Liatroim Fontenoys GAC - a chance to breathe...

Chris McCulloughin General Interest

Covid-19 has certainly played havoc with sporting fixtures and the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in Northern Ireland is also affected. With various lockdown regulations governing sporting venue closures, some heavily used pitches got a chance to breathe. Chris McCullough travelled to Liatroim Fontenoys GAC to view its newest pitch.

Work on the new state of the art football pitch at Liatroim Fontenoys GAC, based at Castlewellan in Northern Ireland, was completed in 2018, with the first games played there in July 2019 after the pitch had established.

Costing £1.2m, the investment at this, the oldest club in County Down, included the new 140m by 100m sand-based pitch plus floodlights and parking for 100 cars.

It's a real busy sporting arena as it caters for thirty-two teams in Gaelic Football, Hurling, Camogie and Ladies Gaelic Football from fundamentals (U6) to Senior.

The complex has three grass pitches and a small enclosed 3G ball wall (25m x 15m), plus a 1km Fit Trail with car parking facilities. It is a 5ha site comprising the new pitch at 1.4ha, the old pitch at 1.2ha, training pitch at 0.5ha, with the remainder housing car parking and the fit trail.

To document a brief history on Liatroim Fontenoys GAC, the club was founded back in 1888 in the rural area surrounding Castlewellan by the McAleenan Brothers and JL Savage.

Initially, the club was known as Leitrim Fontenoys, but the name was changed to Liatroim Fontenoys following a proposal at the AGM in 1993.

From its formation the club was involved in playing hurling and football, featuring regularly in county finals, and became the first and only club to ever win both the Down Senior Hurling and Senior Football Championships in the same year.

Tiarnach Magee (left) and father Declan

Volunteer groundsmen are a vital part of groundcare for many clubs across the UK and indeed at Liatroim Fontenoys GAC, as the father and son team of Declan and Tiarnach Magee are tasked with looking after the new pitch.

Tiarnach, who works full-time as a greenkeeper at Royal County Down Golf Club (RCD), has been volunteering at Fontenoy Park for the past two years.

"I initially stepped in to help out the groundsman Nicky McAtee but, as the workload with the new pitch and fit trail increased, it became too much for one person to look after the pitches and the clubhouse, so I assumed the role of pitch maintenance and Nicky still looks after the buildings on site."

"My full-time job is a greenkeeper at Royal County Down Golf Club in Newcastle. I have always had an interest in farming and accompanied my uncle Patrick McCartan during my spare time tending to his cattle and sheep."

"Patrick was vice chairman of Liatroim until his untimely death in 2010 and was always present around Fontenoy Park. Following Patrick's passing, my farming neighbour Brian Malone took me under his wing and my love of farming continued."

"My father saw a news item on the local bulletin where it said that there was a shortage of young people in the horticultural industry and, in particular, in the sportsturf industry."

"When I had to choose a work experience placement, I applied to one of the best golf courses in the world and I was accepted. I then took up a seasonal position in the summer of 2016 at RCD."

"I loved the work and my plan was to go back to school and get my GCSEs and then apply to the College of Agriculture Food & Rural Enterprise at Greenmount to study greenkeeping. I successfully achieved my GCSEs and, in the summer of 2017, started working at RCD. I embarked on a modern apprentice scheme and attended Greenmount one day per week studying Level 2 Sportsturf which I successfully completed," he said.

Tiarnach reports to the Liatroim Fontenoys GAC committee and mostly to the current chairman Dan Morgan. As well as Declan, Tiarnach and Nicky, there are other volunteers who help out around the complex including Dan Morgan, Brian Malone, Noel Brown and Niall Brown.

Tiarnach said: "Noel, Niall and Brian provide larger machinery for any jobs that require it. Nicky looks after the clubrooms and Dan does whatever is needed from helping to mow and marking out, on top of the demands of being chairman."

"We try to do as much as we can in-house and are in the middle of our autumn renovations, including scarifying our new sand-based pitch followed by an overseed."

The front original pitch has a soil-based profile which was laid around fifty-three years ago and opened in 1968. The new pitch is a sand-based one laid in the late spring of 2018 by McAvoy Construction of Banbridge.

"We are learning that the new pitch, with its excellent drainage capabilities, does not behave in the same manner as the old pitch," said Tiarnach. "We are now vertidraining the new one more often. It is a hungry pitch needing higher instances of fertiliser applications due to leaching and the demands of the grass plant."

