It takes about 20 minutes to drive from Knock Airport to the new Connacht GAA Air Dome in Bacon.
There is a symmetry here regarding how close these pieces of infrastructure are located geographically. They represent the spirit of defiance that has kept the West of Ireland alive against all odds.
Those of us of a certain vintage will remember a famous 1980s TV news report featuring an interview between then-Western correspondent Jim Fahy and the late Monsignor James Horan on the site of a proposed new airport.
Bulldozers were already clearing the site and Monsignor was adamant that he was building an airport. Then with a gleam in his eyes he said that he was not sure who would pay for it.
One suspects that there was a mass meltdown of the Mandarins in the finance department, as the country was really broken at the time.
But Monsignor was an inspiring figure and his airport was built mainly thanks to a government grant of €9.8m.
Socially it was one of the best investments ever made as it changed the lives of thousands of people in the last quarter of a century.
Another shocking moment came on RT Six One news last Monday evening when the camera brought us pictures of the new €3.1m Air Dome, the largest of its kind in the world.
It is built on the site of the Connacht GAA Center of Excellence which is approximately halfway between Ballyhunis and Knock.
And Mandarins can rest in Merrion Street – the project has already been paid for.
Later that Monday night, footballers from Sligo and Leitrim took part in the first competitive GAA game played indoors.
Just as the new Croke Park became a goldfish for the GAA at the national level, the facility could do so on a modest scale for Connacht Council.
But that was not the reason it was made.
Anyone living in the west of Ireland knows that the region receives a disproportionate share of the country’s rainfall and inclement weather.
This new facility will cater to matches at all levels in the province and due to its location and improved road network, it is easily accessible from almost all parts of Connacht.
In a post-pandemic world, it could host concerts, trade exhibitions and conferences. Actually, next month the GAA Congress is to be staged there.
Connacht GAA chief executive John Prenty was the driving force behind the project, although it was former Taoiseach Enda Kenney who suggested installing the air dome used at Castlebar Tennis Club.
The seed money for Connacht’s Center of Excellence came from profits earned by the GAA when they hosted rugby and soccer internationals at Croke Park when Lansdowne Road was being redeveloped.
It was initially envisaged that each province would build a Center of Excellence from the proceeds.
In this event, only Connacht took the idea forward, developing all-weather pitches and building new office accommodation and gym facilities. There was also a plan to provide the facility to play indoors at some point.
After Enda Kenny offered his suggestion, Prenty and retired Roscommon footballer Kaithal Craig, who is the province’s sports official, began researching the project and visited Finland, the world leaders in the technology involved.
The thorny issues of funding the project were also addressed. Connacht GAA was one of the first in the first round of successful applications for the Department of Rural and Community Development’s ‘Rural Regeneration and Development Fund’ scheme in late 2018.
The then Minister Michael Ring announced a grant of €2.1m for the project; The GAA chipped in with €700,000 while the council itself added another €300,000 from its own resources.
Last summer five workers from Slovenian-based DBS Engineering were isolated at a house in Kiltimag before work began on the month-long project.
One hundred tons of material was shaped into a dome-shaped structure which is 15,000 square meters in size. The pitch is similar in size to the playing surface at McHale Park in Castlebar.
Groundwork on the site had already been completed in Galway by Pronty contractors from Farmanagh and Tobin Engineers, while SIS – an Irish-owned company whose CEO is Sligo native George Mullan – laid the astroturf pitch. The finished dome is 26 meters high, 150 meters long and 100 meters wide. It also includes a running track and a fully equipped gym.
It can accommodate 2,000 spectators at a game and within 24 hours can be transformed into a concert venue with a capacity of 10,000 and is designed to last 40 years.
It costs around €100 per day to run but the council has already signed a naming rights agreement with NUIG.
The GAA has received much criticism over the years regarding excessive costs on outdoor stadiums, which are left unused for much of the year.
But Connacht GAA has secured the jackpot from its Air Dome. Well done everyone.