Let’s rebuild Casement Park’s field of dreams – Noel Doran

The west Belfast stadium has a glorious history and funding should be forthcoming to restore it to its rightful place

Noel Doran

Noel Doran

Noel was editor of The Irish News from 1999 until April 2024. He remains closely involved with the paper, and remains hopeful that Down are poised to win another All-Ireland championship

Down GAA have paid tribute to Brendan Sloan, pictured with the ball, who died yesterday
Down's Brendan Sloan leaps to catch the ball during Down's senior championship final victory over Cavan at Casement Park in its hey-day in 1968

I clutched my father’s hand tightly as we made our way through the biggest crowd of people I had ever seen towards what appeared to be an impossibly massive stand in the distance.

It was a beautiful summer’s day in July 1966, and I was making the first of many visits to a venue which has since developed a significance going well beyond sport – Casement Park in west Belfast.

The colour, the noise and the excitement leapt out at me, and I could hardly believe that I was actually getting to see my heroes, the Down senior football team, playing and winning in an Ulster final.

On top of everything else, what appeared to a seven-year-old to be a quite astonishing array of trucks and equipment confirmed that the BBC was proceeding with its inaugural live television transmission of a GAA match.

I was transfixed by the whole spectacle even before we got to our seats in time to hear the PA announcer welcome everyone to the ground and, to the surprise of some present, congratulate England on winning the World Cup at Wembley stadium in London the previous day.

It was a perfect day in every respect, and it seemed to me that Casement Park was the centre of the sporting universe and would remain so indefinitely.

Instead, from then until now, events dictated that the sun did not always shine on the Andersonstown venue, and its history, like the life of the person after whom it was named, Roger Casement, was surrounded by the unexpected.

A comparison image of what Casement Park is meant to be and what Casement Park looks like now
Casement Park is set to host games at the Euro 2028 tournament but work is yet to commence at the west Belfast venue due to funding disputes

Although the attendance in 1966 looked enormous to a child, reports at the time suggested it was lower than anticipated as many Donegal supporters decided against making the trip to west Belfast.

The impact of the Troubles also soon began to unfold, and no further Ulster finals were allocated to Casement Park by the GAA’s provincial council from 1971 to the present day.

It was also known that unionist figures were unhappy about the GAA featuring on the BBC, with the corporation effectively ignoring the sport for many years after the 1966 breakthrough and not resuming live coverage until the Ulster decider at Clones in 1994.

Casement Park found itself caught up in issues which were well beyond the control of the GAA, as it was occupied by the British Army from 1972 to 1973 and also taken over without authorisation for republican rallies on several occasions.

A republican group held up officials at gunpoint as they stole the takings from a 1984 Ulster semi-final there, and, four years later, there were appalling scenes as two British soldiers, who drove into an IRA funeral on the Andersonstown Road, were beaten at the entrance to the stadium before being taken to nearby waste ground and shot dead.

Dedicated Antrim GAA volunteers still managed to keep the venue operational in the most difficult of circumstances, maintaining fine facilities and a notably pristine playing surface as wider society moved in a more peaceful direction.

Stormont First Minister Michelle O’Neill has said a UK Government decision on the level of funding it is prepared to commit to redevelop Casement Park is imminent
The British government has not yet revealed how much it will contribute towards Casement Park (Liam McBurney/PA)

Matches staged at Casement Park always had an atmosphere and intensity all of their own, and gradually the idea began to take shape that the stadium might again take its place as the natural home of the GAA in Ulster.

The collapse of a well intentioned and in many ways visionary plan to develop a £300m multi-sports complex at what was officially known as the Maze/Long Kesh (MLK) site in 2008 should have enabled huge new investments to follow for the Irish Football Association, Ulster Rugby and the GAA.

As has been well documented, only the GAA is still waiting for its major project to be completed, after prolonged delays which were initially part of its own making but subsequently overtaken by unanticipated factors such as Covid, the suspension of Stormont and a brazen display of bad faith by the British government.

An ultimate bill for an all-seater 34,000-capacity ground remains uncertain but there has been speculation that it could be between £200m and £300m, less than the figure attached to the MLK scheme almost two decades ago and unconnected to public spending in areas like health and education.

Such a sum could have been completely justified if Casement Park was able to host games in the 2028 European soccer championships, with all the enormous associated economic benefits.

It may be worth recalling that initial construction of Casement Park was in doubt until The Irish News stepped in to coordinate the fundraising effort and ensure that the ground opened in 1953

It may be worth recalling that initial construction of Casement was in doubt until The Irish News stepped in to coordinate the fundraising effort and ensure that the ground opened in 1953.

We still have very generous readers, but they are a little unlikely to come up with the missing £200m at this stage, so the promised grants from the Westminster, Dublin and Stormont administrations, as well as perhaps an enhanced contribution from the GAA, will hopefully get the scheme finished.

Although it might not be on the scale originally anticipated, or in time for the European Championships, it should still mean that the dreams of the GAA community, some aged seven and some a little older, can still revolve around Casement Park.