Perhaps the last club match – and almost certainly the last trophy presentation – took place at Casement Park on Saturday evening, before the stadium is demolished and completely rebuilt. A legal challenge from a contractor, concerns from local residents and a potentially protracted planning application may slow the process, but all signs suggest the 2013 Beringer Cup Final was the last club match at the ‘old’ Casement. Since 1953 the old ground has stood on the Andersonstown Road. Reclaimed steel from abandoned American Airforce World War II aircraft hangers in Fermanagh were brought to Belfast and used to build the main stand. Household waste from the city’s homes was piled up to create the hill on the Mooreland Park side. Though there’s been a few facelifts since, it’s more or the less the same today as it was on June 14, 1953 when the stadium opened to a great fanfare as Cork – featuring the great Christy Ring – took on Galway in an exhibition hurling match. Almost exactly 60 years later, on June 22, 2013, what is probably the last Antrim club game to be played in the stadium as it is took place when St Teresa’s saw off O’Donovan Rossa to win the South Antrim Beringer Cup. Christy Ring wasn’t playing on Saturday, but the 60-year time gap and the difference in the standard and appeal of both matches encapsulates the best of what the GAA, and the entire Casement project, has to offer.
In ’53 the best sides in Ireland played there, in 2013 and every year in between Casement has hosted both the elite and the everyman. I’ve played in Casement, as have DJ Carey and Peter Canavan. Beringer Cup Finals, Ulster Colleges ‘C’ Finals, All-Ireland Finals all sit side by side, in equal significance for those playing and watching. An 11-year-old St Teresa’s hurler stood beside me for the second half on Saturday evening and enthusiastically told me about the three times he’s played at Casement – twice for his school and once for a Belfast select side. He sat in the same run-down changing rooms as his heroes have over the years, the likes of Kieran McGeeney, Micky Linden and Sean Óg Ó hAilpín. Kevin Armstrong, Sambo McNaughton and Kevin Madden all played there, as have so many club footballers, hurlers, schoolkids, camógs. But the wee St Teresa’s fella can’t wait to see a new stadium built here, and he asked me endless questions about the new Casement. The sense of history hanging over Saturday night’s match was probably lost on the humble crowd.
The stadium predates St Teresa’s GAC – who celebrate their 50th anniversary this year – and it was particularly fitting that O’Donovan Rossa were involved. Sean McGettigan, a proud Rossa man, was one of the principal driving forces behind the development of Casement Park, along with then County Chairman Seamus McFerran, Corny Ennis, Gussy Eastwood and Billy McKee. The Casement Park project was initiated in 1944 after Sean proposed to the County Convention that the surface of Corrigan Park be replaced. The county hurlers had just been humbled in the 1943 All-Ireland final by Cork, losing 5-16 to 0-4.
This came after the same team had beaten Galway and Kilkenny at Corrigan and the slicker, faster surface of Croke Park was identified as the reason for that final drubbing. A new committee, the Corrigan Park Reconstruction Committee (CPR), was formed literally to level the playing field. The Committee soon found the pitch problems at Corrigan were irredeemable and, with extraordinary vision, also foresaw access problems for a new stadium at Whiterock. They learned in 1947 than the M1 would be built in the coming years, with little access to the Whiterock Road and Corrigan Park, and, after trying and failing to obtain land at Beechmount and Glengoland, the CPR – and specifically County Treasurer Tom Crummey – identified land facing Hoppy Dobbins’ farm on the edge of town at Andersonstown.
The houses in Mooreland Park already existed, but beyond that was only farmland. The buses used to turn where Casement Park now stands. A massive fundraising initiative followed and the people of West Belfast came out in full support of the new stadium, helping raise more than the projected cost of £100,000. When the ground was finished, each club was assigned a section of ‘the hill’ (where the Mooreland Park terracing now exists) to maintain. It gave a great sense of ownership of the new ground to the clubs of Belfast. But we have seen in recent months that a sense of ownership of the new Casement does not extend to the residents of Mooreland Park and Owenvarragh Park, or at least those represented by MORA (the Mooreland and Owenvarragh Residents' Association). The proximity of the new stands and back gardens being left in the shade seem to be highest on their list of concerns and led to a protest before the Antrim-Monaghan Championship match on June 9.
There were around 100 in attendance, reportedly including protestors from Finaghy Road North, Turf Lodge and the Limestone Road in North Belfast, so hopefully the majority of Mooreland and Owenvarragh residents and those whose Andersonstown Road homes face the stadium are continuing to be engaged with the design team, led by the Ulster GAA Council, to have their legitimate concerns addressed and fixed. It would be a great shame, a travesty in fact, if this major investment in this part of the city is derailed due to objections from residents. The local economy vitally needs a boost and the Casement Park project will bring jobs – both short-term and sustainable – to the people of Andersonstown. Apprenticeship schemes, potentially improved leisure services, food outlets, shops and facilities for community use will all come and be a real selling point for the area.
Another concern is that the stadium will be full every week of the summer, causing untold disruption to the traffic flow and businesses in the area. But in truth it will be full only four or five times a year. That also raises the question, why build a new stadium for such infrequent use? Well, as I outlined above, GAA grounds are not built to be full all the time and they are not built only for superstars and Championship games; they are built to be used by Antrim GAA for our club matches and inter-county games. The stadium is there for Ulster Colleges, for schools games, for Cumann na mBunscoil, for ladies football and camogie – and a whole range of other games.
Yes, there’s the potential for full houses on Ulster Final day, at International Rules games and potential All-Ireland quarter-finals or – dare we dream it – semi-finals or finals, but they will very much be the exception rather than the rule at the new Casement. A further concern is that the Andersonstown Road will be closed on match days, making access impossible for residents and emergency services. But this will only happen on these infrequent ‘big’ match days and in fact has already been happening for many years. When large crowds attend matches now – such as the Antrim-Monaghan Championship game a few weeks ago and the ‘Match for Michaela’ in November, the PSNI closed the road prior to the final whistle. The stadium empties in about eight minutes and within half an hour the road has re-opened. It will be no different at the new stadium and improved transport management and park-and-ride schemes will reduce the undoubted stress that poorly-parked cars cause residents on match days.
While we cannot dismiss the concerns and worries of local residents and businesses – far from it – the consultation period has been extensive and several redesigns have already taken place to limit these concerns. Hopefully the legitimate concerns of residents and businesses can be answered satisfactorily by those behind the project. I took some time on Saturday night to have a walk around the old stadium with our award-winning sports photographer Jim Corr and the results of our nostalgic wanderings can be seen above.
In short, Casement Park is in terrible, terrible condition, and that’s just what we could see with the naked eye. Japanese Knotweed – a powerful and voraciously invasive plant that undermines the foundations and the very strength of buildings – is rife and the truth is that it can only be successfully treated and eventually cleared through demolition. Any suggestion that we should just persevere with this 60-year-old building in its current form can only come from people who do not bring their kids to matches there and who have not played or seen their club in action in the decrepit old stadium. It’s time to say goodbye to Casement Park as we know it.
Have your say! Join the debate on Twitter @ConorATNSport, or email c.mcloughlin @belfastmediagroup.com[gallery ids="18577,18576,18575"]