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comment How Connacht GAA have hit the jackpot with their new cash machine 'Air Dome'

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A general view of the Connacht GAA Air Dome in Bekan, Mayo. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

A general view of the Connacht GAA Air Dome in Bekan, Mayo. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

A general view of the Connacht GAA Air Dome in Bekan, Mayo. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

IT takes about 20 minutes to drive from Knock Airport to the new Connacht GAA Air Dome in Bekan.

There is a symmetry about how close geographically these pieces of infra-structure are located. They represent the spirit of defiance which has kept the west of Ireland vibrant against all the odds.

Those of us of a certain vintage will recall a famous TV news report from 1980s featuring an interview between RTE’s then Western correspondent Jim Fahy and the late Monsignor James Horan on the site of the proposed new airport.

The bulldozers were already clearing the site and the Monsignor was adamant that he was building an airport. Then with a twinkle in his eye he added he wasn’t sure who was going to pay for it.

One suspects the mandarins in the Department of Finance had a collective meltdown given the country was virtually broke at the time.

But the Monsignor was a persuasive man and his airport was built thanks primarily to a government grant of €9.8m.

Socially it was one of the best investments ever made as it transformed the lives of thousands of people in the last quarter of a century.

Last Monday evening there was another shock-and-awe moment on the RTE Six One news when the camera brought us pictures of the new €3.1m Air Dome, one of the largest of its kind in the world.

It has been erected on the site of the Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence which is about half-way between Ballyhaunis and Knock.

And the mandarins in Merrion Street can rest easy – the project has already been paid for.

Later that Monday night the footballers of Sligo and Leitrim featured in the first ever competitive GAA game played indoors.

Just as the new Croke Park became a golden cow for the GAA nationally, this facility can do likewise on a modest scale for the Connacht Council.

But this wasn’t the reason it was built.

Anybody who has lived in the West of Ireland knows that the region receives a disproportionate share of the country’s rainfall and bad weather.

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This new facility will cater for matches at all levels in the province and due to its location and the improved road network, it is easily accessible from virtually all parts of Connacht.

In a post-pandemic world, it can host concerts, trade exhibitions and conferences. Indeed, next month’s GAA Congress is due to be staged there.

Connacht GAA’s chief executive John Prenty was the driving force behind the project though it was former Taoiseach Enda Kenny who suggested installing an Air Dome similar to the one used in Castlebar Tennis club.

The seed money for Connacht’s Centre of Excellence came from the profit the GAA earned when they hosted rugby and soccer internationals in Croke Park when Lansdowne Road was being re-developed.

Initially it was envisaged each province would build a Centre of Excellence from the proceeds.

In the event, only Connacht pressed ahead with the idea, developing all-weather pitches and erecting new office accommodation and gym facilities. There was also a plan to have an indoor playing facility at some point.

After Enda Kenny made his suggestion, Prenty and retired Roscommon footballer Cathal Craig, who is the province’s games officer, began researching the project and visited Finland, the world leaders in the technology involved.

The thorny issues of financing the project was also addressed. In late 2018 Connacht GAA was among the first round of successful applications for the Department of Rural and Community Development ‘Rural Regeneration and Development Fund’ scheme.

The then Minister Michael Ring announced a grant of €2.1m for the project; the GAA chipped in with €700,000 while the Council themselves added another €300,00 from their own resources.

Last summer five workers from the Slovenian based DBS Engineering isolated in a house in Kiltimagh before beginning work on the month-long project.

One hundred tonnes of material was shaped into a dome-shaped structure which is 15,000 square metres in size. The pitch is the same size as the playing surface in McHale Park in Castlebar.

The groundworks on the site had been completed already by Prunty Contractors of Fermanagh and Tobin Engineers in Galway, while SIS – an Irish-owned company whose CEO is Sligo native George Mullan - had laid the AstroTurf pitch. The finished dome is 26 metres high, 150m long and 100m wide. It also includes a running track and a fully equipped gym.

It can accommodate 2,000 spectators at a game and within 24 hours can be turned into a concert venue with a 10,000 capacity and is designed to last for 40 years.

It costs about £100 a day to run but the Council have already signed a naming rights deal with NUIG.

The GAA has rightly shipped a lot of criticism over the years about enormous cost over-runs on outdoor stadia which are left unused for much of the year.

But Connacht GAA have hit the jackpot with their Air Dome. Well done to all.

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