Tralee GAA club John Mitchels merge old and new as they look to the future
A move of two miles, that’s all it was in the end, but it was a seismic shift for Tralee’s John Mitchels GAA Club.
It was at the start of the century — September 2000 — when the famed club first tested the waters of the property market, with the intention to sell their grounds.
The members had come to realise their traditional catchment areas were “maturing” and they needed to think radically. They had to move.
‘Chamfers’, adjacent to Austin Stack Park in Tralee, was the Mitchels’ home patch since 1960. It took its name from the former tenant of the site, a coffin-maker named ‘Chamfers’ O’Donoghue. Chamfering is a skill that involves beveling the edge of two surfaces, commonly used on coffin lids. The craftsman’s skill became his moniker and the pitch retained that title.
Chamfers covered a four-and-half acre site in the heart of Tralee town. It served the John Mitchels’ traditional heartland. The area bears all the hallmarks of the club’s legacy: there’s Mitchels Avenue, Mitchels Road; Mitchels Court and, of course, the John Joe Sheehy road — named after one of the club’s most famous sons. Sheehy — a Civil War IRA commander of the Boherbee battalion — captained Kerry to the 1930 All-Ireland title. Three of his sons — Paudie, Niall and Seán Óg — went on to win All-Irelands with Kerry in the 1960s, and were part of the famous John Mitchels five-in-a-row county championship-winning side (1959-1963).
The area is John Mitchels, but demographics heralded the dawn of a stark reality — the place was getting old.
Bríd McElligott-Rusk, chair of John Mitchels club since 2004, takes up the story: “One of the big challenges that we faced is that our catchment areas in Tralee around the John Joe Sheehy road, those areas matured. You had very few new families coming in. And, obviously, as few new families moved in, we had less juvenile players.”
The club agreed to sell their pitch for €10 million in February 2006: a special meeting on the sale ended with 136 votes in favour and just one against. A deal with their first proposed anchor tenant fell through but a new deal with the Aldi supermarket group allowed the club to retain their clubrooms and its bar and restaurant (opened in 1986) in the heart of the town. They have now relocated to luxurious new surroundings in the Ballyseedy area, just off the new Tralee bypass, two miles from their old home.
The move has seen the John Mitchels club combine their two centres, new and old, a chamfering of a new club identity.
“The move has made us a focal point in one of our traditional catchment areas,” explained McElligott-Rusk, who also confirmed that the club is debt-free since the move. “There has been a lot of growth in the residential population of this side of town and John Mitchels would be the natural home for people who want to play football here. We have provided that opportunity with 30 acres of recreational space — there wasn’t anything else available before us.”
Their traditional catchment areas in Tralee town — Kevin Barry Villas, Ballymullen, Marian Park, and, of course, Boherbee — are still treasured by the John Mitchels GAA club.
“We still have a presence in our old home,” said McElligott-Rusk. “In December one of club’s traditional highlights is our Christmas party for the active retired from the Mitchels’ traditional area.
“Over 130 attended that afternoon in our club bar in town. What would have been very important to the membership was that we left a legacy that did justice to the area that served us so well.”
The key to the relocation was to copper-fasten the club’s future — that means attracting new players. They battle with Kerins O’Rahillys, Austin Stacks and Na Gaeil within Tralee for playing numbers. On that front, the move is already reaping rewards.
“Our numbers would be very strong at juvenile level, but we have also seen an increase in our number of juveniles since we moved to our new facilities,” said McElligott-Rusk. “But the new development is only part of it.
“We are very fortunate to have very dedicated and committed mentors and managers who invest a lot of their time in coaching courses and guide our young players. When parents come here with their kids, one thing they can say is that the coaching is very good. The kids are well looked after. There is a good sense of community and family spirit in the club. That all goes towards attracting new players to the John Mitchels club.”
The new grounds at Ballyseedy, of course, help in that attraction. The club also employs a full-time coach, Humphrey Shanahan, who works with managers at all levels. The new facility includes four pitches (one all-weather and two are floodlit); a 220-seater stand; a sports complex; 12 dressing rooms; a gym; sauna; medical and treatment rooms as well as a full-sized sports hall. It is the envy of Kerry clubs. Last Sunday it had the honour of hosting Kerry’s first game of the year: a McGrath Cup win over IT Tralee. Tomorrow they again play host for the McGrath Cup semi-final between the Kingdom and Cork IT.
The new development is a bet on the future but all the signs are that the famed John Mitchels club are well capable of winning it.