Why pitch construction was as much a vocation as a job for Joe Pat Prunty

Joe Pat Prunty, who died recently, was the veteran owner of Prunty Pitches, the company he literally built with his two hands out of mud and soil over 50 years ago
Why pitch construction was as much a vocation as a job for Joe Pat Prunty

PITCH PERFECT: Kerry players race out onto Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney. Joe Pat Prunty oversaw the redevelopment of the pitch surface there in the mid-‘80s. ‘The pitch would still be regarded as one of the best surfaces around, it can still cope with a lot of water,” said current Fitzgerald Stadium committee chairman Der Brosnan. Picture: Inpho/Cathal Noonan

Just beneath the surface in the centre of the Brewster Park pitch in Enniskillen lies a holy medal, placed there to keep the players safe.

It was only recently, following the death of Joe Pat Prunty, that Greg Kelly began to think about the day the medal was buried.

It was in 2007, during redevelopment works, and Kelly, the current Fermanagh GAA chairman, was on site in his capacity as secretary of the Enniskillen Gaels club, who own Brewster Park.

Prunty was there as the veteran owner of Prunty Pitches, the company he literally built with his two hands out of mud and soil over 50 years ago not too far down the road.

“I called down to the pitch to see how things were going and Joe Pat was there,” said Kelly. “I remember he held up a closed fist to me and I was wondering is this man going to clock me or something?! He opened it up and there was a miraculous medal in it. The top surface of the pitch hadn’t been laid at that stage and he said to me, ‘I’m going to bury that at the half-way line to keep the players safe’.”

A religious man, Prunty perhaps did this with each of the hundreds of pitches he constructed throughout Ireland and the UK but we suspect Brewster Park, the home of Fermanagh GAA, was a special project.

An All-Ireland junior medallist with Fermanagh in 1959, beating Kerry, he also won four county SFC titles with Roslea Shamrocks.

That’s a sporting legacy in itself though it’s his work in the area of pitch construction and renovation that will stand the test of time. If you’ve ever played Gaelic games, chances are you’ve kicked a ball or swung the ash on some sort of Prunty pitch, grass or artificial. There are literally hundreds of them.

Joe Pat Prunty
Joe Pat Prunty

The main GAA county grounds in Roscommon, London, Down, Meath, Monaghan, Cavan and Longford are all Prunty pitches. They built the pitches at centres of excellence in Meath, Tyrone, Monaghan, at the National Games Development Centre in Abbotstown and 10 fields at Queens University.

They were heavily involved in the Connacht Council’s historic new Air Dome project in Mayo, provided pitches for UCC and, significantly, laid down the current surface in Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney.

We say significantly because Prunty considered it both a treat and a great responsibility to be asked in the mid-1980s to build a pitch for the greatest team of all time at that stage.

Fitzgerald Stadium was initially built in 1936 and hosted the 1937 All-Ireland hurling final.

Exactly 50 years later, it was deemed to be in need of modernisation and a delegation met with Prunty to commission him and his expert team.

“I particularly remember all the sand, the pitch was just full of sand, carpeted in it,” recalls current Fitzgerald Stadium committee chairman Der Brosnan, a member of the local Dr Crokes club.

Brosnan’s memory is spot on because the use of sand, tonnes of it, was Prunty’s calling card. Brought up on a farm in Derryvollen close to the border, he left school at 14 and initially was an expert ploughman before merging his interests in land drainage and Gaelic football to help develop the revolutionary new ‘sand carpet pitch’ concept in the 1960s.

His close friend John Mulqueen was central to the breakthrough and they patented the unique sand-based Prunty-Mulqueen playing surface.

It was first trialled on rugby pitches at the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen in 1966/1967 and within 20 years, having amassed an extensive portfolio of work mostly in Northern Ireland, Prunty was honoured with an MBE for ‘services to agriculture and sports industries’.

“The pitch would still be regarded as one of the best surfaces around, it can still cope with a lot of water,” said Brosnan of Fitzgerald Stadium.

Born in 1932, and immersed in Gaelic football when neighbours Cavan won back to back All-Irelands in 1947 and 1948, Prunty also took pride in working on Breffni Park. He started on the main pitch in the mid-1990s and in 1999 constructed the first full-sized 3G artificial pitch behind the ground.

Former Cavan chairman George Cartwright became a close friend and launched Prunty’s book, A Lifetime Of Football, Fields And Faith in 2016. He remembers a remarkable, devout man.

“He was a very religious man, a frequent visitor to Knock and Medjugorje and I believe that arising out of those trips he set up a prayer group at his home in Newtownbutler,” said Cartwright, whose own book The Gallant John Joe, Cavan’s Millennium Man about Cavan great John Joe O’Reilly, is currently on sale.

Joe Pat had a little oratory at home and prayer groups that would come together. In addition to being very religious, he was also very spiritual, very kind, a gentleman.

Pitch construction was as much a vocation as a job for Prunty who often travelled for hours in his beloved Range Rover, at his own expense, to monitor projects he’d been involved in.

“I’ll tell you what I used to enjoy, a few of us would often walk up and down Breffni Park with him and he’d have a spade and every so often he’d dig out a chunk of soil and get his fingers in at it and tease it out and he’d explain to us about foreign bodies and irrigation and drainage, it was an education for us,” said Cartwright.

“He would always say, ‘A pitch is a living breathing thing and has to be treated that way. You can’t just lay it down and forget about it. It needs to breathe and to be maintained and to be fine tuned’.

“I felt he took particular interest in Breffni Park for some reason, perhaps because it was near to him and he grew up in an era of great success for Cavan. He would always say before big games there, ‘When you guys are sitting watching and cheering the players on Sunday, I’ll be watching the pitch.’ He was so proud of the pitch.”

Joe Pat Prunty: 1932-2021

1946: Left school at 14 and worked on the family farm near Roslea, Fermanagh.

1952: Set up an agricultural contracting business and purchased first tractor.

1952-1960: Earned the reputation of an expert ploughman. Won four-in-a-row with Roslea Shamrocks and an All-Ireland JFC title with Fermanagh.

1960s: Helped develop award-winning mini-trencher drainage machine and, with John Mulqueen, constructed first sand carpet pitches in Enniskillen.

1973-1975: Formed Prunty Contracts Ltd and helped develop award-winning gravel tunnel machine.

1980s: Worked on redevelopment of Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney and Navan’s Páirc Tailteann among many other projects. Awarded MBE for services to agriculture and sports industries in 1985.

1990s to retirement, 2015: Took on many huge projects during the Celtic Tiger era, including centres of excellence in Meath and Monaghan. Installed the first full-sized artificial pitch in Cavan in 1999 and more recently all five pitches at the GAA’s training centre in Abbotstown.

2016: Published his book, Joe Pat Prunty, A Lifetime of Football Fields and Faith. It stated that since 1967, the company constructed or redeveloped more than 500 pitches and sports grounds. These include GAA, soccer, rugby, schools, bowling, equestrian, golf, hotel and even military facilities.

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