– Paul Dollery reports from Páirc Ui Chaoimh
THE IMPOSING PRESENCE of Páirc Uí Chaoimh is making itself felt on the skyline in Cork. The new and improved stadium is visible from parts of the city where its predecessor never was.
The white stanchions that support the South Stand can be seen from the top of Churchyard Lane, adjacent to Páirc Uí Rinn, which has been double-jobbing as the headquarters of the GAA on Leeside in the absence of its bigger sibling.
Viewing from the other side of the Lee along the Lower Glanmire Road, the distinctive triangular floodlights rise above the trees along the marina. Imposing, yet inviting. Páirc Uí Chaoimh has returned, but not as we know it.
Last night, 10,749 curious Corkonians — a remarkable attendance for a club game — turned up for the redeveloped stadium’s debut. Valley Rovers progressed at the expense of a Blarney side that included 19-year-old Rebels star Mark Coleman in the third round of the Cork premier intermediate hurling championship. This was merely a dress rehearsal, however.
The grand unveiling takes place this weekend, when as many as 90,000 people could be set to attend the All-Ireland senior hurling quarter-finals — Tipperary versus Clare on Saturday, Waterford versus Wexford on Sunday. With all 42,000 stand tickets already sold out, terrace tickets are being snapped up swiftly.
“There is huge public interest for the Tipperary/Clare game on Saturday and the Waterford/Wexford game the following day,” says Ger Lane, chairman of the Cork County Board.
“Obviously these are major fixtures in their own right but from the feedback we are getting from around the country, there is certainly a big Páirc Uí Chaoimh curiosity factor at play. People are excited at the prospect of coming to a brand new stadium and they will not be disappointed.”
After over two years of work, which created 500 construction jobs and cost in the region of €80 million, the eyesore of the old concrete bowl has now been replaced by a state-of-the-art arena. With the exception of a few beams in the terracing, the stadium has been rebuilt from scratch. Behind the large South Stand, there’s also an all-weather pitch on the land which was once the Cork Showgrounds.
For the spectators, there are 13 bars, seven hot food kiosks, 12 confectionery shops and a merchandise store located on the concourses. You’ll still be able to get your hands on a humble Milky Moo, but pizzas and hot dogs are now on the menu too.
For players and officials, in addition to the physio rooms, first aid rooms and warm-up areas, there are four spacious dressing rooms – which will come as a relief to any player who had the misfortune of togging out in the cramped spaces of the old stadium, which were never fit for purpose.
We could continue ad nauseam by listing out the details of what’s on offer at the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh — broadband, gym, conference centre, the first stadium in Ireland with LED lighting — but the bottom line is that it’s now an attractive and comfortable place to go and watch a game, which is something that could never be said for the old stadium, which opened in 1976.
“Cork is a sporting city and a sporting county,” says Bob Ryan, chairman of the stadium’s steering committee, when asked about what the future holds for the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh. “Whether it’s rugby, soccer, GAA or whatever else, people support it. We’ll facilitate whatever we’re allowed to facilitate.
“It’s a superb facility here. We’re part of the 2023 Rugby World Cup bid and if Ireland are successful — which we hope they will be — we’ll be part of that and be very glad to be part of it. That’s the extent of it at the moment.
“We’ve been discussing American football as a possibility. Whatever is out there, we’ll look at it. But as you well know, we’re bound by rules of the association and we’ll abide by those rules.”
There’s a feel-good factor about the GAA in Cork again, which hasn’t been the case for quite a while. The Rebels are Munster hurling champions at U17, minor and senior level, with a chance to add the provincial U21 title to come next week. In spite of a difficult day in Killarney earlier this month, an opportunity to reach an All-Ireland quarter-final awaits the senior footballers this weekend.
“The place looks incredible in fairness. It’s very impressive altogether,” said Frank Cotter from Little Island, one of the spectators at last night’s game between Blarney and Valley Rovers.
“To be honest, I probably would have been someone who wasn’t in favour of building such a big stadium in the first place. My opinion was that the money should have been invested on the playing side of the GAA in Cork. But when you see first-hand the quality of the facility, it’s hard to argue with it really. It’s fantastic.”
There’s still some work to be completed at the 45,000-capacity stadium before this weekend’s All-Ireland quarter-finals, but with a large presence of hi-vis vests still on site, they expect to reach the bottom of the snag list over the next 48 hours.
When Páirc Uí Chaoimh was confirmed as the venue for both games, complaints came from supporters in all four counties. Those travelling from Wexford and Waterford will certainly need patience in abundance when they attempt to squeeze through the N25 bottlenecks at Killeagh and Castlemartyr.
But by the time they arrive and settle in at Páirc Uí Chaoimh 2.0, they’ll be glad they made the trip.