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Connacht brought dome building to new heights

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Aerial view of the Connacht GAA Air Dome in Bekan, Co Mayo

Aerial view of the Connacht GAA Air Dome in Bekan, Co Mayo

©INPHO/James Crombie

Aerial view of the Connacht GAA Air Dome in Bekan, Co Mayo

It took a trade show in Germany, a fact-finding mission in Finland and a Slovenian engineering company to get the largest air dome in the world built in Ballyhaunis.

Last month, Connacht GAA inflated the dome for the first time ahead of its official opening, scheduled for the middle of next month.

After years of lobbying, research and applying for funds as well as an investment of around €3m, Connacht have produced a state-of-the-art structure that set records for its scale.

Dome technology is already in use throughout the world but not of this magnitude, with the unique requirements of Gaelic games posing different hurdles that had to be overcome.

"The weekend of the Sligo-London championship match (in 2018), we went to see an air dome that QPR had. There's a number of them here in this country for tennis and the likes but they are way smaller than this," Connacht Council secretary John Prenty said.

"But (the engineers) hadn't gone to that size before. "It's 150m long by 100m wide, the biggest ones they had done were about 140m by 70m. The challenge from a GAA point of view was the ends because it has to be high enough, it's 26m high."

The structure also includes a full-sized pitch, a running track and a gym. And by the time it opens, it will be able to accommodate 600 people. That figure could go as high as 10,000 with extra seating installed in the venue.

"It was always in our plans to have some kind of indoor facility with the weather we have down here in the west of Ireland," Prenty continued.

"We did our pitches first and main building and then started looking at what kind of a building we could build. We explored the possibility of building a conventional building but it was always in our head that we would like a full-sized pitch covered. But a conventional building that size would cost maybe €25-50m, (but) God knows what it would cost.

"When we saw those costs we decided it was not going to happen. And then we started to look around at other options and came across the option of an air dome. We were in Abbotstown (the national GAA centre of excellence) the day they opened it and we met the engineers who had been here (in Bekan). They had been at a trade show or a sports exhibition in Germany and they came across a company that were doing air domes."

The dome won't be fully open until September at the earliest and the restrictions on indoor gatherings, currently limited to 50, are a further complication.

However, Prenty believes the venue could even be used to host Connacht championship games later this year if required.

"At the minute the ground works are going on on the outside (of the dome). That will take another four or five weeks. The actual dome manufacturers are finished this weekend.

"Then it will be a matter of getting the outside organised with entrances and it could be open for business by the end of September, depending on Covid (restrictions)."

The idea of the Connacht final being played in Croke Park was mooted earlier this year, in order to accommodate as many supporters as possible. However, should restrictions on attendances remain in place as the inter-county scene returns, Prenty believes the dome could see major action before the end of 2020.

"If we are going to have behind closed doors, you could play the whole Connacht championship there (in the Dome) if you wanted to. We have cameras in it that we can stream games from.

"If it's going to be a few hundred there's no need to go anywhere. We have to wait and see what happens but the venue won't become an issue if there's a limit."

"If it is going to be 500, I don't know if it will be worth having any crowds? Because you see the hassle clubs have with the 200 limit. So what if you have Mayo and Galway in a Connacht final and there's only 500 (tickets)? It would be easier to have nobody."