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The 1947 Polo Grounds Final

On April 6th 1947, after watching the inter-provincial hurling final, approximately 200 delegates at the GAA Annual Congress re-convened in the Secretary’s office, Croke Park, to consider the one remaining motion. This Clare motion (which had been postponed pending the arrival of Canon Michael Hamilton) requested that the Central Council consider the resumption of tours to New York and that they ‘arrange, if found feasible, for the playing of an All-Ireland Final at New York’.

In proposing the motion Canon Hamilton acknowledged that the second part of the motion ‘involves the biggest request ever made to Congress, namely that in the special circumstances of this year, and to give a much-needed fillip to the games beyond, the 1947 All Ireland Football Final be played in New York’.

In his speech Hamilton presented three key reasons why New York should host the football final.

He suggested that such an event would provide a much needed stimulus to Gaelic games in New York (and North America). The popularity of Gaelic games was in serious decline due to the slow-down in Irish emigration and World War II.

Hamilton reasoned that, in terms of propaganda, the playing of the final in New York would be ‘an epoch-making event and a landmark in the history of the Association’ which would ‘strengthen the bonds that unite the scattered elements of the Gael’ while at the same time giving thousands of exiled Gaels the chance to attend an All-Ireland Final.

Hamilton also referred to the fact that 1947 was the centenary year of the Irish famine when ‘the great exodus of our people found a friendly welcome and a warm hospitality on America’s shores’. He argued that in 1847 the ‘enemies of Ireland boasted that the Celt was going…that the time was coming when an Irishman would be as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan’ and that to stage the All-Ireland Final in New York 100 years later would ‘give a magnificent demonstration of the unbroken historical continuity and the insuppressible tenacity of our race’.

While the minutes simply record that Seán Mac Giolla Phadraig, Clare, seconded the motion, it has entered GAA folklore that he read a letter from an ‘exiled friend’ on how much the final would mean to him and the Irish in New York. Legend has it that Mac Giolla Phadraig wrote this letter himself.

After Hamilton’s speech the motion was discussed with information sought on points including costs, grounds, if this was to be taken as a precedent and would it be an inducement to emigration. Eventually the motion was passed, by a large majority, with the amendment that ‘it applied to the All-Ireland Football Final and for 1947 only’.

With the motion passed it was now up to Central Council to decide if the staging of the final in New York was feasible, and if so to organise it.

Padraig Ó Caoimh, General Secretary of the GAA, and Tomas Kilcoyne, member of the Central Council, visited New York on the 25th April 1947 and spent three weeks investigating all aspects of the proposed final. Their feasibility report was submitted to the Central Council and studied in detail at its meeting on 23rd May. Interestingly the main bone of contention was transport to and from New York. Daniel Ó Ruairc, President of the GAA, declared that the responsibility of sending some of the party by air was too great for the Council adding that while he himself was prepared to travel by air he ‘would not vote anyone else to go’. Travelling by air in 1947 was still regarded not only as novel, but dangerous too.

Central Council member M. Ó Donnchadha proposed that the project be abandoned but a counter-proposal that ‘the teams travel by whatever means are available’ was carried by 20 votes to 17.

In many ways deciding to hold the final in New York was the easy part; the logistics of staging the game now had to be undertaken.

Ó Caoimh had too many work commitments in Ireland so Padraig McNamee travelled to New York in his place. The Polo Grounds was immediately booked for September 14th as the venue for the final. McNamee set up an office in the Hotel Woodstock and efficiently went about organising the final by means of delegating to committees and sub-committees.

Transport was arranged for the teams with 40 to travel by plane and the remaining 25 by boat. Accommodation was booked with the Cavan team staying in the Hotel Empire, the Kerry team in the Henry Hudson and the officials in the Hotel Woodstock.

To ensure the final succeeded in its main aim - the rejuvenation of Gaelic games amongst Irish-Americans - a publicity campaign was mounted in New York. From Ireland Ó Caoimh designed and sent folders and posters which stated the purpose of playing the game in New York and gave a brief description of the characteristics of Gaelic football. When Ó Caoimh arrived in New York, on July 24th, he worked closely with Mayor William O’Dwyer (Chairman of the General Committee). The Mayor used his influential position to secure valuable publicity in the main American newspapers. On one occasion he hosted a luncheon in Gracie Mansions, the Mayoral Residence, to which all the major sports columnists were invited, giving
Ó Caoimh an opportunity to promote both the final and the aims and objectives of the GAA.

The first party of players and officials arrived by boat on September 9th with the remainder arriving by plane September 10th. On September 11th the whole party assembled at Hotel Commodore and they were driven along Broadway escorted by a squadron of Police Officers. They were received at City Hall by the Mayor and then transported to the Hotel Roosevelt for a gala luncheon.

The teams spent the remainder of the week training. On the day of the Final, Sunday 14th September, the entire party attended High Mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. The two teams arrived at the Polo Grounds at 2pm. At 2.40pm the officials and teams took to the field to a tremendous reception. The teams marched into position and stood facing the flags of the two nations while the Police Band played ‘Faith of Our Fathers’ and both National Anthems. Mayor O’Dwyer started the game. In his final report Ó Caoimh called it a ‘game that will live forever in the memory of those privileged to witness it, a magnificent exhibition of Gaelic football at its best’. The final result was Cavan 2-11, Kerry 2-07.

That night a banquet was held in the Hotel Commodore with 1,500 people attending. The following week, September 22nd, an evening match between a Cavan/Kerry selection and a New York selection was played for the benefit of the New York G.A.A. The entire party sailed home on September 24th arriving in Dun Laoghaire on October 3rd.

Ó Caoimh submitted a thorough report to the December 13th Central Council meeting detailing all aspects of the final. In his report he states that the attendance figure of 36,000 should not be looked upon as disappointing but should be regarded as a triumph and highlighted the fact that, in general, sports events are cancelled in America when rain falls. He also reported that the final resulted in a profit of £10,202 but ends the report by stating that the final ‘enlightened the American public as to the separate existence and identity of the Irish people. That was not the least of its triumphs.’

In 1948 the possibility of playing the 1949 All-Ireland Hurling Final was raised (and ultimately defeated). A New York delegation attended the 25th of September 1948 Executive Meeting, formally requesting the All-Ireland Hurling Final be brought to New York. The delegation stated that ‘last year’s final was the greatest uplift the GAA in New York and the U.S.A. in general ever got - the proof being that this year (1948) has been a record year’.