Carton House is a beautifully restored historic mansion in Kildare which has been discreetly converted into a modern luxury destination resort - the first of its kind in Ireland. Pitchcare Ireland's Mark Laffan met with Estate Manager John Plummer and Assistant Course Superintendent Mark Farragher for an inside look at the facilities.
Located just twenty minutes from Dublin, the 1,100-acre Carton House private parkland estate is an all-encompassing playground for leisure and corporate guests alike. Features include two championship golf courses, a leisure centre with pool, spa, training pitches for football - both Gaelic and Association, rugby, tennis courts, purpose built events centre and state of the art conference facilities.
On a beautiful Wednesday morning, Pitchcare Ireland's Mark Laffan headed to Carton House to meet the grounds team behind one of the most prestigious resorts in the country. He takes up the story.
I wanted to get an insight into the work that goes into preparing the training facilities that have proved so popular with some of the most famous sports teams in the world, and the team that carry out this work. I also wanted to see how they prepared to host the British & Irish Lions for their final training session ahead of their tour of New Zealand.
Estate manager John Plummer greeted me at the training facility for a quick introduction; preparations were well underway and it was very much all hands on deck for John and his whole team. After a quick rundown on how preparations for the weekend are coming along, John introduces me to the assistant course superintendent, Mark Farragher (above). Mark has been with Carton House since 2001 and will be giving me the inside look at how the grounds team look after such a desirable training facility.
Mark, John and the team at Carton House provides a training facility that is dedicated to being the best sports training centre for professional teams in Europe. The team is made up of fourteen full-time groundsmen and greenkeepers.
Mark, a very highly regarded greenkeeper, tells me that Joe Meagher is the main guy that looks after the training pitches and I got to meet Joe briefly, who was busy marking out the rugby pitches in time for the arrival of The Lions.
Mark tells me that he has a background in dairy farming; "I liked the farming and all, but just knew it wasn't for me, I needed to do my own thing. I think I had seen a magazine with a fairway mower in it and I just thought, 'that looks brilliant!' Also, I used to look after the lawn at home, and our mower had a roller on the back of it. I was mad into getting the lawn striped up!"
Mark left the dairy farming and went on to enrol in The College of Horticulture in Termonfeckin in County Louth where he picked up a national diploma. He spent two years doing work experience from the college at Gleneagles. "That's really what did it for me. The staff live on site at Gleneagles. They have something like two hundred rooms for staff, which was great for attracting all sorts, from all over the world." After Gleneagles, he spent some time at Lahinch Golf Club, then a spell at the K-Club before going back to college, this time Elmwood, to do his HND. "That's me, I have been here ever since."
The Carton House grounds consists of two championship courses, The O'Meara and the Montgomerie Course. The O'Meara Course was designed by two-time major winner Mark O'Meara, it hosted the 2005 Irish Amateur Championship. The Montgomerie Course was designed by Colin Montgomerie and has hosted some of the world's finest golfers at the 2005, 2006 and 2013 Irish Opens and the 2010 Irish Seniors Open.
"When I came in, there were dairy cows still here. The O'Meara course construction was about six months in; that was 2001. Then, in late 2001, we started The Montgomerie Course. O'Meara opened in 2002, Montgomerie in 2003."
Carton House has developed a history of hosting some of the biggest names in sports over the last fifteen years, as well as home-grown superstars; the estate has welcomed global superstars like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Mark recalls when Messi was in town with the Argentinian team a few years back. "There was a gang of kids and their parents just outside the training pitches waiting to see Messi. When he made his way over from the hotel, he was hanging onto the back of a golf cart, it must have been the cart drivers first go at a golf cart because he was zig-zagging up the road to the training pitch. When they reached the pitch, Messi jokingly threw himself off the cart into a tumble landing! It was just surreal to see this icon messing about, it just goes to show though, that they are just human, enjoying the craic; if only Barcelona knew!" joked Mark.
"Well, he then walked out onto the training pitch and started practising free kicks. Manchester United's goalkeeper Romero was in goal. Messi took about a dozen free-kicks; every time the ball nestled into the top corner and Messi would just raise his hand in apology to the hapless Romero. 'That's Messi!' I thought."
So what about the training facility? These were built with topsoil and had about 3" of sand integrated into the top of the surface. "We have built up a nice surface layer through topdressing and overseeding four or five times a year. As soon as the Lions leave us, we have 120 tonnes of Wexford sand to put down."
The training area can hold either two full size football or rugby pitches side by side, or a single Gaelic pitch with the same dimensions as the famous Croke Park pitch. The area is kept private and secluded by a high fence around the perimeter. It is looking absolutely pristine in the sun. "We put down an ICL Sierrablen Spring Starter 25:4:13, slow release fertiliser a couple of weeks back. Yesterday, we threw down a liquid feed just to gloss it up a little and put down a little iron as well. We are lining out the two rugby pitches this morning, and tomorrow we will cut the pitches at a height of 30mm, box and collect the clippings." Mark tells me that he prepares a cutting height of 30mm for Gaelic and rugby and a height of 23mm for football.
