It's been called sleepy and unglamorous but whatever you call it one thing is certain, Randall's Island is a major sports and entertainment destination in the New York tri-state area. During the long hot summer weekends, folks journey to the 480-acre island in the East River, officially part of Manhattan, for outdoor music concerts, such as Electric Zoo and Governors Ball (Kanye West, Guns N Roses were recent headliners) and join over 90,000 attendees. The island is home to the world-class Icahn Stadium, golf and tennis training centers and prestine soccer fields. Over the years, I've enjoyed watching seven a side rugby tournaments there and cheered on Olympians in the Grand Prix track and field event (think Usain Bolt's 200m world record). Admittedly, in the early 90's Randall's Island was in dire need of restoration and economic revitalization and I'm happy to say the island is very much reclaimed.
In the past few months the sprawling parkland has become a major destination for Manhattan's newest football club, the Manhattan Gaels. In the dead of winter 2012, several Gaels apparently descended on the island and set up goal posts to train in the ancient game of Gaelic football (a blend of soccer, rugby and American football). For the next few months they quietly conducted intense training drills and erupted onto the sports scene on April 21 winning their first competitive clash in Gaelic Park in the Bronx. The Gaels had landed.
I remember playing Gaelic football in the Bronx when I was in college and training in Van Cortland Park right next to the Jamaican cricketers. I also remember starting up a ladies football team in Maynooth (National University of Ireland) and developing a well-honed sense of camaraderie with my team mates. Today I marvel at the evolution of this latest sports team and their NYC roots.
The idea for the team came to life one evening in late 2012 when ex-pat Irish and Irish-American's (mostly men) living in Manhattan realized they wanted to play their native games locally. The notion quickly gained momentum with the support of Peter Ryan, Deputy Consul General of Ireland in New York who started a similar football club in Asia. The brotherhood banded together and officially launched the new sports club to promote Gaelic games and culture in the metropolitan area in the spring. The Gaelic Players Association in Ireland jumped in and sponsored the fledging team's uniforms whose colors mirror the NYC colors of blue and orange. Comprised of professionals (including lawyers, accountants, and educators) the new amateur team joined the NY Junior GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) League and haven't looked back. They quickly embarked on a busy championship schedule and their record to date includes more wins than losses. In the spirit of inclusion, a Manhattan Gaels ladies team recently launched this past June.
Imbued with a tremendous energy since their inception in mid-December, the club welcomes over 30 fitness and sports enthusiasts to Field #74 on Randall's Island every Tuesday (weather permitting) and the numbers keeps growing. The club's chairman, Greg McIntyre recently told me that while Gaelic football will be a big part of the Gaels activity, they've found a novel way of attracting Manhattanites. "Manhattan is a legendary sports town and we want to reach out to its international community and beginners are especially welcome. For those with no prior experience of the game we will also play rounders. It's a Gaelic game much like softball and played with a ball and bat too." stressed McIntyre.
He mentioned one event in particular that had special meaning to the Gaels -- the 1st Annual Breezy Point Gaelic Sports Weekend held this June in the Rockaways. Designed to bring attention and support to the Breezy Point disaster relief fund, the Gaels played some friendly matches with members of the visiting Gaelic Players Association (GPA). "The community cheered us on and for a few hours forgot their worries," says McIntyre, "The players loved it too." The Gaels story is starting to get some media attention. Recently FOX Sports anchor, Duke Castilglione, joined a few players this time in Central Park to learn the finer points of the ancient game.
Talking with members of the Manhattan Gaels board, it's clear they have many ambitions and one in particular is to get children to participate. According to club president, John Murphy, "Sports helps kids learn leadership skills and physical coordination. We want athletics to be fun. We're all about fitness, community and culture and we want people of all ages to be involved."
So if you haven't ventured to Randall's Island in a while or possibly never, the summer is a prime time to visit. Getting to the exotic urban park is fairly straight forward. For the bridge and shuttle crowd, the public can walk over the 103rd Street Footbridge or take shuttle buses from 125th Street. And if you journey there on a Tuesday evening, you might see the new gaeldom in action. I'm even tempted to dust off my football boots and venture out. For specific directions to Randall's Island, check out the website.