It’s rare that a door closes without another one opening so when the chains were wrapped around the gates of Casement Park in 2013 it fell to Corrigan Park, less than two miles up the road in West Belfast, to host the county footballers. Eventually, anyway.
Antrim turned initially to Páirc Mac Uilinn in Ballycastle. Páirc Naomh Pól and Fr McGuigan Park, both in Belfast, had their turns until the wanderlust all but ended with a residency close by at Corrigan Park on Whiterock Rd.
“It’s been fantastic,” says St John’s club secretary Sharon Hughes. “There have been fans up from all sorts of counties the last few years. People you might only normally get to bump into in Croke Park. It has been great to see that in West Belfast.”
Today it will be Kildare’s turn to grace a ground which served as home to Antrim’s county sides until Casement was opened in 1953 and one which once thrilled to the sight of Christy Ring and renowned gaels from Galway, Kilkenny, Dublin, and Kerry.
Capacity at Corrigan Park has been reduced by 10% for this All-Ireland qualifier, 2,672 to 2,402. Take away the 300 or so tickets reserved for players, VIPs, and the like and the limited availability left has had a predictable effect.
Hughes has been wading through emails all week from clubs looking for stubs —there are 13 clubs alone in the tight vicinity of the city that sits between Falls Rd and Andersonstown — and the picture it paints will be unique.
“There is the sense of a bit of an occasion about it,” says Antrim secretary Frankie Quinn.
It’s a championship match against a top-eight team from last year’s championship coming to Belfast. It will be unusual for Kildare. It’s a club ground.
"There is no stand around it or terraces at Corrigan Park, just a grass bank, and you can see the Harland and Wolff cranes, ‘David’ and ‘Goliath’, from the pitch.”
St John’s have plans to redevelop the venue, with a stand front and centre in their thoughts, but it is the weeds and grime colonising Casement less than two miles to the south that provides the context for this encounter.
The GAA launched its ‘Gaelfast’ initiative for Belfast last year. Operational this last six months, it is a five-year plan supported by more than £1m in funding with the aim of increasing specialist GAA coaching in the city’s schools.
GAA president John Horan described Belfast at the time of the announcement as a “sleeping giant” but it is all the more difficult to rouse when the kids they are trying to reach have little tangible to aim for, no bar to reach or visible heroes to emulate.
Today’s is just the second senior championship game the Antrim footballers have played in the city since Casement was shut. It’s a void that brings to mind the tagline for the Women in Sport 20x20 campaign: ‘If you can’t see it you can’t be it.’
“Come the 23rd of July it will be six years since the last game at Casement,” says Quinn. “If you have kids who were six or seven then, they are 13 or 14 now and most of them have never seen a game there. If Casement was to get the go-ahead tomorrow, they would probably be 17 or 18 by the time it was ready.”
Belfast is unique among Ireland’s major cities in terms of such invisibility. As the accompanying graphic shows, all the other major population centres have hosted their county football sides far more often in recent years. Even Derry City, not exactly renowned as a hotbed, has been the venue for half-a-dozen games in the same spell.
And this all without mentioning the senior Antrim hurlers who have been bouncing around between Corrigan Park, Cushendall, and Dunloy. Antrim’s short championship summers can’t be forgotten as a factor in this but the effect is undeniable: Slowly but surely the sense of connection between a team and its place gets lost.
Ten of the 17 Antrim players who have started their two games this summer, against Tyrone and Louth, have made their senior debuts since the county’s last championship outing at Casement, against Monaghan six years ago.
Only two, Patrick McBride and Ricky Johnston, played that day in 2013 and the latter is the only survivor from side that edged Galway by a point at their old home in an All-Ireland qualifier back in 2011.
That was a time when Antrim had briefly threatened to evacuate the morass they long called home. A first Ulster final appearance in 29 years was banked a decade ago and a six-point loss to Tyrone backed up by a five-point loss to Kerry in the qualifiers.
In 2010, they played out a draw against Kildare in Newbridge before the Leinster side claimed a nine-point win on the second time of asking up north. All of which seems a long time ago now given the win over Louth two weeks ago was a first for them in the qualifiers since 2015.
It’s no wonder long-serving Conor Murray has described this date with the Lilywhites as a shop window for the game in West Belfast and there are plenty of reasons for the visitors to make their way north with their wits about them. Kildare’s struggles against supposed inferiors in Longford and Carlow this last 13 months feed into an Antrim track record at Corrigan Park that has seen them lose one league game — by a point to Derry this year — from the 11 played there since 2016.
The one championship game decided at the venue since Casement’s closure did fall in Limerick’s favour three years ago but only thanks to a pair of superb, late saves by the visiting goalkeeper. Get that close to Kildare down the stretch and it will be the visitors who feel a long way from home.