What’s in a Name?
Back in March 2018, Tipp FM sent me up to Cavan to cover the National Football League Division Two game involving Tipperary. It ended in a one point victory for Cavan and they were promoted to Division One of the League at Tipperary’s expense. It was pretty thrilling stuff played out in front of 6,500 supporters. Now look where both counties reside in the hierarchy of the National League football. But one thing struck me that day and it was wholly unrelated to football. Ordinarily in a press box before a game, an official from the GAA will come in and distribute a few match day programs. He or she might even offer some late team news, late changes to the line ups, that sort of thing. But on this occasion, the GAA official gave the assembled media a pep talk on the correct name of the GAA ground that we were in. Under no circumstances were we to refer to it as Breffni Park. We were rather sternly told that at all times we should refer to it as Kingspan Breffni. Not Kingspan Park, not Kingspan Breffni Park, but Kingspan Breffni. At each work station in the press box a laminated A4 page was stuck to the wooden desk reminding us what we had already been orally briefed on.
I was indifferent to the instruction and proceeded to call the ground what it had been called since it first opened in 1923, Breffni Park. It was officially opened almost 100 years ago by none other than Eoin O’Duffy who gave a rousing speech on the day calling for the GAA to ‘bring together all sections of the Irish people to save the youth of Ireland from the sea of moral degradation into which they were travelling’. Good man Eoin! Breffni is the ancient name for the area around Cavan and Leitrim and Cavan is known as the Breffni County. Now, it has the name of a building materials provider attached and that is a shame. It’s a modern reality but it is still a shame.
The next time you are in Dublin swing right off Northumberland Road in Ballsbridge and travel over the railway tracks and you will arrive at the oldest International Rugby Ground in the world. In 1878, England beat Ireland at the old ground by 1 try to 2 goals. And it has been in pretty much continuous use ever since. Except now it no longer bears the name of the road on which it sits. Yes, it is a beautiful modern edifice of glass and steel and is really quite lovely to both look at and watch a game in. But it bears the name of a giant insurer. A name that is an invented palindrome derived from ‘viva’, the Latin word for alive and was designed by the company to be ‘short, memorable and work worldwide.’
I lived in Yorkshire for a few years in the late eighties and early nineties. I used to go and see Bradford City play in the old third division when I could and it cost the princely sum of £2 to stand in the home terrace back then. The stadium was a confused mix of old and modern after the fire disaster of 1985 killed 56 people and injured 265. The stand was rebuilt afterwards hence the confused mix of modern and old. And the stadium was named after the street where it was located, Valley Parade. Sadly not anymore. It is now called the Utilita Energy Stadium. And I find that a little sad after it has seen such triumph and disaster over the years, where 56 people burned to death whilst watching a football match. The ground still sits at the end of Valley Parade, down the hill, off Manningham Lane.
There is a Bruce Springsteen song called ‘Wrecking Ball’ which featured on the eponymous album released by Springsteen in 2012. The lyrics rage against the impending destruction of Giant Stadium in New Jersey, home of the New York Giants American Football team. ‘Here where the blood is spilled, the arena’s filled, and giants played their games’ goes one of the lines in the second verse. But as the song goes on Springsteen accepts the inevitability of the destruction of the old ground. ‘All our youth and beauty, it’s been given to the dust…. all our little victories and glories have turned into parking lots.’ So bring on your wrecking ball implores Bruce by the end.
So what links Bruce with Breffni Park and Landsdowne Road? Well this week it was revealed that Tom Semple’s field in Thurles is to get a sponsor. An insurer will pay the Tipperary county board for the naming rights to the old stadium. Sometimes I drive through Holycross on my way to Thurles, conscious that for some the old Abbey can be a place of retreat and pilgrimage. But for me, the old stand in Thurles is a sort of pilgrimage. I have experienced almost every emotion whilst sitting there; I think I lost a tonsil whilst screaming after Aidan Ryan’s goal in 1991. Was mesmerised by Eoin Kelly twisting and turning and shooting low and hard past Donal Og Cusack. The stadium was named after Tom Semple in 1971. A native of Drombane, Semple was born in 1879, won three All Ireland’s with Tipp, captaining them to victory on two occasions. He won 6 county titles with Thurles. He was instrumental in purchasing the showgrounds in Thurles which would become Semple Stadium. In short he did the Association some service and the ground proudly bears his name. But how should we feel about a commercial entity being added to the name of the stadium. What a great deal of us regard as ‘our stadium’. Well a bit like Bruce, I have become ruefully resigned to the development.
It costs in the region of €500,000 per annum to run the stadium. It is in need of modernisation. Lockdown has not helped and reduced capacity at venues ever since has tied the hands of our County Board. Those responsible for the finances within the county have to examine all revenue streams and optimise previously untapped opportunities. Does this mean selling the family silver? Well yes and no.
Yes a Rubicon is being crossed that many feared would happen. But we in Tipperary are only following other counties like Cavan, Kilkenny and Limerick in selling naming rights to our county ground. It seems inevitable that the shiny new Pairc ui Chaoimh will also soon follow, especially when you consider the burden of debt still on that stadium. Modern stadiums have to wash their own face. They cannot be a burden on the day to day finances of the Association. Croke Park has revenue streams that Semple Stadium can only dream of. Garth is never going to play five nights in Thurles, nor Ed, nor Rod. And in fairness to the County Board they have been imaginative with exploring other streams. The revival of the Feile ‘Trip to Tipp’ was worth the effort even if it turned out to be a one year wonder. The dome is described as an underutilised resource and has potential.
Also, does it make a difference if it is called FBD Insurance Semple Stadium. Or will supporters continue to lovingly call it Tom Semple’s Field. I had hoped that supporters would continue to call Landsdowne Road just that but sadly no. The Aviva Stadium has entered into the modern lexicon and the old ground has lost something as a result. I still call the music venue near the North Wall in Dublin the Point Depot. It has had two branding changes since it was last called the Point Depot. Maybe I just take after my late father who always called Houston Station, Kingsbridge Station, because that was what it was called when he was a student in Dublin. So should we just take the corporation’s money and ignore their name when referring to the stadium. I don’t think any corporate sponsor would be happy with that. So some balance must be struck.
The naming rights auction will reduce the financial burden on the county board. It will hopefully free up more resources for the development of Gaelic games in Tipperary. It doesn’t guarantee success but it creates a better environment for Tipperary teams to be successful. I remember the bruhaha when shirt sponsorship deals were muted in the GAA. I remember the wailing when some Cork hurlers had a well-known betting firm’s logo on their hurleys. I remember some announcing the end of the Association when the GPA was set up. The Association has weathered these and many other storms. It is constantly evolving. It remains the largest sporting organisation in the country and that costs money. Supporters clubs and county board draws raise funds but as we progress the costs grow and the county board cannot keep going back to the same well to draw more resources. New revenue streams had to be found and as much as we rail against it, it is a modern reality.
Some misty years ago, I went to my first Munster Hurling Final in Semple Stadium. The late Seanie O’Leary broke our hearts that day. We have been lucky to witness great days of success alongside the pain of losing. That’s sport. That is why we pay our money to go and see our county play. And I want to keep going to Thurles as long as I am able to. So if this deal keeps Thurles open and modern, then I have to ruefully resign myself to it.
Seems like Bruce was right all along.
Join Ronan for Extra Time, every Monday night on TippFM at 7pm.