"The pitches are mainly for club use but, as is the case with most sports, the hosting of fixtures requiring a neutral venue is facilitated and our location in the centre of the county makes it a regular venue of choice for the Down County GAA competitions control committee and their female counterparts in the Camogie and Ladies Gaelic Football Associations."

"During the wet spring we were asked to be on standby to host National Hurling League fixtures due to the possible unavailability of designated county grounds in Newry and Ballycran. The call came and preparations commenced to stage the Down v Kildare NHL 2B fixture."

"The visiting Kildare manager complimented the club on the condition of the pitch and that there was probably no other club pitch in the country in as good a condition as Liatroim."

Testing climate

There is no escaping the weather elements at Liatroim Fontenoys GAC which have indeed been quite an enemy this year.

"During August, we had a rainfall event of biblical proportions which led to the Leitrim River bursting its banks, flooding part of the main playing pitches but totally engulfing the small training pitch which, unfortunately, is slightly lower."

"Back in August 2008, intensive rainfall flooded the entire complex with 250mm of water. As we are located in a valley reasonably high up, we would be affected with some severe frost but, as our normal playing season would be from the start of March to the end of October, it does not really have an impact."

"We try and save the playing pitches for as long as we can from teams using them to protect the surface so that, when the fixtures kick in, the pitches are the best that they can be."

"This coming year may not be as bad, as now we have the generator installed and the floodlights operational on the new sand-based pitch, it might alleviate some of the problems associated with waterlogging."

"There are no real issues with shade and air flow as the pitches are quite open and there is always a wind, even on the calmest of days."

"The 1km Fit Trail has seven fitness stations along its route. It is fully surfaced with asphalt or concrete and is also fully lit by some seventy LED street lighting fittings."

"We obtained a cost matching grant from the local Newry Mourne and Down District Council to install the lighting on the Fit Trail and this was greatly welcomed," he said.

Maintenance work

Tiarnach and Declan fit the maintenance work in around their own full-time jobs, mostly cutting the grass once ot twice a week."Most of the tasks are carried out by my dad and I. We mow the pitches, normally once per week but maybe twice during the peak growing season."

"However, as both of us have full time jobs and the pitches are constantly in use, fitting the tasks in can see us doing very irregular hours, either very early in the morning or late in the evening."

"There are matches or training on every day of the week and working around them is not easy, but I wouldn't have it any other way as the pitches are there to be played on."

"I am mainly the pilot on our John Deere X740 with a 62-inch cutting deck with a MCS 800 collection system. During the playing season, I have my height of cut at 35mm as it is a balancing act between the requirements for football, hurling and camogie."

"The footballers would like the grass kept a little higher, maybe 38mm or 39mm, with the hurlers looking for 31mm or 32mm, so 35mm is a compromise. As there is a crossover of players between the two sports, there are very few complaints."

"We have a Sisis slitter at the club which requires a larger tractor, so we get Brian Malone to carry this task out, but having agricultural tyres on his machine limits the times we can deploy it."

"The club is looking into upgrading our machinery in the future, but on my wish list would be a suitably sized tractor with a larger mower and a multi-task implement carrier for pitch surface conditioning."

"I am limited to what I can do as regards scarification and aeration. We only carry out weed control on the hard standing surfaces using a knapsack sprayer and, having my PA1 and PA6, this task falls to me."

"The marking out of the pitches is carried out by my dad who takes great pride in ensuring that the lines are shotgun straight and highly visible. Gaelic games pitches contain three times as many lines as a regular football pitch and are double the size, so it takes slightly longer to complete."

"Dad would spend usually three and a half to four hours for one pitch if doing it on his own, which he usually prefers to do unless he has a very tight deadline to make. We obtained a new Fleet Kombi linemarker last year which has helped immensely compared to the old transfer wheel marker that was previously in use."

"Although the pitch surface is not what would be regarded as fine turf it is still of a high quality. Pests such as chafer and leatherjackets are not really much of an issue, but damage from birds does occur."

"I would like to get a sprayer for the tractor and this would allow me to spray a selective herbicide or soluble fertiliser to deliver an even better pitch quality. There is a fertiliser programme set for the year and dad spreads it with a newly acquired ICL 2000 spreader."

"We divot as often as we can but would ensure that the bigger divots are repaired in the first instance and then work our way down to the minor areas of damage," said Tiarnach.

Presentation ranks very highly with both Declan and Tiarnach who both agree good presentation is achieved with good plant health, so the two complement each other.

"The entertainment and enjoyment level of both players and spectators is higher when the pitches are well groomed," said Tiarnach.

