Our first look at the Connacht GAA air-dome came last October, and it was almost by accident.
The RTÉ cameras were in Bekan, a tiny place about half-way between Ballyhaunis and Knock in County Mayo, for a pair of highly entertaining Mayo county senior quarter-finals.
As the players battled some hysterical downpours, as presenter Damian Lawlor and his guests Stephen Rochford and David Brady tried manfully to hold onto their composure (and their umbrellas) on a sodden sideline, there loomed over the action what appeared to be some kind of alien aircraft.
Less than 40 years after Monsignor Horan got his airport in Knock, another miracle had descended on the plains of sweet Mayo, and this time it wasn't a man of the cloth responsible. Unless you consider a blazer carrying the Connacht GAA crest to be a holy vestment.
The dome, the jewel in the crown of the Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence is also a monument to one man's ambition, and the man in question this time around is Connacht GAA supremo John Prenty. He comes from Ballyhaunis, just five minutes in the road from Bekan, the 'shining city on a hill' of Ronald Reagan's imagination.
Formerly home to the Star Cinema, where I saw both Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and Robin Hood: Men In Tights as a young boy, Ballyhaunis is now, sensationally, home to the largest sports air dome in the world. Opened in June of 2020 – pandemic be damned – it contains a full-size indoor GAA pitch, a running track, a fully equipped gym, and a portable stand.
When all Covid restrictions are lifted, the capacity for GAA games will be over 2,000 people, and the modified capacity for events and conferences could be much higher, stretching to 20,000 if all goes to plan.
Andy Moran's first game in charge of Leitrim was against Sligo in the Dome, and that garnered quite a bit of attention in the national press. Galway and Mayo played out an FBD semi-final last weekend, as did Roscommon and Sligo, and Friday evening, the first silverware of the season will be handed out in the venue as Galway play Roscommon.
It has been an almost entirely seamless transition from outdoor to indoor for the footballers of Connacht. Reports from the Galway v Mayo game suggested that in lieu of a rigorous bout of calisthenics at half time, or even engaging in the cross-bar challenge, the Galway substitutes spent the interval booting the ball at the roof in an attempt to gauge how likely an in-game intervention from the roof was.
None of them succeeded, which suggests the dimensions were agreed upon with even the most agricultural of boots in mind.
What’s left is an absolutely perfect playing surface, a windless, no-excuses, top-of-the-ground experience for all concerned. But it has the potential to revolutionise the viewing experience as well. My previous attitude to attending such pre-season events is that they are mostly the reserve of the clinically insane, but that it might, in some exceptional circumstances - for instance a travel distance of less than five miles – be deemed acceptable.
The internet of course now allows people to indulge in all manner of shameful activities in the privacy of their own home, including live streaming of such competitions as the O'Byrne Cup or the McKenna Cup. But it raises questions.
If one was willing to pay €10 to actually, physically, attend such a game, for instance – should the streaming service be cheaper, or more expensive? On the one hand, if you’re watching a stream, you are at the mercy of both your Internet connection and the abilities (which vary wildly from county to county) of the camera technicians in charge.
These are fair points, you must agree. On the plus side you’re at home, in your house, trouserless if that is your desire. You are spared the judgement and approbation of those among your peers who may spy you entering a pre-season tournament game, and you will also side-step the 100 per cent guarantee of foul weather conditions.
You might well meet other members of the public at this event, and while that could be put in either the pro or the con ledger depending on your general world-view, I for one would be willing to pay a high premium to avoid such confrontations.
The Connacht Council were broadcasting live from Bekan last weekend at the reasonably sedate price of €10, but there can be no doubt the Dome will change the decision-making parameters when Covid restrictions are lifted. If dry conditions are guaranteed, if underfoot conditions are ideal for some actual football to be played, could this actually be something you could do . . . guilt-free?
More than its status as a world leader in its field, if the Connacht Air-dome can make attending the FBD League socially acceptable it will be the greatest miracle that area of Mayo has seen in at least 150 years. If you believe in miracles, that is.