History of Connemara Championship Golf Links: A Miracle at Connemara
© Richard Phinney 2004
The following story is based on actual recollections. It is a true story, although a few artistic licenses have been taken by the author. For the purposes of historical accuracy, the editors have inserted a few points of clarification.
IT WAS DURING THE friendly chatter and tea-cup clatter of an Irish baptism that Peter Waldron’s dream began to take shape. It was 1969 and he had just been transferred to Clifden, a remote seaside town of one thousand souls on the perimeter of fabled Connemara. Between biscuits and cucumber sandwiches, the twenty-eight-year-old priest took the opportunity to buttonhole Eddie Foyle, the respected local hotelier who was hosting the celebration.
“I heard about your golf course idea,” he said with a good-natured smile. Some of Father Waldron’s tea spilled onto the floor. “You’re mad, you know that. It’ll never happen, it‘s too good to be true. But whatever chance you have, you are best off keeping a low profile and keeping your cards close to your chest.”
A few days later, Father Waldron heard a knock on his door. It was Paul Hughes, another hotelier, a man he had only met fleetingly before. Like himself, Hughes was new to Clifden, something of a blow-in to the tightly-knit and economically depressed community. He wanted to introduce himself and come in for a chat. After a minimum of pleasantries Hughes came to the point.
“Padre, you may have heard, I’ve just bought the Abbeyglen Hotel and I want to build the place up,” he said. “The way I see it, this town needs things. Most of all, it seems to me, it needs what you are after.”
After a few seconds it dawned on Father Waldron what the man might be getting at.
“You’re talking about the golf course?” he suggested, a bit hopefully.
“Are you interested?”
The two men shook hands. What it all meant, however, Father Waldron wasn’t at all sure.
In his spare time, the young padre had taken to stalking a beautiful stretch of shoreline about five miles from the edge of town. The rocky terrain had been used for centuries as summer grazing land by a group of local families. With the exception of the occasional few cattle, it was usually deserted and Waldron could visualise his dream in splendid solitude. But one day his reverie was interrupted by a man wearing a pair of football boots and brandishing an ancient wooden-shafted golf club.
“I’m Paid Kennelly, the local teacher,” the man said, shaking hands. Once the introductions were over, he said:
“I hear you’re interested in building a golf course.”
“Actually I am,” the young priest replied, not a little surprised. “Are you interested?”
“Well, I couldn’t do much for you, but I could tell you who owns what.”
The teacher went on to explain that there were three parcels of land. The first was a commonage of 176 acres, with twenty-two tenant-owners. That wouldn’t be easy, in fact probably impossible, to buy. But the second parcel was a commonage with 110 acres and only eleven owners.
“I think you might well be able to buy that,” the teacher said.
“But aren’t commonages notoriously difficult to buy?” asked Father Waldron, knowing full well that any sale would require the agreement of each and every farmer.
“That they are,” replied Kennelly. “But particularly with yourself being who you are, I think you might be able to do it. If you go about it right! The third parcel is owned individually by the McDonagh family, a chap named Mickey McDonagh. Mickey is positive about things, one of nature’s gentlemen. I think you’d find Mickey very nice and easy to deal with.”
Building a golf course had not exactly been part of Peter Waldron’s future plans when he accepted a place in the venerable seminary college at Maynooth, not far from Dublin. The heart of Catholic learning in Ireland, Maynooth sent wave after wave of young priests across Ireland to take up positions of intellectual, educational and moral authority that had been the lot of the priesthood for a millennium. As far back as the eighth century Irish monks had been renowned throughout Europe for their erudition and wisdom, and Ireland had been a lonely beacon of Christian learning during the Dark Ages. If the idea of an Irish state had been battered by subsequent invasions and the barbarities of English conquest, the authority of the Church had survived and even been strengthened. During religious oppression, Irish Catholics turned to their Church to express their nationalism, attending Mass in secret. After independence in 1922 the first leaders of the Free State gladly ceded direction of much of Ireland’s social policy to Church leaders.
Priests did more than preach and attend to their pastoral duties; they were expected to lead all local institutions, a role often shared with the local school principal.
