THAT brief announcement during the week that the Gerry MacDonald pitch at MacHale Park had been temporarily closed due to flooding evoked for Castlebar folk the memory of the man who, more than most, laid the foundation for the first class stadium which now graces the county town.
For 20 years, Gerry MacDonald had been the brains behind MacHale Park when the venue was little more than an everyday playing field, and when only a visionary could see its enormous potential.
A clerical officer with the then Health Board, Gerry was a man whose true vocation should have been as an entrepreneur. Astute, creative, imaginative and ambitious, he was the relentless driving force in financing the building of the new MacHale Park, long before there were such things as Sport Capital Grants or government subvention of playing facilities. He was the equivalent of Monsignor Horan when it came to fundraising, and maybe it was no coincidence that when one became famous for running dances in Tooreen, the other was being recruited by Paddy Jennings to take complete charge of bands, bookings and management of the Royal ballroom.
An early personal memory is of the Mitchel’s huge raffles, when Gerry decided that the Mayo diaspora would be well disposed to helping the MacHale Park cause. Enlisting the help of the De la Salle brothers, we schoolboys were encouraged to draw up lists of the names and addresses of every aunt, uncle and distant relative in the USA and beyond, with the promise of a substantial cash prize for the pupil who came up with most names.
The lists were duly compiled, and a small army of GAA volunteers met nightly in Gerry’s house on Station Road to pack and address the books of raffle tickets which would soon be winging their way across the ocean. Gerry’s master touch was that each envelope contained a ‘sprig of heather from Ireland’s Holy Mountain, blessed on Reek Sunday’, as the accompanying letter explained.
Given the stony nature of the Croagh Patrick landscape, the provenance of the heather became a matter of some wry amusement among those involved, with some claiming that the extensive bogland to the north of Castlebar was a more likely source.
A comical by-product of the experiment was that my classmate, Seamas Ryan, determined beyond measure to win the cash prize, had produced a champion list of names and addresses, winning at a canter. His prize money had been long spent by the time the first bundles of returned mail arrived back from the US, stamped with ‘not known at this address’ and ‘return to sender’ stickers.
Gerry MacDonald had an unerring eye for fundraising schemes. Carnivals and dances, concerts and bucket collections, all added to the growing reserves which would fund MacHale Park.
Ingenuity was his middle name, and no crisis was beyond resolution when Gerry put his mind to an answer. There was the Friday prior to a big game at MacHale Park when, for some reason or other, the grass cutting arrangements at the park had failed, leading to a potential major problem come match day. Again, the De la Salle men were called into action. The entire senior classes of St Patrick’s were marched to MacHale Park; we took up our kneeling positions along the end line of the Bacon Factory end; and at the given signal, we advanced slowly down the entire width of the pitch on hands and knees, picking out by hand the ‘thrawneens’ which had threatened to scupper the Sunday game.
Gerry MacDonald would have been proud - but not in the least surprised - at what has been achieved at MacHale Park. And it is fitting that his name will always be associated with one of the fine training pitches which now form part of the complex.