Many fans are rightly proud of their GAA fortress – but others have valid grounds for complaint. Here we trawl all 32 counties to assess the best and worst
Everyone has a favourite GAA ground … and one they can’t abide. It’s a subjective choice, of course, but that’s not to say there aren’t perfectly rational reasons for their profanity-laden objections to the venues that don’t just cut the mustard.
“The view is cat” … “The seats are a pain in the a**e” (figuratively speaking) … “The jacks haven’t seen a janitor in 20 years” … “The pitch turns into a bog at the first sprinkle of precipitation” … “And the traffic? Oh, don’t mention the war” … a theatre of dreams will quickly lose its lustre if you miss the first half.
With this in mind, here is our ‘100pc objective’ list charting the best and worst county GAA grounds in Ireland, taking into account such disparate factors as each venue’s architecture, atmosphere, tradition/history, pitch quality and accessibility.
Croke Park is not included as it’s not a county ground, contrary to what some Dublin naysayers may believe. Where counties have two or more well-known stadia, we are sticking to the premier venue – so Tuam Stadium and Tralee’s Austin Stack Park (so wonderfully atmospheric on a floodlit Saturday night) don’t make this shortlist of the 32 best and worst county grounds in Ireland. Starting with our number one …
1 NOWLAN PARK, KILKENNY
Size isn’t everything. With a capacity of 27,000 and no floodlights, it can’t cater for everyone – but really it should be used more often as a championship venue. There are 18,000 seats on three sides, including Ardan Ó Cearbhaill behind the country end goal, which adds a modern flourish to a location steeped in history going back to the 1920s.
No surprise that it was voted GAA pitch of the year in 2018 and ’19: the sod is usually perfect for hurling, maybe because it sees so little football! Its location, close to Kilkenny city’s many fine watering holes and its ring-road, is another winner.
With space for 74 personnel in its expanded high-tech press box, you’ll never hear the media grumbling. As for those who might cavil that the Old Stand has seen finer days? Well, it’s a lot better since it acquired a new roof, after part of the old asbestos one was ripped off by Storm Darwin in 2014.
There have been times, too, when the roof was nearly lifted off the Paddy Grace Stand by an atmosphere best described as febrile. Think of the 2009 league roasting of an undercooked Cork team just back from their third strike, when the merciless hosts received a standing ovation – at half-time. Or that do-or-die qualifier against Tipperary in 2013. Or even the palpable fury after Dublin maor foirne Greg Kennedy had the temerity to intercept a Kilkenny pass in a 2019 Leinster round-robin opener.
2 SEMPLE STADIUM, THURLES
When it comes to history, the old Thurles Sportsfield is number one every time. One quickening walk from Hayes’s Hotel, jockeying through the Munster final match-day masses, will convince you that this truly is the home of hurling.
But also the home of Kerry/Dublin 2001 – proof of the venue’s streak of inclusivity. And the home of Féile, for arthritic rockers of a certain vintage. Thurles has a uniquely Irish appeal for all types, hairy or helmeted.
The surface (inaugural pitch of the year winner in 2017) is famously fast and true. The ground may be ageing in places and the pandemic won’t help, with ambitious plans for a Kinnane Stand facelift, incorporating an extra tier for corporate hospitality facilities, on the back-burner.
However, with room for approximately 47,000 patrons, 26,000 of them seated, there is no better place to watch a game in high summer.
3 ST TIERNACH’S PARK, CLONES
Clones and Ulster football final: the two go together like Giles and Dunphy, Murphy and McHugh, Peter the Great and Mugsy.
True, you might need to set your alarm to beat the traffic, but once you reach Clones it will be worth it for the shoulder-jostling walk down Fermanagh Street, the overpowering aroma of chip vans, the final steep walk up Church Hill … but especially the crackling atmosphere inside.
There is nothing remotely modern about the place; capacity has been reduced to 29,000 (some 16,2765 seated) and the lac of floodlights ruled it out as a venue for last year’s winter Ulster final … but its bowl-like configuration makes it a natural amphitheatre.
Over the years, it has attracted some negative press for the supposedly obstructionist attitude of some Ulster Council ‘maors’ … but our belief is this has been overstated and besides, if you turn up there for a league match, your Monaghan hosts could not be more welcoming.
One final thing: whatever happens with Casement Park, Clones with its central location is a more accessible and appealing prospect for every Ulster county, not just some of them.
