Michael Davitts GAC are home at last
By John Harrington
For 107 years the Michael Davitts GAA club in West Belfast were nomads, but now they finally have a home to call their own.
And what a home! The recently opened Davitt Park is a state of the art development that includes a pitch with a spectator stand, a flood-lit 4g training pitch, changing rooms, hurling wall, childrens playground, outdoor gym and walking track.
The development cost around £1.65M (€1.91M) and was jointly funded by Belfast City Council, the National Lottery Community Fund, and Ulster GAA.
After years of playing on various pitches scattered around West Belfast, it means the world to everyone in the club to finally have a place they can call home.
"From when we were first formed back in 1912 we have never had our own facilities,” Davitts GAC Secretary Eugene Gallagher told GAA.ie.
“We would have used council facilities and pitches for our home venues. And even for training nights for our various teams.
“Now that there's a meeting point for our lads and we have a home field, there's no excuses anymore. Previously we were travelling here and there and you weren't used to the field and had to get your bearings.
“I think giving ourselves a home instils a new pride and hopefully a wee bit more determination to say we want to be winning championship games on this pitch, we want to be playing Division 1 Football on it or all-county hurling on it.
“Hopefully having the pavilion now and the pitch, people won't just be seeing each other from weekend to weekend. They'll maybe go up when kids’ games or on or just go up for a walk.
“It should bring everyone together and it's down to us now to basically just push it and promote and get the buy-in from our members. It's been a long time coming, and now we have it we have to make the most of it.
“It's brilliant to see. Everywhere you look now someone is wearing our club top or leisure-wear. It's brilliant.”
Davitts have always been a small club and currently have an adult membership of around 150, but on the back of the new development those numbers have already started to rise steadily.
The new facility couldn’t come at a better time because the club have made great strides at juvenile level in recent years and having a state of the art home like Davitt Park should only accelerate their development at underage level and secure a bright future for the club.
“Our juvenile membership has grown and grown,” said Gallagher.
“At our AGM last year we adopted the One Club approach, so this year we have registered with camogie and the LGFA.
“Previously while the girls would have been mixed in with the boys at U-12 and that, we're now starting to put out girls teams in both ladies football and camogie on their own at U-6, U-8s and U-10s.
“The amount of buy-in we're getting now from the parents who are freely giving up their time just to help with the coaches to ferry them to and from training and matches has been brilliant.
“There's not a day in the evening time and at then at the weekend when there's not something going on up on the training pitch.
“We had a foundation coaching course this weekend because there are so many parents now getting involved and you obviously have to proper governance and make sure they all have the correct qualifications.
“We have a juvenile sub-committee and they're very busy. We probably would have been better known at senior level as a football club, but our hurling has now made great strides in the last few years and hurling is now probably at a level par with the football.
“In 2017 our Feile hurlers went down to Wexford and our footballers won the Feile that year as well so there's a lot of talented young players coming through the club at the moment.”
Vibrant links with local schools is the secret to success for all GAA clubs, and the new facilities at Davitt Park are already proving to be a boon for Davitts in that respect.
“There's a couple of schools right in the vicinity, Corpus Christi College and St. Paul's primary school,” said Gallagher.
“Any of the schools in the parish and diocese from nine to five can come up and use the 4g pitch. And then from five on and at the weekends we take ownership of it. It’s a great facility for the schools to have on their door-step.”
Before the new development at Davitt Park the area was a barren site and often a magnet for anti-social behaviour, but now it is quickly becoming a cultural as well as sporting hub for the local community.
“The community have really bought into it already,” said Gallagher. “Every time the gates are opened the kids are racing through.
“There's a walkway around the whole perimeter as well as part of our health and wellbeing initiative.
“So, anybody can come in and walk about and there's a smashing view over Belfast from up behind our stand.
“We also have community allotments as well. Eight or ten allotments and some of the local community have bought into those and maintain those and use them.”
A lot of people in the club have put a lot of work into making their Davitt Park dream a reality, but none more so than long serving club Chairman Tommy Shaw.
Antrim club-person of the year in 2018, Davitt Park is the ultimate legacy of the energy and drive the indefatigable Shaw has brought to the club for many decades.
“Tommy has been our Chairman for the best part of 30 years now,” said Gallagher. “Many clubs have a talismanic figure, and Tommy is certainly ours.
“He went through serious surgery last year when he had a heart-valve and by-pass replaced, but he wasn't going anywhere. We officially opened our new facilities in February this year and there's no prouder man, he was never going to miss that occasion.
“It was a huge day with a great turn-out. Tommy was just as proud as punch and the new facilities are a great testament to his years of hard work.”
Davitts have survived thanks to the efforts of club volunteers like Shaw. Now with a state of the art home of their own, they should thrive.