Jewel of the GAA in North America - Gaelic Park in Chicago

April 22nd, 2014
by Weeshie Fogarty

Gaelic Park a glittering jewel in the Chicago Crown. One of the truly great success stories of Irish endeavor in America. At the very generous invitation of the Kerry Association and the board of Gaelic Park my good friend Christy Riordan C/R Videos Caherceiveen and myself spend a memorable seven days recently in the windy city meeting, interviewing and mixing with the exemplary Irish and Irish/American community there. Their stories are extraordinary and exceptional. Men and women who left their homes in Kerry and other parts of Ireland to begin a new life far away from their place of birth. Emigrants from the forties, fifties and sixties settled in this great city surrounded by thousand of miles of flat land once the sole preserve of native American Indians of the Sioux, Chickasaw and Shawnee tribes and later the farming community, now Illinois is mainly a thriving expanding business area. However one thing has bonded all these people together and one has to travel, spend time in their company, and experience their tremendous generosity and hospitality to fully appreciate just what The Gaelic Athletic Association really means to people outside our shores.

What the Irish emigrants have achieved here is an amazing story, not just my words but the views of former President Mary Robinson when she visited the complex in 1991 she remarked. "What wonderful things have been accomplished here in Gaelic Park in such a short time, your future looks extremely bright" And the good lady certainly captured the true essence of what has been achieved here in literally a few short years, and what a story lies behind her words. It is probably outside of Croke Park one of the greatest GAA stories I have ever come across. Space will not permit me to expand in great detail as to what the full enormity of the project entails but it all began at a special meeting of the famed St Brendan's Club Chicago which was held in Carey's Lounge 5801 West 3rd St on 3/11/79.  The legendary club chairman John Barrett from Cork and the exemplary Con Twomey the Secretary from Castleisland realizing that without a home of their own and moving to venues from post to pillar like nomads in the desert a permanent home had to be found. This one meeting set in motion a train of events which now sees the magnificent Chicago Gaelic Park situated at 6119 West 147 Oak Forest Illinois. Indeed when that historic meeting was concluded a total of $22,300 had been pledged the dye was cast and the foundation stone had in many ways been laid.

The one burning ambition which the founding fathers would strive and make every effort to achieve was to have a lasting home where the promotion and fostering of Irish Culture, music and sports within the Irish/American community would live forever. And boy have they succeeded. Indeed during our vast series of interviews conducted with these passionate and highly dedicated people everyone admitted to the fact that never in their wildest dreams had they visualized what the end result seen to day would be. A few acres following that 1979 meeting were first purchased and now it has expanded to a vast area of around fifty seven acres. The place is simply busting with activity seven days a week as we witnessed for ourselves. It incorporates top rated banquet facilities and the vast hall which seats close to seven hundred people is booked out for weddings and other events for the next few years. It contains a home from home authentic Irish pub, full sized pitches, meeting rooms, a performing arts theater, state of the art kitchens and full time staff, its own radio station which broadcasts live every Sunday evening. The Park hosts many wonderful Irish cultural, athletic and social activities throughout the year and its yearly music Fest which attracts close to fifty thousand fans over four days has seen the top Irish artists such Mary Black, Stockton's Wings, Brendan Grace, Christy Moore and De Dannon perform.

Next week will give me more time and space to pay tribute to many great GAA activists in Chicago but names such as John Barrett (Cork), Con Twomey (Castleisland), John Lynch (Brandon), Mike Murphy (Kiskeam), Joe Ahern (Youghal), Pat Carey (Mayo), Liam o Brian, (Kilkenny), and Willie Joe Casey (Ballyheigue) are just some of the people who have devoted their lives to this truly massive undertaking.  Indeed Willie Joe Casey and his lovely wife Patrica also from Ballyheigue were our splendid hosts and Willie's vast fountain of knowledge of Chicago ( he landed there in 1960)  and its environs had us captivated from day one.  Christy and I will be forever indebted to both of them for their very warm and genuine greeting as they welcomed us into their home. Former Cork footballer Tadge o Reilly, he of Kerry parents also went out of his way to see after us and his stories of Kerry/Cork clashes added greatly to our week in the windy city. Incidentally when I inquired from Willie Joe as to the term Windy City I was amused to learn it refereed to "long-winded politicians and the frequent political conventions in Chicago".

Today Gaelic Park continues to strive to fulfill its mission-to perpetuate and promote Irish culture through religion, music, dance, sports theater and of course hurling and football. The facility has become not only the mainstay of the Chicago Irish community but that of all North America. This amazing place is uniquely run by a board of directors democratically elected by the members every few years and the spirit of the GAA volunteer was never more obvious than in this wonderful place. To the men and women who had the foresight and courage to strive to find a suitable location to begin Gaelic Park Chicago for the benefit of countless thousands, those present and yet to come the GAA should be eternally grateful. My wish would be that Croke Park hopefully pressed by  the Kerry county board should leave no stone unturned to facility them and fix a national league, championship or Railway Cup match to the Park. It is their duty to do such a thing in thanks for their years of endeavor. We hear a lot about promoting our games abroad through Sky TV and Australian Rules Series but surely Gaelic Park Chicago is much more significant in spreading the proverbial gospel. However I for one will not hold my breath on this one.

Fogra: Heartiest congratulations from Kerry to a wonderful man we interviewed while in Chicago, Jack Walsh played with the North Kerry club St Senans in the 1920/30s. He emigrated in the forties and this week celebrates his 100 birthday. To his wife and daughter who entertained us regally we also send our best wishes. Meeting Jack was one of our special memories.

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