IN THE BEGINNING...
Like all immigrants, the Irish brought with them to America a passion and reverence for the sports, music, dances, language, and customs of their native land. As early as 1866, Connecticut newspapers reported “hurley” matches among Irish factory hands and in 1909 the Gaelic Athletic Association of Connecticut, at a meeting in New Haven, voted to attempt “to introduce Gaelic football into the public schools and high schools throughout the state.” That effort was unsuccessful but in the late 1940’s young Irish immigrants arriving in the state in large numbers after WWII did revive Gaelic football in New Haven.
In the spring of 1948 a number of Irish immigrants, including Patrick Bohan, John O‘Donohue, John Reynolds, Pat Early, Bill Gallogly, Michael O’Sullivan and Sean Scollan, gathered regularly at West Rock Park (in the Westville section of New Haven) for pickup games of Gaelic football.
In October of that same year, the Ancient Order of Hibernians held a dance at St. Casimir’s Lithuanian Church Hall on Green Street, New Haven, during which the conversation among several of the Gaelic football players (Sean Scollan, Edward Brassil, James McGuinness, and John Donnelly) turned to organizing a real team. From those casual games and conversations was born the organization that is today the New Haven Gaelic Football and Hurling Club / Irish American Community Center.
The club was actually organized at a meeting in the American Legion Hall on Orange Street, New Haven. There the immigrant-athletes adopted the name “The New Haven Gaelic Football Club” and they pledged to each other their loyalty and friendship.
Loyalty and friendship they had aplenty, but no football jerseys or boots; so the first task of the fledgling club was to raise money to field a properly clad team. One weekend John Reynolds and James McGuinness walked around downtown New Haven, enticing merchants and businessmen to help with funding. None of the football players owned a car, but an Irish-American friend, Frankie Flynn, volunteered to drive Pat Bohan, McGuinness and Reynolds around, and they spent the second weekend seeking donations from a larger circle of prospects. And when they counted up the donations there was enough to buy a set of jerseys and boots, the first property of the New Haven Gaelic Football Club.
The following spring the New Haven club joined the New England Gaelic Football League along with Hartford, Springfield, Holyoke and Bridgeport. Preparations began in earnest for their formal, official debut. Practice sessions were held in Beaver Pond Park in New Haven, where Hillhouse High School now stands. Harold Doheny, a friend at City Hall, helped the club obtain a permit for the use of Bowen Field (next to Beaver Pond Park) without charge.
Club members met at 13 Eld Street where McGuinness and Bohan lived. They prepared a radio announcement to lure fans to the team’s first game. Sean Scollan, was assigned to deliver the announcement to be read during Larry McNamara’s Irish show on a Saturday evening in May, the day before the first Sunday afternoon game against Bridgeport.
On Sunday afternoon the players paraded around Bowen Field behind the St. Francis Fife & Drum Corps, which O’Donohue had hired for $30.00. Both at the box office and on the field, that Sunday game in 1949 proved to be an auspicious beginning for the New Haven Gaelic Football club. Manning the box office, O’Donohue sold 600 tickets at $1.00 each, and on the field the New Haven team overpowered Bridgeport. It was indeed a great day for the Irish of New Haven.
Dozens more young men from Ireland began to arrive in the New Haven area. Attracted by the weekend football games and the comradeship of their countrymen, they forged an alliance that, in time, became today’s New Haven club. They are: James Bohan, Terry Boylan, Fred Carew, Jr., Jim Crowley, Pat Gallagher, Patrick Hanlon, Tim Honan, Pat Lydon, Mike McGreevy, Bernie McKeon, Pat O’Brien, John O’Donohue, Mike Travers and John Whyte.
By the 1950’s there were many additional players. Pictured below is The New Haven Gaelic Football Team in 1956.
THE SEARCH FOR A HOME...
At first, the New Haven Gaelic Football Club was an organization without a home. “We were few and very frugal,” recalled John Reynolds, the club’s first president. “We literally met in the open at Church and Chapel Streets in New Haven.” The other officers of that first Executive Board were as follows: Sean Scollan, Vice President; James McGuinness, Secretary; and Thomas O’Brien, Treasurer. Eagles Hall and the Hibernian Hall on Beach Street, New Haven were rented for dances and other social and fund-raising activities. In 1961 and 1962 dances were held at Reilly’s Restaurant on Whitney Avenue, Hamden. Football games were played at Clinton Avenue Park, Bowen Field, and Rice Field all in New Haven. After the games, visiting teams were entertained at Hibernian Hall or in Frank Hunt’s restaurant on State Street in New Haven.
With its membership and treasury growing (in 1960 dues were raised from $1.00 to $3.00 a year!), club members began a search for more permanent quarters. When the Castel Pagano Society offered to lease its St. Rose’s Hall at 61 Alling Street in Hamden for $500.00 a month, the officers of the Gaelic Club appealed to the membership for pledges of $50.00. Twenty members came forward: Thomas O’Malley, Pat Bohan, James McGloin, Jim McCormack, Peter Burke, James Cox, William Mulhall, John O’Donovan, Thomas McKeon, Michael Bohan, Patrick Hanlon, Philip Stratton, Edward Brassil, Robert O’Brien, Sean Scollan, Frank McGreevy, Dave Leach, Bernie McKeon, Ned Foley, and Kevin Glancy.
