It’s a pity such an unseemly shadow was cast over Saturday’s switching on of the Semple Stadium floodlights.
A crowd of less than 10,000 and the poor standard of the hurling on show inevitably meant the occasion paled in comparison to the launch of the National Football League.
You could be forgiven at times for thinking that the modern GAA revolves around Croke Park. But as the association celebrates the 125th anniversary of its foundation, there’s a lot of local history north and south of the old canal worth marking.
Take this 100-year-old document, on display in Downes’ pub on Thomas Street in Waterford city, an establishment itself dating back to 1797. The framed piece of paper signifies the purchase of 20 shares in Waterford Sports Field, now Walsh Park, by Henry Oliver Broomhead, great grandfather of Downes’ current proprietor John De Bromhead. The price was £10, or ten shillings per share.
At a cost of €1,000, not an inconsiderable amount in 1908, a group of prominent local businessmen purchased the property – where a variety of sports, including soccer, rugby and cricket, had been played – under the title of Waterford Gaelic field Ltd, but also made the grounds available for all other sports, shows and so on. (In 1915 John Redmond’s Irish Volunteers staged a massive rally within its walls as World War I raged.)
This all-comers arrangement wasn’t to the GAA’s liking so when the opportunity arose in the early 1920s to buy the 7.5-acre holding outright, a group of local Gaelic Games enthusiasts, headed by Willie Walsh (pictured), the well-known referee, who took charge of no less than seven All-Ireland finals, including the dual deciders in 1921 (two years before he became the first president of Waterford Athletic Club) stepped in with an offer.
Pooling their own financial resources, they acquired it for their purposes alone from then owner, the late Michael Norris of Norris’s Pub, Barrack Street. It then became officially known as The Gaelic Field (though the ‘Sportsfield’ moniker still stuck) and was bought around 1930 by the Munster GAA Council for Waterford County Board. When Willie Walsh died in the early-fifties, the board unanimously decided to name it in his memory.
Waterford’s other county ground, Dan Fraher’s field in Dungarvan, is no less symbolic. Dónal Ó Fearachair from Touraneena was famous for his athletic and administrative feats (not to mention refereeing two All-Ireland finals on the same day in 1892) ever before he leased the Shandon lands from Captain Richard Curran and family.
Fraher, who was Walsh’s immediate predecessor as Waterford County Board chairman, was also GAA trustee for many years, and, as guarantor, was mainly responsible for the purchase of ‘the Jones Road Field’, now Páirc an Chrócaigh, in 1913.
He died in 1929 and after the death of Monnie Fraher, Dan’s only son, the field passed on to the Whelan family (the late Donal Ó Faoláin was a son of Pax Whelan, Dan’s nephew). They took meticulous care of the grounds and prepared them for games played under the auspices of the boards, as well as various other events.
It wasn’t until 1973 that a special committee with officers of the Munster Council purchased the grounds for the sum of £40,000, aided by a 25 percent donation by the Dungarvan-born industrialist, John A Mulcahy, an admirer of former GAA President Pat Fanning.
Both county grounds underwent major revamps during and since the 1990s, largely funded through the monthly Deise Development Draw, together with grants from the Munster and Central Councils.
They remain humble stadia, particularly compared to the almighty Croker, but where might we be without them, and those who had the foresight to keep them in safe-keeping for future generations of Gaels.