In the 1960s, Ireland was an oasis of faith in an increasingly secular Europe, but Maynooth was not inured to the social change occurring elsewhere. Civil rights and anti-war movements in America, student activism in France, the emergence of new nations in Africa and Asia - it was an exciting and potent backdrop for the impassioned debates taking place inside the walls of the seminary.
Peter Waldron and his classmates were weaned on the doctrine that they should make a positive contribution in leadership to the communities they would serve. If you were a priest you were a community leader. And you must exercise that responsibility for the benefit of the people, in whatever way you saw fit.
Waldron’s graduation also coincided with a resurgent “Save the West” movement. The coastal communities in the west of Ireland were in catastrophic shape. Much of the land was agriculturally poor, the fishing industry seemed to have little or no future and tourism was still in its infancy. Young people were leaving in droves for the streets of London and New York. Peter Waldron embraced the broad definition of a priest’s responsibilities, and was pleased to be posted to Clifden in July, 1968 (he would assist Father Dan Corcoran, the Parish Priest, who had just turned eighty-five).
The idea of building a golf course as a form of community development had been with him for quite some time. For one thing he had played golf since the age of ten. For another, he knew the Irish Tourist Board was subsidising a course in Westport in neighbouring County Mayo.
Clifden was different, however - much poorer, smaller and more remote. Most people in Connemara had never even seen a golf course, and the only club they had swung was a hurling stick. The young lads also played Gaelic football, and some of the local girls camogie (a form of hurling), but mostly life was an effort to put food on the table.
In Clifden, and indeed in the whole of Connemara, there was no place at all to play golf, unless you counted the little pitch-and-putt course that the lighthouse keepers had built out on Slyne Head to relieve the boredom. The nearest proper course was in Galway, fifty miles away over twisting, narrow roads.
But if not a golf course, what? The idea got stuck in the young cleric’s mind, and either he couldn’t or wouldn’t dislodge it. It was hard to look at a vacant piece of land without imagining a flagstick on it, and on more than one occasion he found himself lamenting that the most promising holes always seemed to be on bogs.
All this he kept to himself as he threw himself into his duties. Life in any new parish was an endless cycle of house calls, baptisms, weddings, funerals, Masses and meetings, with visits to the hospital, orphanage and convent thrown in. And since Old Dan was ailing, the young lad was expected to pick up the slack.
He loved it, of course. He felt privileged to have the opportunity to serve, and he quickly came to genuinely love the straightforward integrity of the inhabitants of this rugged and starkly beautiful land. If any people were the salt of the earth, these people were. Father Waldron wanted to explore every corner of his parish, meet every family, and learn about the lives they led. And the more he learned, the more he wanted to make a difference here. The idea of a golf course simmered in the back of his mind.
Until that fateful day in June 1969, that is, when he decided to take a drive down the Ballyconneely road. It was a beautiful morning, and Waldron was full of anticipation. In three months he had developed a keen sense of responsibility for his new parish, even a sense of proprietorship, and he enjoyed getting to know his new “territory.” Navigating his way down the pretzel-like road past Ballyconneely village and further past the primary school, he turned right into a narrow lane bounded by stone walls.
After a hundred yards or so, the road suddenly opened up into a wide stretch of grassland. Father Waldron stopped the car in amazement and found himself walking ankle-deep through this unexpected “prairie.” To his left it extended to the edge of the headland, some fifty feet above the crashing surf. To his right it rose gradually into a wild tumble of Connemara rock. In the distance the Twelve Bens provided a stunning backdrop. But it was the sudden expanse of grass and sea and sky that overwhelmed him.
Although he was very much alone, Father Waldron let out an audible sigh, followed by a self-mocking chuckle. “Here then, Peter, is your golf course!”
As always, it was all a person could do to keep up with Eddie Hackett, as he strode up through the fields that still belonged to Mickey McDonagh. On this early July 1971 morning he was going over the layout one last time with Father Waldron, showing him where he had put the stakes for each tee and green. There was such a vivid sense of purpose when Eddie was out on the linksland, at such odds with the reserved sixty-year-old gentleman that Father Waldron had first met in the Abbeyglen Hotel just a few months earlier. The priest was amazed (and initially alarmed if the truth be told) that “Eddie’ - as he was known to everyone - had done the work so quickly and so confidently. The course seemed to just fall together before his eyes. Even before the land had been secured, Father Waldron had spent hours and hours debating with himself the merits of this and that routing. The possibilities seemed to be endless. But for Eddie there was only one.
