» Back of the Onion bag – An Interview with Tommy Smyth

07 Jul

Back of the Onion bag – An Interview with Tommy Smyth

Posted by David Keane in LiveGaelic Legends | Jul 2013

Tommy Smith is best known worldwide for his colourful role as a commentator for soccer on ESPN, but what many may not know is he is also deeply involved in Gaelic Games abroad, particularly in New York where he has worked tirelessly for almost 50 years promoting our games.

We’re delighted to bring you this exclusive interview with the great man, as he speaks about his love for the GAA, the great work being carried on by GAA clubs abroad and finally his views on this year’s championship and the chances of his native county – Louth.

Back of the Onion bag – An Interview with Tommy Smyth

You are originally a Knockbridge born man, County Louth. Would “The Brides” have been your club and with Knockbridge being a dual sport village, did you ever dabble in the Football also?
Football and I mean Gaelic was really all that was in Knockbridge in those days. I was the youngest Secretary that the Brides ever had. The late great Nicholas Marry got me elected when I was just 16. We are talking 50 years ago, which is a coincidence since it was August 3 1963 I left home, so we are almost at my 50th Anniversary. The Saint Brides club gave me a watch, had a dance and the whole bit for me before I left!

It was my first ever public speech, and I remember saying “I doubt I will make the White House”! I said I will always try and make Knockbridge and Louth proud and I hope I did.

When you first arrived in New York, it was to play and later manage GAA. How much do you miss this part of your life, as your demands with ESPN Soccer Net have you so busy?
Gaelic Park, as stadiums go, was not ranked among one of the real good ones in those days. Gaelic Park instead was like a little village that moved from Ireland. I always said as you walked on 238 Street you were in the Bronx, and as you entered the door of Gaelic Park you were in any village in Ireland. I loved playing or at least trying to play for Louth. I played for four decades at Senior level, from the ’60s through to the ’90s.

The only medal I won was in ’63 we were B Division Champions. I thought, “this is great, a medal after two months!” but I never got another one.

I managed the Louth team and played with some of the great players who came out Maiden Wiseman, Seamus Haughy, the Lennons including Pat (RIP), Frank Lynch Benny Gaughran, Leslie Toal, Eamon Burgess and Enda Murray.

I managed the team and was President of the club for many years. The one blot on my copybook was that the club went under during my watch as the Celtic Tiger made it impossible to keep 20 players on a squad.

In 2008 you were Grand Marshall of the St Patrick’s Day Parade in New York and later in 2011 you were the Guest of Honour at the GAA of Greater New York’s Gala Banquet. How do these moments, which were tied into your involvement and dedication to GAA in New York, rank in what’s been an amazing career?
To be Grand Marshal puts you in fantastic company. Only just 251 have had the title. That is another amazing fact that the Saint Patrick’s parade has been on the streets of New York for 251 years. It was here before the Declaration of Independence which we celebrated last week.

To me it’s the biggest singular honour any Irish person can get not just in New York but in the USA.

My claim to fame is that in 2008 the official numbers at the parade according to the NYPD was a little over 3 million people. When Obama was sworn in he had two and half million! I had the Offaly man by over half a million!

Another thing I’m immensely proud of is that when the County Louth Society celebrated 100 years in 2006, they named me their Man of the Century. That was an enormous honour and something I cherish. It’s always harder to get the attention of your own!

To be honoured by the GAA was also something that I cherished. I announced games in Gaelic Park every Sunday for years. I met my wife Treasa Goodwin Smyth from Ballard in Cobh because she was playing camogie in Gaelic Park. I miss Gaelic Park every Sunday and when I retire I can see myself back there. Maybe putting a Wee County team back on that new turf.

A great story from those days was when a certain manager from Connemara brought out a Dublin goalkeeper (all names omitted to protect the innocent) to play for Connemara. The keeper looked at the pitch and said “Blimey, there is not a blade of grass on it!”, to which the manager replied quick as a flash asking “Son, did you come out her to play football or to graze!?”.

We love to tune in to see you doing so well on international TV. How much would you have loved to co-commentate a game with the great Micheal Ó Muircheartaigh?
I obviously knew Micheal O Muircheartaigh very well, and had the pleasure of introducing him on many occasions. I am actually a trivia question with Micheal – What two well-known commentators were Grand Marshals of the St Patrick’s Day Parades in the one year? The answer is Micheal and I in 2008, when he was the Marshall in Dublin and I was in New York.

My favorite commentator story is back in the very early days, I would say 1969, I was working for Horn and Hardth, travelling around the city maintaining their machinery. Every Sunday evening I went to five o’clock mass in St Malachy’s Church – also known as the Actors’ Church – on 47th street near Broadway. It was quite a dark church so it was hard to make out peoples’ faces, on this particular evening I took a seat about three rows from the back, as Mass started I heard a voice and I said to myself “I know that voice”. I finally realized that it was the voice of the great Micheal O’Heir, who had been in NY covering a horse race.

I invited him to have a cup of coffee with me, it was the best cup of coffee I ever had and after that when we meet we always had a few words.

Where did the phrase “Back of the Onion bag” originate from?
I realized early on that in America every good commentator had a signature call. I was in McCormack’s Restaurant downtown which was owned by a fellow call Barry McCormack, who played with the Navan O’Mahoney’s and with Leitrim in New York. He was missing so often on world tours I nicknamed him the Wanderer and it stuck. We were talking about goal calls and I tested this idea for a call I had out on him, and we refined it, until we got it to the workable “a bulge in the auld onion bag”.

