When the modern sporting world was being made in the late 19th century, newly-minted 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 goal posts’.
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 goal posts 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 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 numerous gaming tables that were 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 admittance 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 definite 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 in 1950, with clubs and county boards, alike, attempting to establish for themselves a permanent base.
The 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 is 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.