4 FITZGERALD STADIUM, KILLARNEY
It’s only fitting that this cathedral is named after a bona fide footballing icon, Dick Fitzgerald; it could be no other way in Kerry. Adding to the legend of the place is the fact that it was built back in the 1930s by the patients of the adjoining St Finan’s Hospital, under the guidance of Dr Eamonn O’Sullivan (another Kerry legend for his multiple All-Ireland coaching exploits).
But what sets the venue apart is not its history, per se, or even the greatness of the Kerry footballers who have adorned it . . . but the majesty of those vistas.
The architecture of the surrounding landscape (rather than its bricks-and-mortar) will take your breath away, once you can be distracted from salivating over David Clifford. Carrauntoohil, MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, the steeples of Killarney and all the promise of a good night out after a short walk to town: what’s not to like?
With three open terraces and one covered stand, it’s an imposing arena and yet nothing too extravagant. And no lights either, hence Saturday night league games are hosted in Tralee.
With capacity set at 38,000 and so long as you don’t mind standing (it has around 8,600 seats), it is more than ample for a big Munster final shindig with Cork or a Super 8s demolition job on Mayo . . . or even some major hurling events, like the 1937 All-Ireland final, just a year after it opened.
5 PÁIRC UÍ CHAOIMH, CORK
The GAA’s shiniest edifice, you might ask why isn’t the new ‘Páirc’ even higher? Good question: maybe it suffers by association with the old Páirc, the horror stories of that dangerously crowded tunnel and dressing-rooms more akin to bedsits.
That was then, this is now. Trouble is, we’re in the same place so getting there remains just a tad problematic.
Destination finally reached, however, the place is truly imposing, especially the main stand which resembles a modern Hogan beamed down to Cork. Capacity is 45,000 with 21,000 seats, including premium.
The original new surface, rightly maligned, has been replaced and it’s now pitch perfect. The new Páirc will forever be lined to the financial woes it bequeathed, but we’re here to judge looks, not books!
6 O’CONNOR PARK, TULLAMORE
Once upon a time, when Offaly were winning All-Irelands and All-Stars in both codes, their county home was positively ramshackle. Now they have a home to be proud of – and no need for a trophy cabinet. Go figure!
The new(ish) O’Connor Park with a capacity of around 18,000 has lots to recommend it. The main stand, opened in 2006, can seat 7,000 patrons. It has one of the better press boxes and a wheelchair section that epitomises the modern thinking that went into its construction.
That attention to detail can be seen in the colour-arranged seats – obligatory green, white and gold, with the added touch of spelling out Uibh Fhailí (even the fada is factored in).
There followed a new terrace, four dressing-rooms and TV tower on the opposite side. Any downsides – apart from the legacy of financial stress?
Well, O’Connor Park has less to recommend itself behind either goals, and it has no lights. But its midland location makes it an ideal neutral venue – at the centre of everything rather than, as some cynics might quip, in the middle of nowhere.
7 ATHLETIC GROUNDS, ARMAGH
Last year’s Ulster final was unusual for lots of reasons (Cavan broke a 23-year duck, it was played in November, behind closed doors) but here’s another one: Armagh hadn’t hosted a provincial SFC decider since 1941.
Why 2020? Clearly Covid had something to do with it: Clones has no lights and, with no fans, you didn’t need a venue that big either.
The Armagh city venue endured a chequered history and a few closures along the way before the new Athletic Grounds officially opened for the visit of the Dubs in February 2011. With those distinctive orange seats housing 5,575 in the main stand, the venue accommodated 18,186 when Donegal visited in 2015. A tidy mid-size ground that ticks most boxes.
8 O’MOORE PARK, PORTLAOISE
Surely the most popular – as in frequently used – neutral provincial venue in Ireland. It meets all the criteria: decent capacity (circa 22,000), an impressive covered main stand (seating 6,500), a pitch that usually holds up well to lots of action, and a location close to the M7 motorway that makes it readily accessible.
Best of all, the venue has gone green by embracing biodiversity and installing LED floodlights.
Pernickety types (yours truly) will ask who designed the press box? It’s not big enough for the many double-headers it hosts, and you need to be sitting on a bar stool, which isn’t a bad thing, per se – in a pub.