And the club had itself a home all its own.
In November 1962, attorney Ned Reynolds represented the club before the State Liquor Control Commission, and a liquor permit was secured with Frank McGreevy as permittee.
The club’s five years at St Rose’s Hall were ones of consolidation and expansion. The officers of the club during this period acknowledged the inspired leadership of Felix Gill, a dynamic native of County Leitrim who unfortunately remained in New Haven for a few years. Gill helped convince members that the club could become a great force for the promotion of Irish sports and culture if members would stand and work together. Father Raymond Gallagher, who acted as a chaplain during the club’s tenure on Alling Street, also composed the club prayer, still in use at every meeting.
PRESENT HOME ON VENICE PLACE…
In 1959 club members became interested in purchasing the Venetian Club on Venice Place in East Haven. In the autumn of that year, President Edward Brassil discussed such a move with real estate agents, but the project was shelved.
Interest in the Venice Place site reawakened in 1967.
The club submitted a preliminary bid for the property that was at first rejected; however, on August 4 of that year, President Charles O’Hagan announced that an agreement had been reached. The Venice Place building, constructed in the 1940’s was purchased from St. Casimir’s Men’s Club of the Lithuanian community for $41,500 and the club assumed the biggest obligation it had ever undertaken – a mortgage of $25,000 to be paid over 25 years. Charles O’Hagan and Kevin Glancy assumed the roles of backers for the mortgage. Bernie Ford became the building's first caretaker, and Frank McGreevy continued as permittee.
In the early 1970’s an extensive expansion and renovation project was begun. A large lounge was constructed; two rooms with dormers were added to the second-floor apartment; and a new roof was installed. Although most club members contributed in some way to the expansion project the work could not have been completed without the efforts of architect Michael Gilchrist, mason Frank O’Keefe, electrician James McCabe, and the all-around skills of Mike Johnson and Bill Mulhall. On September 29, 1972, then-president Sean Gallagher cut the ribbon, and the club’s newly designated chaplain, Father Thomas Shanley O.P., said Mass in the expanded clubhouse. Father Shanley continued as chaplain until 1985 when his duties were assumed by Father Howard Nash. Superhuman efforts to reclaim and tame the land surrounding the club premises came to fruition in 1998 when the ribbon was cut to inaugurate a level playing field.
THE STREET NAME…
The location of an Irish club on a street named after an Italian city was the cause of some good–natured joking. The inconsistency caught the eye of two East Haven mayors, Frank Messina, and Tony Proto. After taking up the idea with their Town Council, to change from Venice Place to a new name with an Irish lilt, the councilmen rejected the idea both times.
WOMEN IN THE CLUB…
The club’s success has not been measured on the playing field alone. Over the years the role of women in the life of the club has expanded and the club has been richer for it. In March, 1962, a motion by Bernie McKeon passed, opening membership in the previously all-male organization to women, who soon began to make significant contributions in existing programs and to initiate others. In the mid-1960’s the club sponsored a camogie team and, in the 1980’s, a women’s football team. As part of the club agenda, early in 1973 a Women’s Committee was formed, with Rosemary Hartigan as its first chairperson. Under her direction and guidance of those who were elected in succeeding years, there was soon food regularly available on club premises and for special functions. The Women’s Committee chose many worthy fundraisers to support and lead and they also promoted cultural and social events.
TEENS IN THE CLUB….
Members with teen-aged children were pleased to see them organized in 1973 under Matthew Frawley’s leadership. Matt was instrumental in taking groups of teens to entertain at area hospitals and convalescent homes. Of course, the teens developed an active social calendar and in 1977 an all-teen cast performed two Irish dramas at the club: Year of the Hiker and The Spraying of John O’Day.
GENEROSITY OF THE CLUB…
If there is any area in which the New Haven Gaelic Football and Hurling Club has excelled, it is that of generosity to others. Members have recognized and responded quickly to anyone in need to help – whether it be to other members or non-members of the club or a deserving religious or civic group. A check of monthly club newsletters through the years shows at least one major fundraiser annually, and beneficiaries range from members' families with health or other problems to churches in Ireland, to individuals in Ireland.
THE BIRTH OF THE IACC…
During the 1970’s the New Haven Gaelic Football and Hurling Club shouldered a heavy tax burden each year – the high cost of financial solvency. Advisors such as club member and attorney George Waldron recommended the formation of an “umbrella” organization that would allow a division of responsibility for events such as the cultural and charitable functions and thus would affect a tax savings for the club. In 1982 the new association became the Irish American Community Center (IACC), and its first president Michael McDermott, who was instrumental in its formation. The IACC elects officers each year as well as the New Haven Gaelic Football and Hurling Club. These two slates conduct the club’s business and together constitute the Executive Board.
THE CLUB’S SEALS…
Now that the New Haven Gaelic Football and Hurling Club had a permanent abode, the club sponsored a design competition, which was won by Bonnie Blake, who created the now-familiar seal. In 1982, when the Irish-American Community Center was formed to develop and expand the club’s cultural base and to broaden its membership appeal, a second design competition was launched and a new seal was added, this one the creation of Karen Burgess.