The countdown to the Irish Open in Lahinch this July is starting to pick up pace as the amount of weeks left until it tees off ticks over to single figures.
Last week’s media day at the course saw the likes of the BCC, Virgin Media and The Clare Champion descend on the course for the latest publicity drive. Central to the message being espoused by the likes of Paul McGinley, Simon Allis and the rest of team was the development of the festival atmosphere to be built around the golf tournament. A Championship village with local food and drink, games to encourage those not of a golfing inclination to get involved, live music on the promenade by night and lots to keep the children entertained were all repeatedly promoted as the main stakeholders moved from one microphone to the other. And why not? It makes sense to do it.
While the main reason that North Clare will host the tournament is the brilliance of the course at Lahinch, it is Lahinch and the surrounding areas which will be the main beneficiaries. With the area already doing a booming tourism trade in the summer months, the numbers attending over the course of the week is expected to surpass the 100,000 mark. It is not an unrealistic target, with around 93,000 people coming to Ballyliffin in North Donegal last year. Having something to cater for the passive golf fan was absolutely key and from the message being sent out by the organisers, they have nailed that. Standing on the balcony of the restaurant upstairs in Lahinch Golf Club, you are overlooking the promenade and the Atlantic Ocean which will create a unique atmosphere both during and after the action on the golf course. It will be an incredible week.
It got me thinking why the same concept is not applied on a regular basis in the GAA. It is the largest sporting and cultural organisation in the country, with huge numbers involved. In a local sense, the county hurling and football finals are the two biggest days of the year in the sporting calendar. That much is indisputable. Why not capitalise on that to create an occasion around the sporting fixture? I know there are some attempts made at national level in terms of half-time entertainment on the pitch at Croke Park on big days along with Fan Experiences at the GAA Museum. It is on the local scene that you could really capture the imagination though. It is something that should be seriously considered on county final day to make it really stand out from the rest. There is something special about it, because it is not just another ordinary day in the club calendar. It is different. Just look at the outpouring of emotion we witnessed when Ballyea finally shed their maiden tag in 2016, and equally so when they defied the odds to win another last year. We saw similar scenes when Miltown ended the drought in 2015 and Joe Cullen held the Park captive from the podium as he belted out Lovely Old Miltown last October.
It could be a brilliant PR exercise for Clare GAA to dream up some festival style approach to these big days. Engaging children and their parents would be key and could help forge that bond to keep young people involved in the game. Francis Street would be central to the initiative if it was pedestrianised in the hours before throw-in. There would be logistical issues to consider of course, but the benefits would be huge. Just imagine having live music to greet the fans as they make their way to the ground, games for children to play with former players, a picture booth for fans to take their photo with the Canon Hamilton and Jack Daly cups, or face painting for children (and adults if they want too). The possibilities are endless, and would foster a brilliant atmosphere and memories to add to an already unique occasion. It would not happen without a good deal of work and planning, but nobody ever said that anything worthwhile comes easy. It is a chance to celebrate all that is good in the GAA. We can often fall into the trap of spending time lamenting all its failings, and sometimes it justified. We need to leave space to celebrate all that is good about it too, and creating a county final day as opposed to a county final fixture could be a massive stepping stone in that sense.