In the Summer of 1998 Portlaoise Senior Hurlers were in the midst of their preparations for a senior Hurling Championship game. Seamus “Cheddar” Plunkett was our manager then and, as the Players togged out in the dressing room, he was pacing the side of the main pitch waiting for a juvenile football match to finish so he could set out his cones and drills. As the clock ticked towards 7:30pm (the usual starting time for senior training) the players came out of the dressing room and stood along the sideline waiting too. The ‘old’ grounds at Pairc Uí Fahaoileán/Fr. Browne Ave. were particularly full that night. Both adult pitches were in use, there were juveniles training on the furthest juvenile pitch, lady footballers beyond them near the Abbeyleix Road entrance, a Junior football team using the old training area beside An Post and a minor team were using the space behind the goals at the town end. It was ‘jammers’.
The referee blew his whistle on ‘our’ pitch. Full-time we thought….but no!….it was only half time – the match had started late and there was another half to go. Cheddar went ballistic! J.P. Cahillane who was over the juvenile football team involved wasn’t going to have their championship match abandoned and stood his ground in the middle of the pitch. A furious row ensued. Eventually the two of them calmed down, Cheddar took us back into the dressing room and the juvenile match continued its second half. We took off our boots, put on runners and even our The Move – a new home for Portlaoise G.A.A. by John Hanniffy shoes, left the hurleys behind in the dressing room sand went for a jog! Down Fr. Browne Avenue, left across by Willie Aird’s, up Marian Avenue and back around by Old Knockmay and Clonminham. Two laps. Just over 30 minutes and back in time to start training at 8:15pm just as the football match ended.
This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened and it wasn’t the last either. Mick Lillis had no-where for the Senior Footballers to train on a couple of occasions in 1999 and by 2003 I can remember John Taylor having to take us down to the running track behind the old swimming pool at short notice more than once.
This started a few of us thinking; “maybe we should consider the fact that we are going to need more space?”. At the same time Laois County Council were floating plans for a town park. I had spent most of my time in Portlaoise looking out over the ‘farm’ in St. Fintan’s Hospital. A number of my friends and other Club members had had the same thought; “ couldn’t we swap our old grounds for the lands at St. Fintan’s and partner up with Laois County Council to provide new pitches and a town park in the very heart of Portlaoise?”. It was a brilliant idea that quickly won favour with anyone who heard about it……except the one person in the HSE who could have made it happen. They politely informed us that the lands were for ‘future development of hospital infrastructure only’ and even though one senior medic informed them that they had been listening to that mantra since they arrived at St. Fintan’s and that ‘the future I’ve been waiting for for the last ten years is now!’ there was no cooperation forthcoming and the HSE executive wouldn’t even afford us a meeting. That was 1999.
By 2004 overcrowding in Fr. Browne Ave. had become a serious problem and was stunting the Club’s ability to adequately cater for it’s members or to provide modern facilities that were now expected in a new millennium. At the same time the ‘Celtic Tiger’ had begun and even though I never knew then it was a catastrophic ‘bubble’ that would eventually burst and nearly wipe us out I could see from my employment in the banking sector the potential for the sale of our ‘old’ grounds and the opportunity to purchase and develop new grounds. I floated the idea past Niall Kavanagh, then Chairman of the Club, and he kindly got the Committee to agree to let me explore the possibility. In December 2004 I arranged a presentation to the then Minister for State Tom Parlon; “The Town Park Presentation” where our plans and ideas for a joint venture with Laois County Council were put forward. Mr. Parlon brought our local Parish Priest into the equation as Monsignor John Byrne P.P. was endeavouring to source a site for the new school he was hoping to build. We all agreed that putting a new school in with the town park and playing pitches was a superb idea and that each of our requirements would be met whilst complimenting the other’s facilities.
Tom Parlon arranged a meeting for us in the Tullamore offices of the HSE with various heads of departments, our local T.D.’s, Monsignor Byrne, a representative of Laois County Council and myself on behalf of Portlaoise GAA Club. Everyone in the room agreed that the proposal to use the farm land at St. Fintan’s Hospital for a town park, GAA playing pitches, accommodating the Soccer and Athletics under the auspices of Laois County Council and providing a complimentary site for the much needed new primary school in return for a ‘land-swap’ at Fr. Browne Avenue that could be developed and/or sold by the HSE was a very sound proposal…….but, not for the last time in the process, meaningless bureaucracy kicked in as the HSE officials hummed and hawed about their ‘processes’ and that they ‘could only make recommendations’ and ‘we’ll see if we can push it up the line’…… They didn’t and to this day they never have. As I write this paragraph in 2016 the farm at St. Fintan’s is still an underutilised scrubland. The soccer and the athletics struggle to use the old field still and even the container that provided shelter from the elements is gone. We left that meeting in early 2005 very dejected indeed.
