I had a peek at the new Pairc — my word, what a beauty!

In his weekly column John Arnold talks about his visit to the redeveloped Pairc Ui Chaoimh
I had a peek at the new Pairc — my word, what a beauty!
John Arnold at Pairc Ui Chaoimh.

YE know I’m interested in the GAA, so forgive me if I start by stringing a few superlatives together — brilliant, amazing, stunning, awesome and breathtaking... and I’m not talking about Cork’s super display of hurling last Sunday in Semple Stadium.

Yes, the hurlers did us proud and restored our pride in the famous Blood and Bandage jersey, but the cause of my jaw-dropping sense of happiness and utter contentment came not on Sunday but 24 earlier.

I was honoured to be given the opportunity, or should I say privilege, to get a ‘tour’ of the nearly completed Pairc Ui Chaoimh. It is something else entirely, and do you know what in terms of space and facilities it leaves even Croke Park in the ha’penny place!

I know now some of ye will be saying ‘Hold on now a minute boy, don’t lose the run of yourself altogether’ — believe me, the new stadium is absolutely superb.

On Saturday, before 10am, the place was like a hive of bees. Hundreds of hard-hatted workers were busily doing their many tasks. Of course there was a bit of disappointment two weeks ago when news broke that the anticipated Munster hurling and football finals would not be staged on Leeside. Better safe than sorry, I say, and having seen at first hand the development, I can guarantee not one person will be less than gobsmacked when the gates open on July 23.

Back in the 1880s, when the GAA was in its infancy, the old Cork Park was the scene of many stirring hurling and football contests as well as athletic meetings and horse racing. In the early days of the new century, Cork GAA officials were anxious to obtain a permanent home and headquarters. Cork GAA Board invested a sum of £30 towards the development of what in 1904 became the Cork Athletic Grounds. The official opening took place on Sunday September, 11, 1904, when the much-delayed All-Ireland Hurling and Football finals of 1902 were staged in Cork.

The report in the Examiner the next day was gushing in praise. “The holding of the international matches in Cork yesterday to signalise the opening of the new athletic grounds in the Lower Park must certainly rank as one of the most important events that has taken place in connection with the Gaelic Athletic Association since it’s inception.”

The ‘international’ reference was because London-Irish teams were contesting both finals, against Cork’s Dungourney in hurling and Bray Emmets in football. Dungourney, captained by Jamesy Kelleher, had a facile 3-13 to nil win over the Exiles. The football decider was a bit closer but Tom Dempsey led the Bray team to a 2-8 to 0-4 victory.

The Lord Mayor Augustine Healy hosted a dinner in the Vestibule of the Municipal Buildings for close on 100 people. Toasts were drunk to ‘Our Native Land’, ‘The Gaelic Athletic Association’ and ‘The Competing Teams’.

For two years, soccer and hockey were played in the Athletic Grounds in the winter but from 1906 on the grounds were solely used for Gaelic Games. For seven decades, the old Athletic Grounds served Cork as its playing headquarters with Cook Street being the administrative hub.

I recall attending the 1972 and 1973 County Hurling finals in the Park. The Glen beat Youghal in 1972 and 12 months later the Rockies defeated the champions by two points, 2-12 to 2-10 in a great game.

Then, in 1976, the new, ultra-modern Pairc Ui Chaoimh was opened to much acclaim. The late Con Murphy — in my mind the greatest ever GAA administrator — was one of the key men behind the development which cost over £1 million — a huge sum over 40 years ago. The stadium was named after Roscommon-born Padraig O Chaoimh, who gave a lifetime of service to the GAA, both in Cork and nationally.

Padraig married Peggy O’Keeffe of Ballynoe — her great-grandfather John Scanlan was a brother of my great great-grandfather Denis Scanlan.

Despite being a top of the range stadium, the size of the dressingrooms was a cause for concern from the start. Early on, the County Board Chairman of a visiting football team for a major game complained to Cork’s Denis Conroy that the dressing rooms were too small entirely. Conroy made no reply. Twice more the visiting chairman repeated his concern over the lack of space. Conroy had enough: “We knew ye had big heads but never realised that yere backsides (or words to that effect) were so big!”

Over the decades, Pairc Ui Chaoimh has staged many memorable games — both local and national hurling and football games. In the last decade it had become patently obvious that a major refurbishment or redevelopment was needed. After agreement was reached with Cork City Council and the Munster Agricultural Society, the demolition of the old ‘Pairc’ begun in late 2015.

Arguments were made back in 1974 and again in the last two years that we should leave the Marina altogether and go to a ‘green field’ site outside the city. Personally, I don’t agree as on big match days, while we may have traffic delays, the city of Cork with hotels, hostelries, restaurants and shops benefit hugely financially. If we were ‘out in the country’, OK we’d get home faster but where would the financial spin-off be? It’s a two-way street; the GAA is well supported by Cork businesses so there has to be a quid pro quo. Anyway, with the motorway and tunnel nowadays, traffic congestion isn’t such a huge problem any more.

With Patrick Doyle, Stadium Sales Manager, and County Board Chairman Ger Lane, I had a VIP tour early last Saturday. I remember my first visit to the fully redeveloped Croke Park a few years back. It was and is stunning. What has been created here on the banks of our own lovely Lee is simply stunning.

My first impression was the vast space, which has been utilised so well. Gone is the claustrophobic feeling that pervaded the old stadium and many other grounds. The various concourses where the crowds enter, exit and mill around on match and event days are massive. So too are the dressing rooms, team management rooms and warm-up areas.

Player and spectator comfort were top priorities with the design and construction teams, and in a month’s time, when the most modern sports stadium in Europe opens to the public, the reaction will be amazing.

Everywhere I went. In the stands and on the terraces, the view of the pitch was total. Now the surface of Pairc Ui Chaoimh in recent years was like a billiard table and the new sod is majestic. Where the old show- jumping arena was is now a full size astro turf pitch — the largest of its kind in the country. For those wanting to spend a penny or a euro, the toilet and catering/shop facilities are simply huge. Indeed, everything in this Leeside jewel is on a grand scale to ensure maximum viewing and maximum comfort.

With separate pitch entrances from each of the four dressing rooms and a gym the envy of the country, the new Pairc Ui Chaoimh is a stadium which all of us in Cork will be so proud of.

The £30 invested by the County Board in 1904 reflects well on the multi-million investments of recent years. Ten-year tickets are still on sale, good value for those in a position to regularly attend matches and events in the new Pairc. Because the opening has been delayed, the 10 year tickets will now have an extra six months added.

Wit a capacity of 45,000 on match days and 47,000 for concerts, the ultra brilliant Pairc Ui Chaoimh will provide a massive boost to tourism, sporting and social facilities in Cork Tentative plans for a concert in mid- 2018 are at an advanced stage — but don’t ask me who the artist or artistes are, I do not know!

The All Ireland Hurling quarter finals are due to be staged in the grounds on July 23, which promises to be a red-letter day for Cork GAA. I hope we win the Munster Hurling Final and we can sit back and enjoy the day and have a closer look at our semi-final opponents!

I started this article with a few superlatives and I guarantee that we’ll hear a lot more words of praise at the end of July.

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