65 percent Irish’ as one youngster pointed out, while some had no Irish connections at all. The common denominator was they all seemed to love football and hurling.
The Chairman of St Patrick’s, and the driving force behind the camp, is the affable Jimmy Feeney. Born in Queens, New York, Feeney’s mother hails from Moygownagh, where he spent many summers as a youngster.
A former US Marine turned New York City lawyer, Feeney is Mayo GAA and Gaelic football obsessed. The obsession feeds down through his family too, including wife, Caroline, and children Jack, Claire, Mary and Ellen, who all play a huge part in making the camp the success it is.
“We started this camp nine years ago and each year we have somewhere between 50 and 100 kids,” he tells The Mayo News. “Some are involved with us already, some aren’t, and some are here because their parents are looking to find a home for them for the week!
“But the most important thing for us is that they learn how to play Gaelic football and hurling, they enjoy it, and hopefully some families will stay on as members, because these are the families who help me line out 15 players on a Saturday.”
Feeney is one of the many great characters deeply rooted in the club.
The colourful Tommy Moran, a native of Achill, manages the club’s senior team and is one of the founding members, along with his late brother Joey, with Tommy’ nephews involved at underage level.
St Pat’s are without the luxury of their own grounds – one of many hurdles they don’t blink an eye at crossing to get this camp running annually – with it taking place on the American football field belonging to Notre Dame Catholic High School.
“One of the founding members of our club, the great Paddy Coyle from Tyrone, said at our Dinner Dance one time that St Pat’s only exists in the minds of Irish men and women in Fairfield,” Feeney smiled.
“We don’t have a clubhouse, we don’t have our own pitch. We’re like vagabonds, finding pitches to hold camp and to train. But where there’s a will, there’s a way and we always get it done.”
The Irish connection runs deep in the club.
Take Wexford expat Mike O’Connor, whose son, Lars, is a no-nonsense hurling full-back if there ever was one. There’s brothers Patrick and Andrew Feeney – nephews of Jimmy – that are football obsessed with a big future in the game. Well known inter-county referee, Joe McQuillan, has a nephew and niece involved too, Andrew and Kayla Genest.
“There’s so many people with an Irish surname here, and St Patrick’s give them that opportunity to connect,” Jimmy Feeney explained. “That’s another important reason for this camp and why we bring out coaches like you guys to take the players along on a skill level and instill that cultural connection that is so important to us.”
Throughout the week, time is set aside every day to teach the children Amhrán na bhFiann, and it was recited perfectly on the final day as the kids received their medals in the local Irish Club in front of their parents.
Balla native Ray Holian is exiled in New York City and has played an active role in coaching at the club in recent years, while New York GAA Games Development Officer Mickey Quigg plays a huge part in growing the game.
“We’ve had a number of players in the last few years who have made the New York Féile team and we’re very proud of that,” Feeney said. “It’s a very selective process, with over 100 kids turning out for several months to try and get on it.
“What we’re seeing now is these guys coming through and joining our senior team and playing in Gaelic Park on a Thursday night which is brilliant for us. We’re in the Junior B competition right now, but we aspire to go much further.”
St Patrick’s is the only GAA club in the county of Fairfield and without the tireless, and often thankless, work being put in by a select few, Gaelic football and hurling would be non-existent.
The club is still very much in its infancy, but with their passion and determination to create structures from the ground up, the future can be only be successful for St Patrick’s.

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