The Club’s 2004 AGM was held in early 2005 and I made a presentation at it that we should still consider a move and sourcing another site. It was such an important topic that an EGM on the topic was held in June of 2005. There was a passionate debate on the subject with pros and cons from both sides of the argument. In the end it was decided to form a sub-committee to look at ALL the options. This committee was open to all interested members who wished to contribute. By the end of June 2005 we had 35 volunteers and we held our first meeting in The Heritage Hotel.
The sub-committee was very enthusiastically supported by all who contributed to it – be they of the ‘stay’ or ‘move’ persuasion. We set about first deciding what exactly it was we wanted as a GAA Club, what facilities we felt we needed – irrespective of where we were located. Ciarán (“Connie”) Conroy was a member of the sub-committee, a true “Townie” who also happened to run his own consultancy business. He very diligently set about surveying all the members of the Club with a comprehensive questionnaire and individual interviews with key personnel. The ‘Needs Analysis’ presentation in July 2005 formed the backbone of the sub-committee’s deliberations. We explored every need, wish and requirement on the basis of how we could provide it, how much it would cost and whether it was easier to obtain it in our current location, in a secondary location or in a green-field site. This step by step approach over the course of the remainder of that year led to the “Relocation Development Options Report” which we presented at the AGM in January 2006.
By this time a consensus was growing amongst the active members of the Club that a ‘move’ was the only realistic way Portlaoise GAA Club was going to be able to grow and develop and to provide the space and facilities we desperately needed. An EGM was called for the 10th March 2006 and the motion for debate was “That C.L.G. Portlaoise shall seek to re-locate it’s playing fields and provide new facilities in accordance with the wishes of the majority of it’s Members and the relevant Rules and Regulations of the Association”. The motion required a two-thirds majority to be carried. At a packed clubhouse the motion was passionately debated by both sides. This was one of the most important meetings ever held by the Club and earnest consideration was given by all parties to all of the points made. Eventually the vote was called, the ballots were cast and the count began. The motion was carried by the requisite two-thirds majority with two votes to spare. The ‘move’ was on!
Vincent Dowling had succeeded Niall Kavanagh as Club Chairman and in order to progress matters a smaller and more focused ‘Relocation Development Sub-Committee’ was necessary so Vinnie co-opted Peter O’Neill, Club Secretary, John Hanniffy, Club Treasurer, Teddy Fennelly, one of the Club’s five Trustees and Jim Gaynor, Club Member and Auctioneer/Agronomist to join him on the new Committee. This sub-committee set about it’s work in March of 2006.
The “Relocation Development Committee” met or was in contact with one another almost daily for the rest of 2006. They set about the twin-track approach of sourcing a suitable new grounds whilst at the same time maximising the value and marketing the old grounds. All of this was done in strict adherence to the guidelines laid down by the GAA for such an endeavour. We tendered for Auctioneers and Solicitors. A most worthy exercise. The Auctioneers chosen to market and sell Fr. Browne Ave. were Ganly Walters with their principal Paul McDowell. Mark Smyth of Ganly Walters was appointed our ‘relationship manager’ and he set about organising a robust and comprehensive marketing strategy and campaign for the old grounds at Fr. Browne Avenue. With the help of Club Member and local Councillor, Catherine Fitzgerald we submitted proposals to Laois County Council to re-zone our lands as part of the County Development Plan 2016. The Council were very supportive of our plans from the off and their various County Managers and Planning Staff were a great help to us at all times.
One of the most important pieces of advice we received at the outset was from Paul McDowell of Ganly Walters. He knew that we were well intentioned volunteers seeking to do the best we could for our local GAA Club but he also knew that we were about to play with ‘the big boys’ and he strongly advised us to get the best, and most highly experienced, solicitors we could afford. In choosing William Fry Solicitors and in particular Brian O’Callaghan of that firm we made probably the single most important decision that any subcommittee could ever have made. It was only after things had come unstuck that the true value of Brian O’Callaghan’s professionalism and expertise became apparent and he and William Fry Solicitors almost single-handedly guided us through the ‘dark days’ – protecting the Club and safeguarding our trustees and premises from unmitigated disaster. Brian became more than a solicitor to us – he is a friend and a mentor and we will be forever grateful to him for what he has done for Portlaoise GAA Club.
As 2006 progressed the search for an alternative site continued. Various options came and went; too small, too expensive, not for sale, too wet, too far away. Jim Gaynor led the search and was meticulous in his research. We advertised in the local papers. Eventually two parcels of land at Rathleague (we originally thought the townland was Ballymacken) were sourced. Some negotiation was required to bring the two pieces together and club member Matthew Keegan, then an Auctioneer with Sherry Fitzgerald Hyland, was instrumental in helping us secure the second piece of land to make the deal possible. We now had c. 38 acres of fine land, within the orbital route of the town and close to the proposed site for the new primary school.