A man from the tourist board had introduced Eddie to those behind the Connemara golf course project. The hope had been to secure a development grant, but so far the board had agreed only to pay Hackett’s expenses for an appraisal of the golfing potential of the land. Hackett had been well known in golf circles as a club professional at Portmarnock in the 1940s, but had turned to golf architecture rather late in life. He had only a couple of courses to his credit, though he was designing the grand new course down the coast at Waterville - the dream project of Jack Mulcahy, an Irish-born American industrialist with (the word was) bottomless pockets.
On the day of that first visit - a fine October day in 1970 - Peter Waldron had been unaccountably nervous. What if Eddie Hackett didn’t see what was so obvious to him, that this was a place blessed by God and by nature - a perfect place for a golf course?
The doubts were vanquished by the gleam in Eddie Hackett’s eye as he emerged from Paul Hughes’s car to shake his hand, not far from where the young padre had first met the local school teacher. Eddie didn’t say much - preferring to listen to the explanations and theories that came tumbling out from Hughes, Waldron and Graeme Allen, the third member of the original group.
“Do you have any ideas yourself about how the course should be laid out?” Eddie asked. Neither Hughes nor Allen knew anything about golf, but Waldron had some tentative suggestions ready. Eddie heard these out, while taking in the land with the intensity of a general examining a battle plan.
“You have a marvellous piece of land here” he told them at last. “And it will make a fine golf course indeed.” Then he enquired about where he could go for evening Mass.
In the intervening months, Hackett had returned to the course to finalise the design - undeterred by the growing worries of Paul Hughes and the new Committee formed to promote the project. Not for the last time they had run out of money, and despaired about building the course. They simply couldn’t pay Mr Hackett for another trip to Connemara.
“Eddie, there’s no use coming down,” Paul Hughes said over the phone to Eddie’s home in Dublin. “We have no money to build the golf course. I don’t think we can go ahead just now.”
“Listen, Paul,” Eddie told him. “Let me go down there. I’ll design the course for you and you can pay me when you can. We’ll put pins in the virgin soil. You just have to promise me one thing - even if you can’t mow the grass at first, you’ll stick to the right design.”
So Eddie had come, and spent two more days scouring the landscape from every possible angle, considering each swale and rock. He was intent on disturbing as little ground as possible, on weaving the course through the Connemara rock which protruded darkly through the grasses in many spots. This was fine with the committee, which had precious little money for bulldozers, but for Hackett there seemed to be a principle at stake.
“Mother Nature is the best architect” he told them. “I just try to work with what the Good Lord provides.”
Now it was the following summer, and Eddie and Father Waldron had reached the fifteenth hole. It was a long par four, in the heart of Mickey McDonagh’s old property. Eddie pointed out the stakes for the men’s and women‘s tees and trudged through the knee-high fescue towards the site of the green. Father Waldron was confused.
“So that’s the stake for the fifteenth green,” he said, gesturing to a stake at the foot of the two massive outcrops of rock. “That’s right,” said Eddie Hackett.
“But what’s that stake up there, behind the rocks. It can’t be the next tee can it?”
Eddie Hackett looked up at where Father Waldron was pointing and assumed his most thoughtful countenance.
“Well now, let me explain. Sometimes I put down a stake for an optimum green. I like to put down the idea.” He paused, as if this new level of abstraction required time to sink in. “I know in your circumstances you will be going in the short term for this stake down here on the lower ground. But certainly the idea would be the other one. It would, of course, be very difficult in your circumstances and I know that you really can’t afford that now. But I wanted to put down the idea for you to consider. For the future, you understand.”