9 PÁIRC ESLER, NEWRY
What’s the best way to start a row with a Down die-hard? Ask, all innocently, “Sure, isn’t half of Páirc Esler in Armagh?” A 2014 local media report quoted a spokesperson for the North’s Department of Finance and Personnel thus: “The majority of the stadium lies within Co Armagh and a small portion lies within Co Down.”
Leaving aside such geopolitical landmines, the ‘Marshes’ is a place that Down can be proud of.
It wasn’t always the way – Newry didn’t host any SFC fixtures for several years in the early noughties, before major renovations added new stands (with seats for 4,220), floodlights and pitch, turning Páirc Esler into an attractive mid-size venue.
10 MacHALE PARK, CASTLEBAR
The home of Mayo GAA is something of a curate’s egg. Construction work on a major renovation began in 2008, the legacy of which – excluding a deep pile of debt – was a huge new stand that could seat 10,000.
It’s a bold, brash statement and when it’s full (quite often) and Mayo are on a roll (less frequently, given their erratic home record) the natives create some racket. So we’ve been told: you may as well be on Mars for all you’d hear in that cavernous, glass-fronted press box. Another bugbear? Those pillars: surely such a swish new stand should be cantilevered? As for the much-maligned pitch, thankfully it’s about to be resurfaced and extended.
The all-seater capacity on match days, previously listed as 31,000, was cut to 25,369 for Mayo’s 2019 Super 8s date with Donegal on the basis that it was a standalone tie. One of those days when Castlebar truly did rock.
11 BREFFNI PARK, CAVAN
Not everyone may agree, but this place has an old-world charm. There is little chance of a crush outside the ground, givn the abundance of space; and likewise, once inside, there is plenty of air to breathe. No surprise: only part of the main stand (with seating for 5,030) is under cover, while the three remaining sides are all terraced.
Breffni’s size, central location, relative accessibility and floodlights all mean that it’s a handy neutral venue option, while it also hosted an International Rules test in 2013.
12 CELTIC PARK, DERRY
The home of Derry GAA . . . or is it? The ground is just up the road from the Brandywell and – certainly until Derry City FC’s home got a complete makeover a few years back – it was the more impressive arena, capable of holding 18,000, thanks to its own redevelopment in 2008.
But the Brandywell has always evoked more nostalgia. Put bluntly, Celtic Park is a fine venue in the wrong place, in a city largely immune to the charms of the GAA, which has its stronghold in rural south Derry.
13 WEXFORD PARK
You could call Fortress Yellowbelly a fine sturdy block of functionality. A decent-sized covered main stand, faced by an open stand of concrete benches, with open terraces at either end. Beware the winds of Wexford, though – and the dearth of on-street parking on a busy summer’s day.
Its redevelopment, 20 years ago, was not before time. Since then Wexford Park has witnessed everything from a veneration of the relics of St Therese of Lisieux (2001) to the deification of Davy Fitz in his purpose-built glass box (2017), the suspended boss overseeing victory over Kilkenny from above.
14 HEALY PARK, OMAGH
This reporter had a bird’s-eye view of the 2006 ‘Battle of Omagh’ between Tyrone and Dublin, high up in the covered stand. Never mind the pitch-side shenanigans; the atmosphere in the stand was pretty sulphurous too.
Just as well the glass-fronted press tower on the opposite touchline had yet to be built – we wouldn’t have seen half as much, and heard even less.
When Tyrone again hosted the Dubs in 2018, the official capacity was given as 17,636, with 4,500 of those seats.
An otherwise fine venue has laboured under one major flaw: a pitch too prone to flooding, hence a major resurfacing project (which has been put on hold by the pandemic).
15 BREWSTER PARK, ENNISKILLEN
For a county that’s reputedly half-lake and half-Protestant, the endangered Gaels of Fermanagh can boast a more than adequate county grounds.
Brewster’s millions? Not quite; but the venue’s renovation in the late noughties left the Ernesiders and their host club, Enniskillen Gaels, with a venue capable of housing 18,000, over half of them seated, and with floodlights to boot.
The main stand has a low roof, wonderfully conducive to a red-hot atmosphere, but the pitch can get a bit boggy after the heavens open.
16 PÁIRC SEÁN Mac DIARMADA, CARRICK-ON-SHANNON
Lovely Leitrim has a suitably enchanting county grounds, flaws and all. But what transformed Páirc Seán from an outpost that wasn’t ageing gracefully to a place possessed of a certain 21st-century chic was the completion of a new 3,000 all-seater stand in 2007.
