Wednesday 17 January 2018

A £6.7m monument to Tyrone ambition

Stunning new facility reflects Red Hand's on-field mentality

Tyrone's Pascal McConnell during a press event ahead of their GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final against Mayo on Sunday
Tyrone's Pascal McConnell during a press event ahead of their GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final against Mayo on Sunday
Tyrone's Mickey Harte during a press event ahead of their GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final against Mayo on Sunday
Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

THREE All-Irelands in six years and, just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water, that fin with the Red Hand on it is still circling.

Anybody who wonders about the unfathomable depths of Tyrone's football ambition need look no further than an extraordinary £6.7m development – the Garvaghey Project – in the bucolic rolling countryside between Omagh and Ballygawley.

One of the men behind the major legacy facility likes to joke that it is "that wee bit of Tyrone arrogance" that has decided to officially open it on September 28 – 10 years to the day that they won their first All-Ireland.

And, if Mark Conway's dream comes to its perfect climax, a trophy called Sam will be the guest of honour. Conway was a prominent member of the 'Of One Belief' group that vociferously lobbied against grant aid for GAA players, arguing that it was against the organisation's amateur ethos.

Dessie Farrell labelled them "a small rump of malcontents" and their depiction as some kind of Ulster GAA Taliban still tickles Conway, who almost wears that badge with pride.

A man who unashamedly doesn't take the populist view, he is also a genial character who doesn't take offence – "ach, life's too short" – and nobody could fault the breadth of his and Tyrone's ambition and achievement in Garvaghey.

Just, whatever you do, don't call it a 'centre of excellence' within his ear-shot. "No, no, it's a centre for participation," he stresses. "It might promote excellence but it is for everyone. Our strapline for it is "for the ordinary, the less ordinary and the extraordinary".

So men, women, adults, children, clubs, schools, all of Tyrone GAA, will get to avail of the lavish facilities which their inter-county teams began using last February. Built on a 43-acre site it consists of five grass pitches, a full-sized 3G all-weather pitch and another half-sized 3G – all of them fully floodlit.

The main building – all 30,000 square feet of it, with a huge curved glass facade, and designed in the shape of a curved Celtic 'T' – has the chrome and marble fit-out of a four-star hotel.

It lies just off the A5, a kick-out away from Kelly's Inn where Mickey Harte traditionally announced his starting 15 and did a Q&A with 'Club Tyrone' (the supporters' club) on the eve of big matches.

Now that pre-match ritual takes place in Garvaghey.

It was the brainchild of the public relations and marketing subcommittee of the Tyrone County Board who head up 'Club Tyrone'.

Conway, ever true to his conservative roots, stresses that they are part of the county board and must get everything vetoed by them, unlike some county's independent supporters' clubs.

Club Tyrone members (currently 450-plus) will eventually have contributed £2m to this project.


It costs £500 a year to join, yet for that you don't even get a match ticket – just a coat with a badge on it and a free plate of curry at their annual pre-championship shindig.

Inside Garvaghey's huge open-plan foyer is a floor-to-roof glass octagon, inscribed with, at last count, the names of 292 people.

They are the 'Garvaghey patrons', who have each given £5,000 to the project – it is a £1.5m monument to the strength of the local Gaelic faith.

To its right is a large, sofa-filled viewing area that overlooks the pitches, and has been designated as a place to 'labhair Gaeilge'.

To the left are rows of tables where, in the manner of a Premier League football club, all of the county teams – senior and minor – mingle together while being fed by commercial caterers after training.

Nearby is a tiered lecture theatre that seats 200. The building also contains 10 dressing-rooms (six male, four female), numerous meeting rooms, a rehabilitation gym and the county board offices.

Its design includes strong cultural and historic elements, such as the mini Tullyhogue Fort (the ancestral home of the O'Neills) at the entrance, which doubles as a performance area.

Like some sort of Olympic project, it has a mission statement which talks of 'oidhreacht' (legacy) and defines it as "something that's cherished which is passed on to someone who's cherished".

This is 'Brand Tyrone', where players get the best of treatment, and they are expected to reciprocate that with their performances.

It is emblematic of the kind of ambition that surely helped their comeback from the lows of 2011 and also sustained them when their backs were against the wall in several qualifiers this summer.

While the Celtic Tiger was in its death throes, and some county boards ended up in penury, Tyrone have somehow completed a £6.7m project on time (five years) and on budget.

Tyrone County Board have contributed 51pc (£3.4m), Croke Park have given 28pc (£1.6m), a Northern Ireland rural development programme has funded 13pc (£0.85m), and other local state bodies, including the tourist board, £1m.

A total of £2m has still to be paid off but Tyrone have borrowed this from Croke Park and are confident of clearing it inside their 10-year target.

Conway says they pulled it off by planning meticulously.

"And the bad times haven't hit so badly up here, maybe because we never really felt the highs of the Celtic Tiger.

"That's not to say there hasn't been hardship, there has. Tyrone, as a county, is largely 'white van' country," he explains.

"The building trade was a huge industry up here, so a lot of people were badly affected.

"But every Monday and Friday now you'll see an army of plasterers and electricians and builders in Belfast International Airport, flying back and forth to England for work.

"That's the Tyrone mentality. When things are bad we don't sit around feeling sorry for ourselves. We just get up and get on with it."

A fitting motto, perhaps, for their footballers.

Irish Independent

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