The rest is history.

You have spoken out on twitter recently about the moves to stop players travelling to USA to play GAA. Is it the level of control being exerted by the home club/county on the players that you disagree with?
I feel if you play Gaelic Football it should give you chances to do things that other people cannot do. I just don’t agree with the premise, that if you play Gaelic Football in Ireland that it will stop you doing things like playing in New York.

One of the reasons why the Louth New York team folded was that we did not bring out many players and made do with the young players who came along and at the beginning of the season. Guys are playing here to win things, to be in with a chance of winning things we need to bring players over from Ireland.

It’s one of the things I felt I always had in Gaelic Park – along with the fans, I got to see great players as they played in their prime.

I remember a senior final that featured Tyrone and Cavan, Tyrone had seven Kerry players including the Spillanes, while Cavan had eight Kerry players including players like the Bomber, Jack O’Shea, and blended in the great Armagh man Big Joe.

It was one of the finest games of football I’ve ever seen, with Cavan lifting the trophy. It certainly was an advertisement for letting players come out from Ireland.

We intend on attending both the USA Games Finals and the Asian games finals, feeling these are important areas of the GAA world that are under exposed. To any of our readers who have a chance to attend any of these great GAA spectacles abroad, what would you say to encourage them?
I would say if you can attend the American Board finals go for it, you will get a chance to see some of the finest Gaelic Players the GAA ever produced at all levels and ages. The calibre of football produced at those venues is amazing. I have never been to the Asian Finals but do intend to make it there. I had the pleasure of announcing the American Board finals one year when there were played in Philadelphia and it was super.

How important do you think GAA abroad is to the GAA as a whole and to the many Irish communities around the world?
1059127_10151538561128310_908100707_nAnybody in Ireland or abroad who doesn’t recognize how important the GAA is has no idea how the world works. I have asked many people over the last 100 years how many young lads have been kept out of trouble and kept on a straight and narrow path because of their involvement with the GAA and the example set for them by the many great GAA people around the world.

I said earlier about Gaelic Park, it wasn’t just a place where a football was kicked or a sliotar was hit by a cuman, it was not just the fact you were wearing red for Louth or green and gold for Kerry. All of those things were important, but the most important element was that the ordinary punters in Gaelic Park might know where there was a job or an apartment to share or in my case a soul mate for the rest of my life.

The lack of exposure & attention afforded to the game in foreign countries and the great work done by those involved is something we feel very strongly about. Do you have any thoughts on what can be done to help these great people get the recognition and support from both the GAA headquarters and the people of Ireland they deserve?
I think the moves in New York, to get the GAA into the schools, have been of the utmost importance, especially Ladies Football. I think you’re starting to see the standard of players now as they play in the Feile na nÓg, you just hope that the people at the top in Ireland will realize had this been done fifty years ago we might not be talking about NFL or College football we could be talking about GAA football.

I often wondered if the GAA had been in a school like Notre Dame with its 110,000 seat stadium, what could have happened. To me it was a chance missed, I am sure Father Corby would have no problem talking Gaelic Football in. I just appeal to the people who are running the GAA at the moment – please don’t miss the second chance.

Have you been cheering on the London men on their amazing journey to get to the Connacht Final?
Yes! It’s a great story, very easy to understand because of all the good lads who have to emigrate, I wish them the very best of luck, I have seen their set up many time when I was involved with the New York minors, you could tell 10 years ago that the London GAA was going to be around for a long time and I wish them continued success.

How closely have you been following Louth this season? Do you think they can upset a Kildare team that should be eager to regain a little pride after the Dublin thrashing?
There have been a couple of weekends I have really been sore as I kicked every ball that Louth kicked! They played very well against Laois, but the Wexford game I was really sore from. Last week I decided just to listen to Colm and Stephan on LM/FM but sure you know yourself you kick every ball with the team. My thoughts go back to ’57 when nobody thought they could beat Kildare which they did and went on and collected Sam. Maybe this year will be the same – at least we can hope.

Who do you like to see win this years All Ireland Championship?
If my team in red does not win, then my wife Treasa’s team will – Cork.

Tommy’s love of the GAA is palpable, and is all the more remarkable considering he has made his career commentating on another sport. The work he has done in promoting the game in the United States is something that has gone largely unnoticed over the years and is something he deserves great credit for.

Everyone here at would like to take this opportunity to thank him sincerely for taking the time to answer our questions, and who better to sign off this interview than the man himself:

I have been very proud all my life to have been associated with the GAA. Maybe they are not perfect but then what organization is? I have spent many happy hours being around the GAA. I am a proud St Brides man, a community where even the pump is painted in the red and white of the Brides. I am always delighted when I walk into a stadium, to announce a soccer game, anywhere in the world and I hear somebody shout “up the Wee County” – it is a priceless feeling.

For more wisdom from the great Tommy Smyth, follow him on twitter at @TommySmythESPN

Follow LiveGaelic editor David Keane on twitter at @keane2097

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  • DB Reply
    July 7, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    Go to the All Asia games, great party and celebration of GAA, on in KL this October

  • John Reply
    July 9, 2013 at 3:52 am

    Brilliant article – loved it from start to finish!

    more of this please!

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