A new cross-community museum in Northern Ireland will tell the story of the Gaelic games alongside British army history.
Plans are moving forward to build a Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) Centre of Excellence in the former military barracks at Ballykinlar, County Down.
The £10m project will include a museum that documents the county’s achievements in hurling, Gaelic football and camogie (women’s hurling), as well as exploring the site’s complex military past from both nationalist and unionist points of view.
Until 2018 the site was home to Abercorn Barracks, which served as a training ground for British soldiers during the first and second world wars. The barracks has a particular connection to troops who fought in the 1916 Battle of the Somme; it was also used as an internment camp during the Irish War of Independence, and was bombed by the IRA in 1974.
Down County GAA club is working with the Ministry of Defence on the proposed development, which will also incorporate four pitches and a new multi-use games area.
The centre was first proposed in 1994 but was put on the backburner due to the political sensitivities of the era. The project was revived in 2017 and planning permission was granted last year.
Details of the project were unveiled at a sitting of Newry, Mourne and Down Council this week.
The project advisory board, which includes a unionist, a former UK cabinet minister and representatives from academia and the GAA, is hoping the build will be completed in one phase of around 16 months once funds are in place.
The project is applying for a Round 2 grant from the UK Government’s Levelling Up fund, and is hoping to raise a “cocktail of funding” from other public and private sources, said Down County secretary Seán Óg Mac an tSaoir.
The centre has support and involvement from across the community and the County Down diaspora worldwide, he said. “It’s a great story that we have on site. We want it to be three-dimensional. People will see that it’s not just a centre of excellence, it’s a story that will encompass all communities. There’ll be something there for everyone to relate to.”
The project is a “good story from the Peace Process”, said Mac an tSaoir, showing how much relations have improved since it was first discussed in 1994.
“It went through without any objection – normally someone would try to stall the process,” he said. “We engaged all sides of the community and there is a good cross section of people who want it to reflect our shared history.”
A collecting appeal was launched during lockdown to gather GAA material that people may have been throwing out while tidying their homes, and the museum has built up a substantial collection.
It will celebrate Down County players' role as “history-makers”, said Mac an tSaoir; the club was the first to bring the Sam Maguire Cup – the all-Ireland Gaelic football trophy – north of the border in 1960, and many of its players are iconic figures in GAA history.