Providing a home for popular if somewhat discordant sporting occasions, from soccer to cycling, rugby to hurling, Gaelic football to greyhound racing.
That’s Limerick’s Markets Field, an historic but crumbling venue that was rescued from near obscurity in 2015 and has been restored as an outstanding stadium boasting one of the finest playing surfaces in the country along with outstanding off-field facilities.
“The ground was purchased for €1.6m in late 2010 thanks to the JP McManus Charitable Trust with the idea of developing it into a municipal stadium,” stadium manager George Lee explained yesterday.
“We are delighted to see Limerick FC back in their spiritual home while it is also ideal for smaller occasions, such as the Charity Cup final played here last week (the first competitive rugby game in 60 years).
“The pitch is sand-based, has 5 kilometres of drainage and even its own well for irrigation. We were conscious of a newspaper report from long ago that stated ‘the only difference between the Markets Field and a swamp is that the Markets Field doesn’t have any crocodiles’. The work was so successful that we won the FAI pitch of the year accolade in 2015 and to ensure it stays that way, we restrict the number of matches to 40 to 50 each year.”
Work on the pitch cost in the region of €400,000 but the project also received funding of €1.1m through the Limerick Regeneration scheme. And apart from the pitch, there is a renovated stand with a new suite of dressing rooms underneath.
“Profit is not the name of the game, our aim is to break even and after struggling for the first couple of years, we are now doing that,” says Lee. “Limerick FC are the principal licence holder but our vision extends beyond any one activity. It’s not the Gaelic Grounds or Thomond Park nor is it meant to be. It is a source of considerable pride and community benefit for this area of Limerick. We have a great relationship with the City Council where security and cleanliness are concerned. We see it as a municipal facility where arts and education are primary elements of what we do”.
To fully appreciate just what the Markets Field has meant (and still means) to generations of Limerick people, one needs to go back to the final decades of the 1880s when it was opened for the playing of the most popular sports of the time such as hurling, Gaelic football, rugby, and soccer.
It is recorded how in 1886 the GAA and ICA sports paid £8 a day for the use of the field located in the shadow of the 94 metre (308 yards) high tower of St John’s Cathedral, a tariff they felt was criminally high.
The first sports under the rules of the GAA and the Aahletics body were held there in September of that year while providing just as much entertainment for the people was a great band contest. People travelled in large numbers from Cork and Waterford by train, trips which then took 3½ hours.
The majority of the All-Ireland hurling and football semi-finals between Munster and Connacht teams took place there in the early 1900s and it was there that Cork wore the famous red jersey for one of the first times in 1920. It is also believed that the Markets Field staged more All-Ireland semi-finals than any ground other than Croke Park.
Garryowen played all their home rugby matches there from 1884 and remained until 1957 when they moved out to the suburbs in Dooradoyle.
Even though all Munster Cup finals in Limerick remained at the Markets Field until the mid 1930s, the most famous rugby match staged there was the clash of Munster and the New Zealand All Blacks, know because of their achievements as “The Invincibles”.
The tourists, captained by the legendary Dave Gallaher, a native of Ramelton, Co Donegal, won by 33-0 on November 28, 1905.
At much the same time as Gaelic games and representative rugby were leaving for the Ennis Road side of the city, greyhound racing established itself at the Markets Field in 1937 and remained until the move to the Dock Road in 2009. For much of that time, it was home to the St Leger Classic.
All the time, soccer was firmly established there. Massive crowds thronged the ground on the relatively rare occasions when the League of Ireland side made an impression before difficult times caused their departure in the 1980s until their return 31 years later in 2015.
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