History of Chicago GAA
By Eamonn Kelly
The GAA was first organized in Chicago in 1890 on the west side of the city. The first game, a hurling match between Innisfails and Grattans, took place on Independence Day 1891. By 1893, there were fifteen clubs with a total membership of over two thousand members in the city. The Chicago clubs not only played each other, but also against teams from other areas. It is believed that Chicago Central was formed in 1895 with some type of affiliation with the GAA Council in Ireland.
From the 1890's until the 1930's, the GAA continued to strive in Chicago. In 1910, eleven Chicago hurlers teamed up with an equal number of hurlers from New York for a tour of Ireland, where they played Kilkenny, Limerick, Dublin and Wexford. Non-competitive games were played for several years at the 'Old' Chicago Gaelic Park, located at 4700 S. California Avenue. (See Photo)
The number of clubs in the city fluctuated a lot during the 1920's. The organization got a great boost in 1926 when Tipperary, 1925 All-Ireland Hurling Champions, visited Chicago. It was estimated that over ten thousand people came to see the game between the Tipperary team and the local selection. The following year, the Kerry football team visited Chicago.
The Great Depression and a world war brought Irish immigration to a virtual halt and almost killed the GAA in Chicago. Following the end of the war and the country's depression, Irish immigration reemerged and the wave of new emigrants soon got the GAA back in solid footing. A new GAA board was formed in 1949, with Kilkennyman Patrick Hennessy of the local Harry Boland's Hurling Club being elected the first chairman. Pat emerged to become a major force in public relations for the GAA in the city, writing weekly columns in local and national media until his death in 2013. Five new clubs became affiliated with the new board and the number doubled by the end of the 1950's. During this decade, the promotion of Gaelic games made enormous progress in Chicago, with large crowds attending Sunday afternoon games in Shewbridge Stadium at 74th & Morgan on the south side of the city and later in Rockne Stadium on the far west side near Central & Roosevelt. During the 1960's, these two stadiums hosted several exhibition games that involved many different club and county teams from Ireland.
There was little change in the number of clubs or GAA membership during the sixties and early seventies, but reduced emigration in the late seventies and early eighties lowered affiliation with the board from 10 clubs to 6. During that period, we saw the exit of such popular clubs as St. Vincent's and Shannon Rangers in hurling and football clubs St. Mell's and St. Pat's. In the early 70's, All-Ireland hurling champions Tipperary and Cork were popular visitors, as was the Bank of Ireland All-Star Hurling team. Probably the greatest ever participation of Ireland's top inter-county hurlers and football in Chicago came in the late 1970's. In a star-studded fixture in 1977 at Hanson Stadium on the city's northwest side, Dublin, the much decorated 1976 All-Ireland football champions, took on the 1976 Carroll's All-Star selection and to finish the double-header fixture, Cork, the 1976 All-Ireland hurling champions, played the Carroll's 1976 hurling All-Star team. While several county and club teams from Ireland have participated in Chicago over the following years, no GAA fixture of that magnitude has been repeated in Chicago.
Increased emigration in the late 1980's and the development of the 'New' Gaelic Park, which opened in 1985 in Chicago's far southwest suburbs, contributes to another revival of the GAA in Chicago. Ever since the opening of the great facility, Gaelic Park has become the home of the Chicago GAA. The venue has hosted several NACB playoff tournaments since its opening and is considered the finest Irish facility in the country to host Gaelic games.
While Gaelic games flourished in the 1990's and into the new century with huge crowds enjoying great games at Gaelic Park, a sharp decrease in emigration from Ireland due to the "Celtic Tiger" Irish economy and drastic changes in U.S. emigration visa laws contributed to probably the biggest decrease in club membership since the late 70's. Such great clubs as the Wolfe Tones and St. Brendan's in football and hurling club, Harry Boland's, almost went out of existence and were non-competitive for a few years. Fortunately, all three clubs have regrouped and are back as competitve as in earlier years contributing to a brighter future for the Chicago GAA and a return to a more familiar atmosphere around Gaelic Park.