"At the end of last year's season, we only undertook the returfing of the goalmouths on the old and training pitches which was a great success, mainly due to Covid-19 having shut the club down!"

"This meant that the turf got time to establish whereas, in previous years, it didn't. As our playing season is at its fullest during peak growing season, it is difficult to get the results that winter sports achieve."

"We started to returf immediately after the last match which was 20th November. Myself, along with some of the lads from work who are volunteer groundsmen at Bryansford GAC in Newcastle, got it completed."

"Budgets may affect renovations in the future as Covid-19 has had an impact on revenue generation here like the majority of sports clubs."

"We don't have too much trouble with pests here but did have a minor issue with either foxes or badgers. We carried out some repairs to our fencing which seemed to cure the problem."

"Thankfully, we do not have an issue with rabbits but I know some neighbouring clubs have and they are very frustrated at the level of damage they have caused," Tiarnach added.

Tiarnach considers the environment and its components very important, keeping a close eye on wildlife and fauna.

"We consider local flora and fauna to be really important, especially as we are a rurally based club," he said. "The recent development undertaken by the club took into account any possible impact that it may have had."

"One example is the lighting on the Fit Trail, where we had to install low level light fittings along some sections adjacent to the river to take into account the presence of a bat colony, which are resident under the bridges in the immediate locality."

"We planted 120 saplings of native species around the Fit Trail where we could; mostly beech, birch and ash, which is quite appropriate as hurling sticks are made from ash."

"I have made contact with our local council's Countryside Officer and the Parks Department regarding funding for small environmental projects and progress is going well on that front."

"The village's wastewater treatment plant is located adjacent to the site and we have been in contact regarding tree planting along the access road and within the plant to provide an element of screening and for environmental enhancement."

"The club doesn't employ an environmental consultant as we use the expertise within the club, who happens to be my cousin Pearse McCartan. I have sought advice from him as regards environmental matters on many occasions."

Tiarnach has a few ideas up his sleeve on how to improve the local area around the club and make it even more environmentally friendly.

"I intend to carry out a programme of wildflower planting in the spring in areas where I have difficulty accessing with the mower. We recently renovated our house and replaced the flooring. Now I have some real wood flooring, I intend, over the winter, to recycle that and make some bird boxes and place them at various locations around the Fit Trail before the nesting season begins."

Industry thoughts

Although Tiarnach hasn't been working a long time in the industry he has witnessed a 'slow appreciation' for the work groundcare professionals do.

"As I have not been in the industry long, I feel I cannot make an objective assessment on it as I would need a longer period to evaluate it and I just don't have the time under my belt yet."

"However, so far, I would say we are most definitely undervalued and unappreciated in the main, but there is a growing level, albeit slowly, of appreciation of the work we do."

"I believe the majority of people do not realise what it takes, or how long it takes, to prepare and present sports facilities to the standard that they expect."

"Raising our profile? That's a hard one, but I would say more engagement with the stakeholders in the clubs, such as committees, coaches, players and the membership in general, is essential."

"Social media is probably the way forward, get on it, showcase your work and explain what you are doing and why you are doing it," said Tiarnach.

"We attend Saltex every year, which I find to be very useful. I would love to get to BTME some year or the GIS in the USA, given that my main job is as a greenkeeper."

"Local suppliers and dealers have organised some shows recently which we have attended where it was great to meet up with other people in the industry."

Any machinery required at Liatroim Fontenoys GAC is purchased outright, but that policy may change in the future.

"As the club has an excellent community ethos, we try to buy the machinery locally to support the economy which, in the current situation, is badly needed," Tiarnach said.

"We don't really stay with one manufacturer but, having said that, the club purchased the John Deere X740 eleven years ago and it has done pretty well for us. I am a self-confessed John Deere fan so you will not hear or read a bad word about JD from me."

"Servicing is mostly carried out by ourselves as there is expertise amongst the members of the club, and we will task the dealer to carry out the work we cannot do."

"My machinery wish list includes a tractor, a bigger mower, multitask implement carrier, a sprayer and a verti-drain, fingers crossed!" he concluded.

What's in the shed?

John Deere X740 c/w 62" deck and MCS 800 collection system
Allen Hover mower
Toro 675 AWD mower
Mitsubishi strimmer
Kawasaki strimmer
Mitox hedgecutter
Husqvarna chainsaw
Parkside petrol driven power washer
Stiga 800mm rotary self-propelled brush
ICL 2000 fertiliser spreader
Fleet Kombi linemarker
Stihl back mounted blower
SISIS slitter
Forth Roots rye seeder