At the same time Ganly Walters had sourced preferred bidders for our old grounds and we had utilised their architects to provide us with a development plan and associated costings for the new grounds. In summary we had a proposed sale price of €19M, a new purchase price of €6M and a pitch/clubhouse development cost of €10M. Everything seemed to stack up. We linked the Sale Contract to the Purchase Contracts and both were subject to Planning Permission. We obtained a full Bank Guarantee from the prospective purchasers for the €19M.
In January of 2007 the Relocation Development Committee of John Hanniffy, Vincent Dowling, Peter O’Neill, Teddy Fennelly and Jim Gaynor presented their report to the Club’s AGM. The report was unanimously accepted and the ‘move’ was sanctioned. The Club moved swiftly to progress matters and over the remainder of 2007 architects and engineers worked with the sub-committee and the proposed purchasers of the Fr. Browne Ave. lands, Firestone Developments (Dublin) Limited, to draft plans and prepare planning applications. The sub-committee also tendered for builders to provide the new clubhouse and associated facilities and pitch contractors to develop the new pitches. In this regards we engaged the services of George Walshe as Project Manager. A retired ESB Engineer, George was also heavily involved with his own club, Nemo Rangers, who had completed a move similar to our in the preceding years. We also engaged Kilkenny man Richard Hayden of STRI (Sports Turf Research Institute) in the UK to oversee our pitch design and development tender process. Both gentlemen were of invaluable service to us and didn’t desert us either when things went wrong. Pat Moore Builders from Emo were chosen to be our Clubhouse builders and S.O.L. Golf Construction Ltd. won the tender for the pitches.
In June 2007 both Planning Applications (for the commercial development of the old grounds and the new development of pitches etc on the new grounds) were submitted to Laois County Council. In February 2008 both applications were approved by Laois County Council. On the 29th February 2008 Mr. Kieran Brosnan lodged a 3rd Party Appeal to An Bord Pleanala on behalf of Kylebrook Residents Association. Arising from this action the purchase of the news grounds became an issue. In consulation with our Planning Advisors and Firestone Developments it was decided to proceed with the purchase of the lands at Rathleague and the sum of €6.5M was advanced to the Club to facilitate this. On the 19th December 2008 An Bord Pleanala Refused the Planning Permission on Fr. Browne Ave.. This was a devastating blow for the club. An extraordinary general meeting of Portlaoise GAA Club was held on the 25th January 2009 to discuss the situation. From that moment on the truly magnificent resolve and determination of Portlaoise GAA Club and it’s wonderful members shone through and the Club came together to support one another and to plan a way forward. Members generously contributed Members Loans to enable development works on Rathleague to be completed. The sub-committee drew up contingency plans and members, friends and neighbours came together to ensure that Rathleague was finished as best as it could possibly be.
In July 2010 Mick Mulhall, Ollie Byrne and Sonny Keogh set the first goalposts in Rathleague in their sockets and the first of the pitches was opened for training. By October that year five pitches were open. Dressing Rooms in the form of portacabins and converted containers were provided and An Taoiseach, Brian Cowen visited the grounds in October 2010. The following year the Members laid the final pitch themselves with the aid of a flotilla of dumpers and diggers kindly provided by our Sponsors Laois Hire. This was another epic contribution by the members. In 2011 we added a Skills Wall and later that year Cheddar’s ‘hanger’ arrived (one of the largest and best equipped sports gyms in the Country). All done voluntarily and paid for by the most generous of donations from various members and benefactors.
The YouTube video “Rathleague Rising” encapsulates the emergence of Rathleague from the soil into one of the best sports facilities in Ireland.
Over the following years little things were continually added; catching nets, fencing, car-parking, floodlights. “Oliver’s Army” – the volunteer corps – set about maintaining the grounds on a daily basis; the likes of Ollie Byrne, Phil O’Keeffe, Sonny Keogh, Philip Harrington, Jim Gaynor, Kevin Culleton, Liam Breen, JP Cahillane, Brian Gaynor….the list goes on and so many people have helped and continue to help each day.
Meanwhile in the background the Relocation Development Sub-Committee continued to work away to address the bigger problem that dogged the Club with the failed development in Fr. Browne Ave. and it’s associated debts. John Hanniffy negotiated the basis of a settlement with Firestone Developments (Dublin) Limited. To complete this deal the assistance of Club sponsors Michael & Maureen Killeen of Laois Hire was required and most generously offered. Michael & Maureen Killeen’s generosity and support will always be remembered and appreciated by Portlaoise GAA Club. On the 2nd July 2014 the old grounds at Fr. Browne Avenue passed from Portlaoise GAA Club’s ownership but the Club stood proudly anew in it’s new grounds in Rathleague.
On the 14th June 2015 John Horan, Chairman of the Leinster Council Officially opened the new grounds at Rathleague. From that date Portlaoise GAA closed a chapter of it’s history and stopped looking back. From that date on Portlaoise GAA Club now looks forward to a bright future and each and everyone of our Members knows that we have a stronger, better brighter club for the experiences we have been through. C’mon the Town!