The air dome in Connacht, used recently for FBD league games, has been one of the GAA success stories in recent months.
Images from those games are vaguely otherworldly, the white backdrop appearing to set players in a large laboratory, but is running games in a facility like this a glimpse of the future? One where adverse weather and treacherous playing surfaces don’t exist, or at least not as complications for fixture planners?
The general backstory of the air dome is well known: how then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny dropped in to the Connacht Council and mentioned such facilities as a possibility. How Connacht secretary John Prenty researched domes from Castlebar to Abbottstown to Finland. How they sourced government funding, and how they got it built.
“I’m sure there were people on the outside thought we were mad,” Prenty says now.
“The idea of putting a full-sized GAA pitch under an air dome had never been done before for sport anywhere in the world. Ours is 150 metres long, 100 metres wide, and 26 metres high, so I suppose there were fellas who thought it would never happen. But it did.”
The obvious question is whether it could be replicated elsewhere. What wasn’t so obvious was Prenty’s suggestion that such domes could be tailored to suit the needs of counties and provinces.
“There are various options, depending on what you want to do. An air dome for training is viable everywhere, but something like ours, 150 by 100 by 26 metres — that’s a different question.
“We were lucky in that we had the site in Bekan anyway, which removed some of the cost. It still cost €3.1m but if you added in the cost of infrastructure beneath it — a pitch — that would increase your costs, obviously enough.
“We’re in the second-level colleges season at present, and we opened an hour before you called to let a school team in to use the facility. We’ll have four more schools in there before three o’clock.
“Today you could play outdoors. It’s a lovely day here. But it’s the first lovely day we had here in a while. Skills can be coached and developed in the dome all year round.”
Those are the positives, the selling points of the facility. But what about the challenges? Maintenance?
“It’s not huge. You brush the pitch the way you would with any astroturf pitch — maybe less than most because the pitch is indoor — but it’s a smart dome. A lot of it can be worked remotely through internet of things technology: I can do a lot of the operations from my phone.
“People might have an idea it would blow down in a high wind, particularly if they haven’t seen it for themselves, but it came through Storm Barra recently with no problems.
“Snow can be more of a problem than wind sometimes. It comes off the roof fairly easily but if it builds up at the side that can be an issue.”
Prenty makes a persuasive case, outlining other advantages of the dome: “Hurling isn’t an issue. We’ve had third-level hurling games there and we’re starting our provincial competition next week.
“The players adapt to it quickly, the same as they adapt to a good field or a bad field. I haven’t seen any fella hit the roof with the ball, anyway.
“We have 600 seats in place at the moment but we can only use 50% of that with the restrictions. But we have three other sides to the field and you could put 3,500 people in there in normal circumstances.
“It would suit minor, U20, FBD games — that kind of attendance would cover a lot of games outside inter-county championship games.”
One of the key questions, though, is whether the air dome is a facility that should be replicated in other areas of the country.
At a cost of over €3m it’s unlikely that a club would rise to the challenge of providing one — the figure would put most counties to the pin of their collar, come to that.
Would provincial councils be likely customers?
That’s where the air dome comes into contact with GAA realities.
In Munster, for instance, CEO Kieran Leddy says: “Our development plan is being put together and we’ll launch it in a couple of months, but our focus at the moment would be on facilities in each county.
“Take centres of excellence — we’d be involved in funding Caherlohan in Clare, we’ve provided funding for Dr Morris Park in Tipperary, and we’ve provided significant funding for Páirc Uí Chaoimh and the artificial pitch next to it.
“Limerick are improving the facilities in their own centre of excellence and we’re involved there also. And of course we have Walsh Park in Waterford on the horizon. That requires a significant upgrade, and we’ll be involved in helping to fund that.”
If a provincial council is helping counties to fund infrastructure projects within those counties, then are those counties really going to turn around and source €3m somewhere else for different infrastructural projects?
“It looks unlikely,” says Leddy.
“Certainly in the short term. If domes happen they’d be more likely to be one per province, certainly at the start.
“That capital development within counties is what we’re looking at for the next number of years. It’s up to every county to do its own needs analysis, but from our point of view we’d like the centre of excellence model — one of them or access to one in each county for all county teams.
“What we’re looking for in the short term is a certain standard of facility in all counties for use by county teams.
“We’re also seeing a number of artificial pitches being developed across the province — a number of those have been developed and more will come on line, and I think when that’s been achieved we’d then be in a position to look at what the provincial council wants to achieve.
“That might come up then (air domes) but clearly we have a very county-based strategy.
“We have particular needs at county level we’d like to see addressed before we start looking ahead in terms of that kind of facility.
“If every county has a facility or has access to a facility that allow all county teams to train, then that would be a priority at the moment.”