A sta­dium that is more than just bricks and mor­tar

Irish Examiner - Supplement - - PÁIRC UÍ CHAOIMH SPECIAL - Paul Rouse

Hav­ing a place to play sits at the heart of the very ex­is­tence of ev­ery sport­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion. With­out such a place, no sport can ex­ist.

When the mod­ern sport­ing world was be­ing made in the late 19th cen­tury, new­lyminted sports clubs – and then their gov­ern­ing bod­ies – sought to make for them­selves a place to call their own.

The mak­ing of these grounds changed the as­pect of Ir­ish towns and cities, as the great craze for or­gan­ised sport swept Ireland – just as it was sweep­ing Britain and Amer­ica.

Af­ter its foun­da­tion in 1884, find­ing proper grounds was one of the big­gest chal­lenges fac­ing GAA clubs as they sought to es­tab­lish their pres­ence in com­mu­ni­ties.

In those ini­tial years clubs re­lied on leas­ing or bor­row­ing patches of land on which they could make a pitch. A lack of per­ma­nence un­der­cut the po­ten­tial for de­vel­op­ing fa­cil­i­ties.

The thirst for land in post-Famine Ireland meant that landown­ers who leased land to GAA clubs were un­will­ing to sell the land – and even had they been will­ing, clubs and county boards did not have the re­sources to com­plete the pur­chase.

Clearly, find­ing suit­able grounds was vi­tal to build­ing the fu­ture of the As­so­ci­a­tion, but it was not a straight­for­ward task. In­deed, it re­mained the bane of the lives of those who ran the GAA in its ear­li­est decades.

In March 1887 – as it was try­ing to run the first ever Cork hurl­ing cham­pi­onship – the newly formed Cork County Board set about mak­ing pitches for it­self in the city.

It se­cured the use of the great pub­lic space that was Cork Park, in the east of the city, that was owned by the city cor­po­ra­tion.

The pitch had been used for hurl­ing in 1886, but had been ma­ligned as ‘an ex­ag­ger­ated pig-stye’, which held merely ‘one rick­ety set of goal­posts’.

Lo­cal GAA men and the city coun­cil then did much to de­velop Cork Park for hurl­ing. By the summer of 1887, Cork Park was con­sid­ered much im­proved as a venue, with good goal­posts and the pitches, though not con­sid­ered good, were now deemed ac­cept­able.

It was the only venue used by the Cork County Com­mit­tee to stage cham­pi­onship matches dur­ing that first year of hurl­ing.

Cru­cially, these matches wee the fo­cal point of a great day out for the com­mu­nity. Up to 5,000 spec­ta­tors were known to come to the ground in the 1880s. As the matches pro­gressed, it was noted also that rat­tle of dice and the roll of the roulette could be heard from the nu­mer- ous gam­ing ta­bles es­tab­lished along the side­lines. All of the life of the city flowed out to Cork Park and it was soon es­tab­lished as a key as­pect of so­cial and cul­tural af­fairs in the city. De­spite this, there was some­thing un­sat­is­fac­tory about hav­ing a field on a pub­lic space – most no­tably, it was dif­fi­cult to col­lect ad­mit­tance fees. This was true in Cork – and true all across Ireland as the GAA sought to es­tab­lish it­self.

And even when seem­ingly ideal grounds could be se­cured, what en­sued was not al­ways a suc­cess. The 1893 All-Ireland fi­nals were fixed for the Ash­town Trot­ting Grounds be­side the Phoenix Park (later better known sim­ply as the Phoenix Park Race­course). Cork were down to play the foot­ball and hurl­ing fi­nals against Kilkenny and Wex­ford, re­spec­tively.

The grounds were en­closed, al­low­ing for an ad- mit­tance fee to be charged, and in the hour be­fore the game some 1,000 people paid in. The ground had not been prop­erly pre­pared, how­ever, and the play­ers sim­ply re­fused to play be­cause the grass was knee-high and there were no pitch mark­ings.

To end the im­passe some play­ers up­rooted the goal­posts and moved to a spot in the Phoenix Park where the games were duly com­pleted – with­out spec­ta­tors hav­ing to pay to watch.

