WHEN the curtain came down on the 2020 inter-county GAA season, the timing and setting of its final event was almost the perfect metaphor for such a crazy year.
The Connacht minor football final between Roscommon and Sligo was played on St Stephen’s Day in Biblical weather conditions in Bekan, just outside Ballyhaunis in Mayo.
Storm Bella raged throughout the evening, with gusting gales and torrential downpours making it almost impossible to play football.
The scoreline reflected as much. It took Sligo until the 55th minute to register a score.
They only raised three flags over the 60-plus minutes (1-2) but Sligo still finished just three points adrift of Roscommon at the final whistle.
In any other year, a provincial final wouldn’t have been played the day after Christmas Day, or in such atrocious conditions.
Yet the setting was even more of an anomaly considering the players were desperately trying to fight against a hurricane on a pitch located beside the largest sports air dome in the world.
The dome at the Connacht Centre-of-Excellence couldn’t be used because of Covid-19 regulations.
“It would have been an outstanding occasion if we could have played the Connacht minor final in there,” said Connacht Council secretary John Prenty in January.
After years of lobbying, research and funding applications, before investing €3m in the project, Connacht have produced a state-of-the-art structure that set records for its scale and magnitude.
Sporting domes are popular throughout the world, but the Connacht dome is unique with the requirements of Gaelic games; the facility is 26 metres in height (twice the height of standard uprights) at its highest point, 150m in length and 100m wide.
A 30m running track is on one side of the full-sized pitch with a capacity to insert seating for 600 people on the opposite side, with the potential for up to 10,000 seats for concerts.
As one of the largest indoor venues in the country, the dome could also host a range of events from concerts to conferences to trade-shows.
“The opportunities are limitless,” said Prenty last August.
When the sod was first turned in Bekan in 2010, Connacht GAA explored the possibility of building a conventional building with a full-sized pitch covered.
With such a project estimated around €25-€50m, the cost was too prohibitive. When they started to look around at other options, an air dome was a far more logical choice.
When Slovenia-based DBS Engineering were tasked with its construction, five of their employees were aided by some local construction workers and the structure was completed within a month.
It has been a serious investment; the dome is already paid for; it costs approximately €100 per day to run; sponsorship hoardings can be hung from hooks in the structure a few feet from the ground, rather than along the sidelines, and can stretch the entire way around the arena.
The project has been a testament to solid long-term planning because it offers something so unique — it presents an opportunity to play any time of the day, 365 days a year.
The project in Bekan has also forced numerous counties to examine their conscience; it makes a mockery of Clare’s so-called centre-of-excellence in Caherlohan, where almost €5m has been spent to date on a facility currently not fit for purpose.
Of course, air domes aren’t going to start mushrooming up around the country. Yet with money going to be so tight for sporting organisations, counties and clubs going forward, the pandemic has underlined how everyone has to start thinking differently from now on.
One of the biggest advantages of an air dome is the volume of versatile revenue sources it can provide. Yet, the venue at Bekan is also about much more than hosting matches and events and being driven by revenue generation.
The biodiversity project being carried out on the centre-of-excellence’s campus underlines Connacht GAA’s efforts to remain at the heart of the community and to extend that community reach by giving the locals a connection to the centre.
A number of local secondary schools are playing a part in their biodiversity programme, where transition year students are invested in the programme through planting native trees and shrubs and building bug hotels. Bee-hives were planned to be installed this month.
The centre has planning permission and there is hope to secure a grant for a solar farm, which would generate all of their day-time usage of electricity and close to all of their total daily usage during the summer months.
As one of two regional grounds participating in Phase 1 of the GAA’s new Green Club Project, Bekan will also act as a hub for a number of the 45 clubs involved in the programme to explore a range of sustainability projects designed to enrich their physical and social environments.
The fruits of that ethos is already evident in Bekan; they implemented a water meter processing programme using rainwater harvesting, with additional sensors further managing the water usage; bar the pitches, all the lighting on site comes from LED illumination; last year, those managing the running of the centre introduced another level of electrical metering, which cut around €30,000 off the running costs of the site.
From financial savings, the next step for Bekan is behavioural change especially for all clubs in the province who wish to become more energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable themselves.
During such difficult times, the centre-of-excellence in Bekan has shown a new way forward for so many stakeholders across all sectors of the GAA.
Because it has firmly underlined how a significant GAA project can paint a much bigger picture than just the huge structure towering into the sky.