Four years later, the Slattery Report recommended that overall capacity be slashed to 9,331, down from 15,000. That said, we’re talking of a county with roughly 32,000 residents. Surely Carrick’s bijou charms will suffice for almost any occasion – even the Dubs on tour?
Famously this happened in April 2016 when Leitrim HQ rode to the 11th-hour rescue of the stranded Rossies by hosting their league date with Dublin, all after Hyde Park had failed a pitch inspection that morning.
17 MacCUMHAILL PARK, BALLYBOFEY
There is one compelling reason why Donegal fans love Ballybofey – or at least used to. From 2010 they never lost there – not until Tyrone’s late victory surge terminated their Super 8s involvement in 2018. Prior to that, familiarity may have bred content for Donegal who even drew twice with Jim Gavin’s touring boys in blue, in 2013 and ’17.
As for the aesthetics of MacCumhaill Park . . . well, there aren’t too many. In many ways it’s a typical mid-range county venue: terraces on three sides, one covered stand (that can house 4,310), a pitch that doesn’t always survive the wild inclemency of the north-west, a press box that struggles to cater for the considerable interest in Donegal.
With floodlights enabling league matches on a Saturday night, and a location in town, you have the recipe for a fun-filled Saturday night – win or lose, before, during or after!
18 GAELIC GROUNDS, LIMERICK
One of the biggest grounds in Ireland, transformed in 2004, capable of hosting provincial finals: why so low?
A few reasons. Firstly, it struggles by neighbourly comparison to Thurles, Killarney and Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Secondly, we actually think the Gaelic Grounds is too big. Notwithstanding the city’s love affair with John Kiely’s trophy magnets, does Limerick really need a home for 44,000 fans, including 20,000 bums on seats?
Moreover, it’s no monument to sporting architecture, especially when measured against the beguiling curves of nearby Thomond Park. The uncovered North Stand offers uninterrupted views – if you don’t mind risking a drowning in the city that gave us Angela’s Ashes. A more intractable issue is the shallow gradient in the covered Mackey Stand, now 33 years old.
For all that, when the Ennis Road venue is full, the atmosphere can be electric. Think of that Kerry-Mayo replay in 2014. Glorious carnage.
19 MARKIEVICZ PARK, SLIGO
As Irish revolutionaries go, Countess Markievicz always struck us as more exotic than the norm – so there’s a certain appeal to Sligo’s county grounds even before you get to see it. And in fairness, actually spelling the name rather than finding the place has long posed more of a challenge to sports journalists – have I really got that ‘v’, ‘c’ and ‘z’ in the correct order? At this stage, hopefully so.
On admittedly sporadic visits, I have always found it a tidy ground that amply caters for Sligo’s needs, without ever setting the pulses racing. Significant redevelopment work in the noughties raised capacity beyond 18,000 at the time, with an impressive new terrace behind one of the goals.
The covered stand (seating 3,585) is merely adequate; its greatest asset is the imposing backdrop of Benbulben. Safe to say, it has inspired many aspiring poets imprisoned as sports hacks to Yeatsian flourishes while describing Sligo’s latest Division 4 exploits. A terrible beauty and all that.
20 DR HYDE PARK, ROSCOMMON
A big old saucer crying out for some modern touches. Thankfully the old pitch, arguably the worst in Ireland circa 2016, was dug up and has been shortlisted for pitch of the year three times since. The venue was only allowed host the 2018 Connacht Council subject to capacity being capped at 18,870. On the plus side? We love the press box view, graveyard (of champions) included.
21 PARNELL PARK, DUBLIN
We are slightly conflicted. Donnycarney is a rousing location for a county final or a Sky Blue hurling humdinger, especially under lights. The stand is small but palpably close to the action, even if the press facilities are stuck in the last century.
But? Bluntly, it’s no longer fit for purpose as Dublin’s county ground because its approximate 10,000 capacity is not big enough to host NFL games for the GAA’s biggest team.
22 DR ULLEN PARK, CARLOW
One abiding memory? A relay of Dublin streakers invading the pitch on a hot Saturday in June 2002. The venue retains an unmistakably old-school aura, even if the red, yellow and green seats in the only covered stand would brighten your day. The surface, nominated for pitch of the year in 2018, is among the better ones.
