WEARING THEIR COLOURS Pictured at the launch of a special Mayo GAA-Mayo Day jersey at Lough Lannagh in Castlebar in 2019 were Mayo footballers Diarmuid O’Connor, Paddy Durcan, Lee Keegan and David Drake. It was another partnership between Mayo GAA and Mayo County Council after the plans for the training centre was announced. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
Plans for a Mayo GAA Training Centre in Castlebar have endured many twists
SINCE its announcement in August 2018, the proposed €5 million Mayo GAA Training Centre project at Lough Lannagh in Castlebar has rarely been out of the news.
It was announced as a ‘collaborative partnership’ between Mayo GAA and Mayo County Council for 27 acres of land, adjacent to Lough Lannagh Holiday Village, the new Castlebar leisure centre and the GMIT campus.
The plans included three pitches, one of which would also be accessible to high-performance teams staying in the area.
Mayo GAA officials considered the involvement of the council as being an assistance to part-funding it and servicing the site. There was also the hope that rents accrued from the use of the centre by high performance teams would be a source of revenue for Mayo GAA.
However, by February 2019 came the first public signs that not everything was going to plan.
At a discussion on Dublin GAA funding at a Mayo County Board meeting, then County Board chairman, Mike Connelly, told delegates he was ‘battling’ with GAA HQ at Croke Park ‘in relation to Lough Lannagh and getting funding’.
It remains a sore point among those involved at the time that financial support for the project was not forthcoming from GAA headquarters.
By October of 2019, both the council and the GAA remained confident the plans would proceed despite delays. Delays included environmental issues and the high-profile tensions at the time between Mayo GAA and the Mayo GAA International Supporters’ Foundation.
The Foundation were withholding €250,000 from Mayo GAA ‘until appropriate governance structures are put in place’. Among the three projects the Foundation said they were supporting was the Lough Lannagh training centre.
SPEAKING that December at the Mayo GAA Convention, outgoing Treasurer Kevin O’Toole spoke about how they were going to fund the development. He said they had ‘verbal commitments’ in 2018 from three separate groups for €750,000 and a New York function which would bring monies fundraised to €1 million.
He said they approached Croke Park to match that as ‘every county that has built a Centre of Excellence has got that figure (€1 million) from Croke Park in grants’.
“That €2 million was to get the pitches up and running, at that stage we weren’t worried about infrastructure, there’s infrastructure down there,” he said.
He was highlighting the need for a phased approach but also that funding supports from Croke Park did not arrive.
The county board said repeatedly the project would not be levied on the clubs, as had happened with the MacHale Park redevelopment.
O’Toole was responding to questions from Charlestown GAA Club chairman, Liam Breheny, who queried the wisdom of ‘leaping into’ the project considering that Mayo GAA were showing €57,256 in their ‘cash flow statement’ in the annual accounts for 2019.
“How are we going to pay for it?” he asked.
His concerns came hot on the heels of criticisms of the decision-making process among officers of the county board by Ardnaree Sarsfields chairman Johnnie O’Malley in November 2019, who said ‘there would be a feeling decisions are being made by a very narrow base at county level’.
He raised concerns from there about the Lough Lannagh development.
“How governance should work for me is the aspirations go into a plan and the plan comes then from consulting and engaging with the clubs. Did the Lough Lannagh proposal go to the clubs?” he asked.
Need for pitches
AS against that, there was support from many quarters of the pressing need for such a facility.
Mayo were often using the Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence at Bekan, outside Ballyhaunis, but its distance from peripheral parts of the county was flagged as problematic.
The consensus on the need for such a facility was quite strong but debate was polarised when it came to the decision making and the financing of it.
In his final chairman’s report at the end of his five year term in December 2019, Mike Connelly made a passionate case for the Lough Lannagh project proceeding.
“Lough Lannagh is the perfect location and has the facilities that will complement what we need — pitches … It will not cost the clubs a penny. And Lough Lannagh will happen,” he said, defiantly.
However, two things happened in the months that followed that would change the landscape for the project.
The first was the fact that new chairman Liam Moffatt wanted a fresh set of eyes on the proposals, and so asked Assistant Treasurer, Michael Diskin, to prepare a report on the plans. Diskin gave the results of his report at the Mayo GAA Board meeting on March 2, 2020.
By then, Covid-19 was about to change the Ireland we knew in so many ways.
But before lockdown arrived, there were already more doubts over Lough Lannagh progressing than had existed in Connelly’s tenure.
The estimated total cost to Mayo GAA would be €4,375,000, reported Diskin.
Mayo County Council’s end of the deal would be in addition to this.
His figures were broken down and were higher than those presented by Mike Connelly at an earlier stage.
In December 2019, Connelly said the ‘initial plan’ was to build three training pitches with floodlights at a cost of in the region of €1.2 million. However, over 12 months later, Michael Diskin’s report projected the cost of a ‘multi-purpose pitch’ to be €600,000 to Mayo GAA (with another €600,000 for that pitch being met by the council).
The other two pitches would cost Mayo GAA a total of €2 million. In short, a projected outlay for Mayo GAA of €2.6 million, over twice Mike Connelly’s initial projection.
It was also telling that when explaining that Diskin was going to be preparing the reports, Liam Moffatt told a County Board meeting that ‘no deal (was) signed as of yet’. That was January 2020, fully 16 months after the plans were announced.
When you consider this gap, it is easy to see why Mayo county councillors are angry at the equivocation on behalf of Mayo GAA. You could also reasonably ask the question did Mayo GAA take the plunge into Lough Lannagh too quickly?
IN March, 2020 Michael Diskin detailed other potential infrastructure needs in his report before the meeting, concluding that no final decision would be made without the full support and ‘sign-off’ of Mayo GAA clubs, the Connacht Council and Croke Park.
Tellingly, Mayo GAA have subsequently proceeded with one of those other projects, the resurfacing of the MacHale Park pitch. That is being funded primarily by the ‘Laochra Maigh Eo’ initiative, with tiles being sold to Mayo supporters and erected on a wall at the stadium.
By December of 2020, Valerie Murphy, the new Mayo GAA Treasurer, said ‘the purchase of the [Lough Lannagh] site is being finalised’ and that a deposit had been paid.
It would appear there has been no progress on the purchase since. Fast forward to May 2021 when acting Mayo County Council Chief Executive, Peter Duggan, said the council were waiting on the GAA to clarify if they wished to proceed.
“That project was largely driven by the GAA and we are awaiting their response on whether they wish to proceed with this project or not,” he said.
Since then, the new Chief Executive Kevin Kelly has met with Mayo GAA chiefs and they are due to meet again in the coming weeks. That came after local councillors raised their criticisms of Mayo GAA’s handling of the saga.
All the while, the land by Lough Lannagh remains as untouched as it was in August 2018.