"Our sport in Galway is on the brink of extinction!”

Image Credit: Kinvara Hockey Club

In conversation with Aisling Keogh, Connacht Hockey Branch Ex-Officio and Irene Doyle, Kinvara Hockey Club PRO, Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell discusses the already limited facilities available to hockey players in the West of Ireland, and the proposed elimination of more.

The proposed upgrade of the AstroTurf pitch in Oranmore, Co. Galway has received national attention. The pitch is proposed to be changed from a 2G AstroTurf pitch to a 3G AstroTurf. However, for many in the South Galway area, this upgrade will come as a great disappointment. While the change of the surface will be of benefit to GAA, soccer and rugby teams, it will result in the loss of a facility for sports such as Tennis and Hockey. Unfortunately, this is just another kick-in-the-teeth for hockey players in South Galway. 

As is the case in many sports in Connacht, hockey is consistently left behind. This is by no means the fault of the players and supporters in the province, but rather a national approach; “The Capital Grant Scheme should allow for the fact that not all minority sports have land available to them to develop the facilities” cites Aisling Keogh, Connacht Hockey Branch Ex-Officio, “Straight away we cannot apply for a grant as we have no land available to us to build facilities”. When asked what the biggest hurdle facing hockey in South Galway, Keogh replied that there were “no facilities to grow the game, which impacts on the participation numbers in the region”. In turn, this means that there can be “no home games as [we have] no home ground”. When asked the same question Irene Doyle, Kinvara Hockey Club PRO has the same answer; “The biggest hurdle facing hockey players in South Galway is the lack of pitch facilities. We are a growing club and have been able to improve every other part of our club, apart from facilities.” 

“We have one full-sized pitch which is based on NUI University Grounds at Dangan” says Keogh, citing “this has not been resurfaced in a number of years”. Unfortunately, “The NUIG facility at Dangan has never been an option for [Kinvara Hockey Club] for training” says Doyle. In existence for thirty years, Kinvara Hockey Club is one of the only hockey clubs in that part of the country, serving players from all over East and South Galway, and North Clare. “It is completely booked up at weekends for city-based club training sessions and for matches. Dangan is designated as our "home" ground for Connacht fixtures, simply because it is the only "home" pitch for every Galway-based hockey club. When our girls move to playing their matches on a full-size pitch, they are a disadvantage. They are not used to the larger area and the distance the ball needs to travel because they don't get to practice their skills in the right environment.” However, the level of disregard for the need of this sports facilities was evident in the plans for the removal of the pitch altogether; “There were concerns that a planned road to bridge the East and West of [Galway] City would threaten this pitch also, as the plan was to develop the road through the area where the pitch currently sits”. Players, schools and clubs were forced to petition for the retention of the pitch. 

As reported in national media, Aisling Keogh informs me that “The Oranmore Development Group have taken the decision, following Government Grant approval, to remove the 2G surface and replace it with a 3G surface, immediately taking the sport from the schools as well as Galway East clubs and eliminating the development of young girls in [hockey].” Second Generation (2G) AstroTurf is made of synthetic turf and infill, which is either sand-filled or sand-dressed. Pile height is typically 13-24mm. Comparatively, Third Generation (3G) pitches have a pile height of between 35mm - 65mm. “3G [pitches are] only suitable for beginner sessions - low-level social play, and [are] unsuitable for training or match play leading to performance and skills development.” 

The province had previously relied on a number of multi-purpose pitches in Galway, Sligo, and Athlone, however, due to the redevelopment of some and the location of others, none are suitable. A pitch in Mervue, Galway was available to clubs “until it was also resurfaced approximately 6 years ago and a 3G pitch laid instead. Taylor’s Hill School [has] a fabulous pitch which was laid over 7 years ago but it excludes anyone outside of the students of the school from using it due to planning restrictions. It’s an absolute shame that such a pitch would go to waste due to bad planning.” says Keogh. “Sligo has two fabulous school based pitches however this is a 5 hour round trip drive from Galway. Athlone has a recently-resurfaced pitch on the grounds of Athlone Regional Sports Centre [but] this is a 2 hour round trip from Galway [also]”. While “Oranmore training pitch is not a full-sized hockey pitch and is only suitable for underage blitz”, it remains the only training pitch available to hockey players in a significant area of the province. “National planning needs to be reviewed regarding the granting of Astro surfaces by way of 2G multi-sport [or] 3G [pitches]. A certain number should allow a percentage of approvals for 2G multi-sport”. 

The plan to change the surface of Oranmore pitch has infuriated many; “The impact of decisions at a National Planning Level has a knock-on effect for minority sports such as Hockey. The fallout from replacing 2G multi-sport with 3G [pitch] is the eradication of the sport from a community or the region”, states Keogh; “The government needs to look at minority sports in this country and not just focus on the big ‘3’ - GAA, Soccer and Rugby.”  Perhaps what is most demeaning and disheartening for hockey players and supporters alike in South Connacht is the fact that “Most 3G [pitches] to other well-catered-for sports is a Secondary Facility, unlike for us”. Sports such as soccer and camogie use these AstroTurf facilities in addition to their own designated training grounds and pitches. “[For hockey] it is a Primary Facility... The fallout of lack of facilities is that we lose young women and men [from] the sport [as] they move to other sports who are well catered for by way of facilities, funding, infrastructure etc.”.

What is to be done? “To compete with the other provinces, each club in Connacht needs a home hockey pitch” says Doyle. When compared with other sporting facilities in the West of Ireland, this does not seem an excessive request. “There needs to be a water-based pitch for use by all clubs. At the very minimum, there needs to be a hockey pitch located on the east side of Galway City that can be accessed by the clubs and schools on the east side of the county... The South Galway hockey-playing schools such as Seamount College Kinvara and Calasanctius [College] have to travel great distances from their schools to play hockey matches, often missing a whole day of classes just to play a match.”

The road to proper facilities for hockey in the West of Ireland seems arduous with no indication of relief. Despite all the hurdles, both Connacht Hockey, and within that Kinvara Hockey Club, have achieved their own success. Yet Keogh dismays; “Our sport in Galway is on the brink of extinction!.. [without adequate facilities] We cannot compete at the same level.” To conclude, Doyle firmly states; “The planning around 2G/3G/4G pitches needs to be regulated for the benefit of all minority sports”, by no means an unfair demand.