Just over three months ago, I huddled with my family on the unforgettable Sunday night that Hurricane Sandy blew through New York. We lost power for five days, we watched some of our neighbours have their houses torn in two, and I saw dozens of students whose lives have been turned upside down by the after-effects. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life, teaching me lessons about the relentless power of nature and the mindlessness of our modern obsession with so much triviality. When you’ve seen somebody lose their house, you never look at things quite the same again.
All of the above is why I sat up and took notice when I learned that a delegation from the Gaelic Players Association was in Breezy Point in Queens the other week, assisting with the ongoing attempts to rebuild that shattered community. Their arrival in the borough was timely. Many, especially beyond the tri-state area, have largely forgotten about the victims of Sandy. The Obama administration, which made political capital out of the disaster before the election, and plenty other politicians in Washington, are among those guilty of neglecting to help finish the job.
I saw the photographs of the players with hard hats on their heads, and I was, initially, very proud. I know a lot of them had visited the site of the devastation back in November and had been affected by it.
“The visit by the travelling GAA/GPA All-Stars to this extraordinary Irish-American community was a very moving experience last November,” said Donal Og Cusack on the GPA website. “We were invited out by the local people, to bring the Sam Maguire and help provide a boost to morale. However, when we got there we were taken aback by the extent of the devastation. We were equally inspired by the spirit of the community; there was a real sense of joy in seeing players arrive in the area. It was at that moment we resolved to return and provide some practical support to the reconstruction effort – and helping the local sports programme through our friend and community member Tim Devlin was, we felt, the best way to do that.”
So my first instinct was to look at this project and to think, here we have one more illustration of how the GAA is that bit more aware of its social role than other sports associations in Ireland. How noble of these men to give of their own time to help those who’ve suffered so much. Yet, I have to admit that a part of me was also troubled. That part of me wondered exactly why the GPA were in New York in the middle of winter, trying to assist with the effort to refurbish the Breezy Point Catholic club when they could have been in so many different places closer to home.
Maybe this says more about me than them but I had this nagging feeling their presence in the city may have had as much to do with the GPA’s expressed ambition to court Irish-American commercial interests as it did with true philanthropy. Remember, the reason they were over here in November was to host a dinner where they gave a bizarre award to Donald R. Keough, one-time President of The Coca-Cola Company. This is a country the GPA wants to make hay in. So, are my suspicions of their motives wrongheaded and harsh or an inevitable byproduct of the cynicism we all feel towards so much that happens in society?
The same week the GPA arrived in America, we had David Beckham touching down in Paris. Wasn’t our first instinct when the one-footed, one-paced wonder announced he was donating his Paris Saint Germain salary to charity to harrumph and point out that this charitable decision will do wonders for what is a floundering brand? Didn’t many of us regard it as a rather cynical move designed to win sympathy for a pathetic attempt to keep his playing career on life-support, long after he’s passed his sell-by debate?
While not lumping the honest amateurs of the GPA in with the most egregious example of style over substance in the history of sport, I just can’t help feeling there must be dozens of projects and communities around Ireland that need help right now. How many Irish boys and girls who frequent hurling and football clubs are going home from matches and training and heading to bed hungry at night? According a report last week, one in five school principals in Ireland claim more students than ever are arriving in school hungry.
Now, while it seems to be taboo to nitpick when people are doing something for charity, surely the question needs to be asked. Would the GPA be better served working on the behalf of hungry Irish kids or would the publicity benefits, especially in the American and Irish-American media, be so much less? Not to mention either there are dilapidated community centres and GAA clubs in every county that could do with a team from the GPA arriving in for the weekend to do some frantic refurbishing of the same kind they did so well in Breezy Point.
Now even if the GPA’s motives were a lot more high-minded than my low-brow suspicions, and I acknowledge some of the players involved have previously done sterling work on projects in Africa, there was something else really odd about this whole business. At a time when the nation is on its uppers, the Irish government donated $50,000 to help the rebuilding effort in Queens. Now, Breezy Point is not some shantytown in a third world country, it’s a neighbourhood in the hinterland of New York city, in the richest country on the planet.
The GPA are quite entitled to do whatever they want with their time and resources but, why in the name of all that is sensible is Brian Hayes, Minister for State in a nation on its knees, giving any money at all to an American community?