The team are constantly having to change the pitch type from one sport to another to cater for the hotel's guests. They had the Wexford GAA football team in last week, the Lions in this week for rugby and they will be going back to GAA next week when they host the Kilkenny Hurling team. Try not to get dizzy, but the following week again, they are going to go back to rugby to host the IRFU as they prepare for their summer tour. "Then, in July, we will have pre-season football. Burnley and Ipswich Town are booked in, so we will have to set up for football again. Switching from rugby to Gaelic is fine, but switching from rugby to football can be a hassle because the rugby posts have to come down and that is a day's work for two lads. We stay on top of things through careful planning and have a monthly planner system in place. If a team books in, it goes into the hotel's planner system. After that, we get flagged on our system and we make sure we are well prepared for any shifts in type of pitch we will need to have ready."
Mark, Joe and the rest of the team have to constantly re-mark pitches to suit the sport that their guests are affiliated to, so how do they cope? The dimensions of the pitches are marked at every corner with a Plifix markers; these are carrot shaped markers with artificial grass tuft heads.
They come in a variety of different colours, but you can barely see them in the grass. They mark out the corners of the GAA pitch with yellow markers, the two soccer pitches with white markers and the two rugby pitches with blue ones. Then they use laser line marking machines to mark out the lines. At one marker, you put down your laser and then put the laser receiver at the next marker. So the very first job for Joe when he is marking out the pitch is to find the grass tuft markers.
The training ground looks pristine ahead of the Lions coming to Carton House. After the Six Nations, Mark tells that pitch one was in a bad state. This pitch is flanked by two observation towers. "During the Six Nations, the two towers were used for doing the stats on the players, so the IRFU lads used pitch one most of the time. We tried to alternate, but they used pitch one 70% of the time. At the beginning of April, we verticut, topdressed and overseeded the pitch. It's only really back from the dead now after all the line out drills and scrums."
What about irrigation and drainage? Mark says that the drainage on the training facility area was great even before they built the pitch, with a superb drainage system already in place. The system consists of a host of main drains that run under the surface, divided by a width of nine metres, the main drains are fed water by sand slits, one metre apart, that run adjacently to the main drains. He also sometimes uses wetting agents on the pitches to help prevent water from pooling on the surface; unlike when he uses wetting agents on the greens in the summer to get them to take water, he actually uses the wetting agent to get the water off the training pitch surface by breaking through the soil quicker.
The pitch is kept well irrigated too. They use a Hunter irrigation system which has twenty-two stations, and Mark tells me that football teams like to give it a run before their training sessions to get a slicker surface.
I ask Mark what machinery he has available and he tells me that, because of the two championship courses on site, they pretty much have every machine they need available to them.
"We use a fairway mower to cut the pitches, not the push mowers like some of the Premier League clubs in the UK." For verticutting, Mark likes to use a Toro 5610 with verticutting heads on it. He also uses a Sisis Veemo on the pitch. For overseeding, a Vredo or a Blec seeder is used but, at the minute, he is using a Moore Unidrill. The machinery used by the team is mostly owned outright by the Carton House Estate.
Does the training area suffer from any regular natural occurrences such as flooding, high winds, excessive frosts etc.? "Frost! It is a pocket for frost. If it is 0°C in Maynooth, it's going to be -3°C here! We actually got snow mould on the training pitch before, it is the only time the pitch has been infected with disease and the only time we had to use a fungicide on it. We've never had trouble with disease on the pitch other than that; our main issue is usually wear and tear."
This is the second time the British & Irish Lions have dropped in, why are the best teams in the world coming to Carton House? "I think it is the whole facility really; the hotel is beautiful, the pitches are in great condition and it's secluded. They can relax and have use of the golf courses. There's also an adventure facility where they can try off-road driving and biking, amongst other things. Ireland rugby international Cian Healy is a big fan of the off-road track. The food - especially the IRFU; those lads can certainly put it away!"
The 17th green and inside the shed
Are any special preparations required for hosting huge teams, like the Lions? "Nothing major, except obviously the pitches have to be pristine, but it would have to be like that for the IRFU anyway. There is more managing of guys coming in and out with jeeps and caddy cart etc. There's generally more bodies knocking about and we have to have security on the gate. Extra signage, we have to be careful of the irrigation system when hammering pins and poles into the ground."
Any upcoming projects? "We are talking about resurfacing pitch one, coring it, taking the sward right down to the base again, re-draining and overseeding it. It is always hard to get the time for such renovations. If we go ahead and take the whole surface off (full renovation), it will leave us with just one pitch for up to six weeks. If we decide to do the drainage alone, without taking the surface off, we will only need about ten days."
A recent project Mark and the team have carried out is the perimeter fence around the facility. "Real Madrid requested that. It is great though and the teams appreciate the privacy. We do often get young fellas trying to hop the fence but, in fairness to the lads, they just want a kick-about on a good pitch," laughs Mark.
"We are very lucky to have such an excellent team. That's really how we have gained such a good reputation and how we make sure that all these great teams keep coming back to us. From the hotel office, to the workshop, to the golf course, it is really only with the teamwork of a great group that we continue to be considered one of the best sports training centres for professional teams in Europe."