A mea­sure of sta­bil­ity came when county boards be­gan to se­cure longer-term leases on grounds.

In Cork, the GAA se­cured use of the Ath­letic Grounds in the city in the 1890s and early 1900s on a lease from the Mun­ster Agri­cul­tural Com­pany.

The grounds were en­closed so gate money could be taken and this was a defi- nite step for­ward.

It was not a step with­out its com­pli­ca­tions, how­ever. As the only such fa­cil­ity in the county, many cham­pi­onship and chal­lenge matches, ir­re­spec­tive of who was play­ing, were staged there. At a meet­ing of the County Board in 1901, it was noted that this pre­sented its own dif­fi­cul­ties be­cause ‘the ne­ces­sity of pro­ceed­ing to the City from re­mote dis­tricts, to take part in the cham­pi­onship, is a great im­ped­i­ment’.

The great change in the for­tunes of the GAA was both high­lighted by – and rooted in – the de­vel­op­ment of Croke Park, par­tic­u­larly af­ter 1913. The story of the de­vel­op­ment of Croke Park was re­peated on a smaller scale across the coun­try.

The role of Paddy O’Ke­effe as Gen­eral Sec­re­tary of the GAA from 1929 to 1964 was cen­tral to this process. Paddy O’Ke­effe was, of course, the Pádraig Ó Caoimh af­ter whom Páirc Uí Chaoimh was named.

Un­der his di­rec­tion, a grounds build­ing pro­gramme was ini­ti­ated which saw county stadiums built all around Ireland. There were, for ex­am­ple, the open­ings of MacHale Park in Castle­bar in 1931, the Gaelic Grounds in Lim­er­ick in 1934, Cu­sack Park in En­nis, the Fitzger­ald Memo­rial Park in Kil­lar­ney in 1935, Celtic Park in Derry in 1943, Case­ment Park in Belfast in 1953, and Pearse Sta­dium in Gal­way in 1957.

In­deed, the num­ber of grounds owned by the GAA in­creased from 16 in 1929 to 204 Tin 1950. he am­bi­tion that ev­ery par­ish should have its own ded­i­cated GAA pitch – an am­bi­tion stressed through­out the cen­te­nary year of the GAA in 1984 – had largely been achieved by then. The need for ev­ery club to have its own pitch is an ob­vi­ous one and has proved cen­tral to the place which the GAA holds in ev­ery com­mu­nity.

The move to de­velop county grounds has proven more prob­lem­atic. Hav­ing a sub­stan­tial ground in a town or city is an em­blem of civic pride. Such grounds prove a mecca which draws busi­ness to a town and demon­strates its pros­per­ity.

The dif­fi­culty for the GAA is that the pur­suit of such sym­bols have not proven com­men­su­rate with sport­ing needs. Mun­ster holds too many grounds of too great a size in the con­text of the de­mands for their us­age.

There are years when such grounds are never full and rely on the stag­ing of non-sport­ing ac­tiv­i­ties to gen­er­ate in­come.

Al­low­ing for that, the de­sire to build i s an un­der­stand­able one and plac­ing a value on the wider con­tri­bu­tion to the sta­tus of a sport within a com­mu­nity is im­pos­si­ble to achieve – but no less real for all that.

Ul­ti­mately, there is some­thing deeply im­pres­sive about a well-made sports sta­dium, one that is unique and fit­ted into its en­vi­ron­ment in a way that aug­ments it­self and everything around it.

While it lives, how­ever, there are few better places to understand the life of a city.

The il­lu­sion is that – be­cause it is built of bricks and mor­tar – it will last for­ever, but of course it is merely tran­sient, built unto the mo­ment and its time will pass, just as surely as has that of the Colos­seum in Rome.

All of the life of the city flowed out to Cork Park and it was soon es­tab­lished as a key as­pect of so­cial and cul­tural af­fairs in the city

Pic­ture: Bren­dan Mo­ran/Sports­file

GEN­ER­A­TION GAME: A young sup­porter cheers on the Rebels dur­ing the Mun­ster SHC fi­nal a g a i n s t C l a r e a t Sem­ple Sta­dium.

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