From Fermanagh to Buckingham Palace via countless sports pitches

Joe Pat Prunty at his business with the first machine he ever designed, the Mini Trencher, in the background. Photo: Lorraine Teevan
Joe Pat Prunty at his business with the first machine he ever designed, the Mini Trencher, in the background. Photo: Lorraine Teevan
Joe Pat Brunty with his family on the day he received an MBE

Claire Mc Cormack

As a child, Joe Pat Prunty spent hours watching his father and older brother tirelessly ploughing the fields at the family farm in Derryvollen, Co Fermanagh.

With each layer of soil overturned and every long furrow created, JP's young mind concluded "there must be an easier way". It was the late 1930s and times were tough in rural Ireland. Although his family owned a 50-acre tillage farm and had a sizable bog, JP was always looking for ways to make farming less difficult.

Little did he know his innovative young mind would eventually lead him from his local parish to Buckingham Palace and endless GAA pitches in between.

Growing up and farming in a county synonymous with very wet, boggy land, JP had a deep-rooted interest in drainage and clearing out sheughs and ditches - a task he routinely carried out using a spade in his early 20s.

Joe Pat Prunty: A Lifetime of Football, Fields and Faith
Joe Pat Prunty: A Lifetime of Football, Fields and Faith

For the pioneering farmer, the 1950s brought a decade of great change. "It was the era of the tractor. We were moving away from the worst of the back-breaking work, digging drains with a spade, making hay with fork and rake and all the manual work at turf in the bog," he said.

"By the end of the decade I had become proficient with the tractor at things like ploughing, cutting grass, drawing hay and drawing turf home," said the 84-year-old. After buying a second tractor, news spread that JP was open for business.

"There was an abundance of work for us in the countryside, especially in the springtime. We didn't need to advertise. We ploughed and tilled the fields for farmers," he said.

His ploughing skills soon had chins wagging and he decided to enter his first ploughing competition in the late 1950s.

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"I took part in the Fermanagh and Tyrone Ploughing Competition held in Ballinamallard. I drove all the way on my tractor with my two furrow plough attached," he said. He went on to beat famous ploughman Bill Cassidy and graciously accepted prize money of £4.

Although he claimed many other ploughing titles, the modern machinery at the shows really caught his attention.

Joe Pat Prunty with legendary Northern Ireland keeper Pat Jennings at the opening of Coleraine Borough Counil pitches
Joe Pat Prunty with legendary Northern Ireland keeper Pat Jennings at the opening of Coleraine Borough Counil pitches

"I noticed a machine for cleaning ditches. It was hydraulically operated and would work well if you had the right kind of tractor to hook it up to," he said.

The government was running a Small Farm Grant Scheme at the time for cleaning out ditches, so JP instantly saw its potential. He invested and says the extra work gave him great encouragement to move on into the drainage sector in a bigger way.

But drainage wasn't the only thing on his mind. A keen footballer, JP also achieved top club success with Roslea Shamrocks, where he won the famous four-in-a-row Fermanagh Senior Championship titles between 1955-58. At county level he won a Junior All-Ireland title in 1959 after defeating Kerry in Croke Park.

He also kept an eye on other things such as wooing his bride-to-be, Angela. "If you had a car in those days you were very popular at the dances. That's how the romance started. I gave her and a friend a lift home one night and the rest is history," he said. With his beautiful wife on his arm, the couple moved to a farm in Newtownbutler, a village near Lough Erne where he continued to develop his drainage enterprise.

Joe Pat Brunty with his family on the day he received an MBE
Joe Pat Brunty with his family on the day he received an MBE

Soon after, the father of five had an idea for a machine to make a shallow drain and automatically fill it with stone - a technique very adaptable to heavy, impermeable soil. He approached well-known engineer, Cecil Moffatt, and they designed 'The Mini Trencher' - now considered a revolutionary machine. Business was booming, but he never expected his love of sport and drainage to cross paths. Portora Royal School in Enniskillen asked him to examine flooding problems on its playing pitches.

Although JP was initially apprehensive, a chance meeting with agriculturalist John Mulqueen gave him confidence to experiment. The like-minded pair decided to test out a radical theory of using sand to strengthen the surface and improve drainage. Mr Mulqueen described it as a "buttering" of sand, complimented by a conventional system of drains and a system of shallow drains using the Mini Trencher.

It was start of great things. Over the next four decades, hundreds of "Prunty Pitches" were built on GAA, RFU and soccer grounds nationwide, including iconic stadiums such as Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney and Breffni Park, Cavan. As an extremely passionate GAA man, his daughter Maria said "he couldn't have felt more honoured when asked to build Fitzgerald Stadium in the heart of Kerry football".

His talents brought him all the way to Buckingham Palace, where Britain's Queen Elizabeth awarded him with an MBE in recognition of his work in field drainage in 1985.

Profile: A dynamic man who relishes a challenge

It took all the will in the world for JP Prunty to retire at the seasoned age of 80.

His family say there was "always one more pitch to do" but after finishing the GAA grounds at St Pat's boys school in Cavan, he finally decided to call it a day. However, he had no intention of remaining idle.

Over the last four years, after huge encouragement and support from his family and friends, JP decided to pen his dynamic journey to success.

Last month, 'Joe Pat Prunty: A Lifetime of Football, Fields and Faith' hit the bookshelves. His daughter, Maria, said the family are incredibly proud.

"Growing up we always knew that Dad was an innovator and was never afraid to take on challenges. He achieved so much in his lifetime - given his humble background and lack of education - which makes his achievements all the more remarkable," she said.

'He drove 1,000 miles a week to keep an eye on his pitches'

JP is known countrywide for driving up to 1,000 miles a week to keep an eye on his famous "Prunty Pitches".

He has been involved in the development and restoration of an estimated 500 pitches north and south of the border since the 1980s including Fermanagh, Monaghan, Donegal, Armagh, Tyrone, Derry, Meath, Roscommon, Longford, Leitrim, Dublin and Westmeath. Following in his father's footsteps, his son Joseph built the top class pitches at the GAA National Sports Campus in Abbotstown, Dublin.

Although JP currently suffers with mild dementia, his family remember the great lengths he took to ensure each pitch was constructed to the highest standards.

His daughter Maria said: "He always had the best interests of the club at the forefront of his mind.

"He appreciated the pride and enjoyment the clubs would get from having these first class pitches and the long-term legacy that these pitches would leave for future generations.

"Daddy is a man of great faith and he would always say a pitch is a living thing and it has to be treated accordingly.

"You can't just lay it down and then forget about it. It needs to breathe. A lot of maintenance and fine tuning is required.

"So that is why dad was known to drive over a thousand miles a week, personally fine-tuning his pitches."

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