23 PÁIRC TAILTEANN, NAVAN
The planned transformation into a 21,000 all-seater arena is ambitious and can’t come soon enough, so the financial logjam of a pandemic is particularly badly timed.
For all its history-soaked charms, its fine surface and even those grassy knolls behind either goal that would leave JFK nervous, the Royals are long overdue a stadium to fit their status.
24 CUSACK PARK, ENNIS
So good they named it twice? Not based on how our two Cusacks fare in our rankings. Ennis annoys some colleagues far more than yours truly, but the place was looking very tired before the southern stand was revamped five years ago, with a modern roof, bucket seats and (long-overdue) new toilets.
25 PEARSE STADIUM, GALWAY
Who doesn’t fancy a day out in Salthill? Answer: those caught up in the traffic chaos that ensues when trying to reach Pearse Stadium on a Connacht final day.
Why is such a modern venue, only reopened in 2003, so low in our table? Put simply, the home of Galway GAA (can you hear the outrage from Tuam?) is an impressive place if only it were somewhere else.
Problem 1: That part of the city is notoriously inaccessible. Problem 2: Those trademark Atlantic gales influence games far too often. Other issues are minor but irksome. Tilting part of the glass-fronted press box, at a view-obscuring angle, defies logic.
26 CUSACK PARK, MULLINGAR
Claustrophobics would have been better off missing the 2004 O’Byrne Cup final, when 14,612 squeezed in to see Páidí Ó Sé’s men face Meath; that capacity has since been trimmed. Cusack was redeveloped in the 1990s and upgrade work, to begin this year, is not before time.
It doesn’t help a venue’s reputation when it’s best known, in GAA parlance, for ‘The Battle of Aughrim’ (v Laois in 1986). It’s equally bemusing that some folk refer to Aughrim as a fortress when Wicklow have spent so much time in the lower tiers. That said, while their county grounds can be hard to reach, the venue itself is much improved on what it once was.
28 PEARSE PARK, LONGFORD
You’ve got to feel sorry for Longford GAA chiefs, who could never have predicted the structural subsidence bombshell in 2015 that placed their entire stand-side renovation in peril. All, now, thankfully repaired.
It’s a neat venue but defects remain. You can’t see the near touchline from the east terrace, while the press box has an unusual location – if you want to risk the spiral stairs. But the hosts could not be more inviting.
29 ST CONLETH’S PARK, NEWBRIDGE
‘Newbridge or Nowhere’ . . . Kildare’s defiant stand to retain home qualifier advantage against Mayo became one of the stories of 2018. If you gloss over Croke Park’s chaotic handling of that controversy, the most salient point is this: the venue has an inviting location but has aged poorly. The planned revamp, with a very modern stand helping to increase overall capacity to 15,000, can’t come quickly enough.
30 WALSH PARK, WATERFORD
Matters came to a head in 2018 when Waterford were forced to play two ‘home’ Munster SHC ties at neutral venues. Regulars in the old stand or terracing must be counting down the days to when the planned new “best in its class” stadium – likely to house around 13,000 – is opened, potentially in 2025.
31 CORRIGAN PARK, BELFAST
Only here by default, through the negligence of letting Casement Park fall by the wayside. I was dispatched to this west Belfast hideaway in 2018 for an Antrim/Dublin NHL clash; a ‘back to the future’ adventure that included covering the game from the line, between the dugouts. Since then, a new stand has emerged from the ether as part of a €1m refurbishment.
32 GAELIC GROUNDS, DROGHEDA
It’s no surprise that several counties near the bottom of this list are hoping to embark on complete renovations of their old, battered arenas. Louth are different: they plan to move to a greenfield site in a different town, banishing decades of getting by without what you could term a proper home of their own.
Without boring you with the details of the long-term lease held by the O’Raghallaigh’s club, the kernel of this story is that Drogheda is not a suitable county venue. Hasn’t been for years. That’s why the county board is pressing ahead with a planned €12m stadium on Dundalk’s Inner Relief Road, bolstered by a recent windfall of €1.2m from a double house draw fundraiser.
As Louth chairman Peter Fitzpatrick told us: “We lost our GAA pitch in Louth back in 1959. We’re the only county team in the country that hasn’t got a county grounds. In fairness, the people of Louth have been promised and promised and promised – and we just said we can’t keep making false promises to people.”
Watch this space. Watch those diggers . . .