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.