It was funny how a simple stake in the ground could put one into such turmoil. Father Waldron’s brain was saying one thing, his heart another. The last thing the project needed was another financial surprise. But elevating the green behind the rocks would make for an incredible hole. Out here, today, in the bracing morning air, in the heady company of Ireland’s foremost architect, that green seemed to make all the difference. It seemed to make it all worthwhile - the meetings, the negotiations, the haggles with the bank and the tourist board. He could literally feet himself rise to the bait.
“Don’t be so sure, Eddie, I think we might try and afford it. It looks right to me. Sure we’ll find the money. Somehow.”
“Are you sure?” asked Eddie Hackett gravely, as if the young priest was making the most important decision of his life. “Because it’s going to be expensive. You are going to have to knock about six or eight feet off two huge sheets of rock - an awful lot of rock. But I must say it will make such a lovely hole. Are you sure, now?”
“I’m sure, Eddie.”
A huge smile spread over Eddie Hackett’s face, his back straightened and he seemed almost to rise from the ground. It reminded Father Waldron of a bird puffing up its feathers.
“Father, that decision changes everything. It puts this project on a whole new plane.” Eddie reached over and shook the priest’s hand. “Now I know we’re going for the best.”
“Eddie, don’t get my hopes up! I know well it has to be difficult for you working here after doing that course in Waterville with all of ‘Uncle Jack’ Mulcahy’s money.”
“Oh no, no,” Eddie Hackett said, turning his gaze to the austere beauty of the rocky terrain. “Mr. Mulcahy may have the money, but you’ve got the place. There’s no place like here.”
Now it was Father Waldron’s turn to be puffed up. He knew he had been had, of course. In that completely disingenuous way of his, Eddie Hackett had engineered the whole thing. But Father Waldron didn’t care one whit.
Although the McDonagh property was critical to the project, Father Waldron knew instinctively that he should not rush Mickey. He had met with him many times, updating him on the plans and the progress, but never mentioning money. Father Waldron would tell others on the committee that Mickey was the most reasonable, fair, positive, intelligent, humorous man you could talk to - but he had no idea what he would ask for the land. If we trusted Mickey, he would do the right thing.
That was a fine position to take, but time was beginning to run out. Most of the owners of the commonage had by now agreed to sell. Eddie Hackett had laid out the course. No one was going to contribute funds to the project without an agreement in place with Mickey McDonagh. After all, he owned the back nine!
But just then, during another of Father Waldron’s visits, Mickey took him by surprise. After the obligatory pleasantries, Father Waldron had shown Mickey the fifteenth green and how it had been transformed from an idea to a reality.
It was as if Mickey was reading his mind.
“Father, you know we haven’t mentioned money at all,” Mickey said out of the blue.
“I know that Mickey.”
“You know it’s time for us to mention money.”
“I know Mickey,” Father Waldron said with a mixture of anticipation and dread. “So you’re talking about it now.”
“What do you think it’s worth?” Mickey asked, gesturing to the tumultuous landscape that was all but useless for farming, but perfect, they both knew, for golf. The young priest was quiet for a moment, and then said softly:
“Well, what were you thinking of asking, Mickey?”
Mickey looked the other way, back towards the crashing surf and back again: “Well, I know what you gave the tenants, fifty pounds an acre. But I’d want eighty pounds.”
“Geez, Mickey,” Father Waldron whistled involuntarily under his breath. “That’s eight-and-a-half-thousand pounds altogether. That’s an awful lot of money.”
“It’s an awful lot of money if you don’t have it,” said Mickey McDonagh. “It’s nothing at all if you do.” The witticism was so perfectly placed, and so wise, that Father Waldron had to work hard to suppress a smile.
"It’s an awful lot of money to us, Mickey.”
“Well, I’d be glad to sell it for that.”
“Then you’ve got a deal.”
Father Waldron couldn’t believe what he was reading, and he couldn’t believe he was reading about it in the Boston Globe instead of the Irish Times. Yesterday, on January 30, 1972, British police had shot dead thirteen protesters in Derry. The tabloid press were already calling it “Bloody Sunday.”
Though he knew he had solid reasons, Father Waldron couldn’t help feeling a bit silly - as his homeland seethed here he was in America trying to buy a bit of land for a golf course.
His host in Boston was Rose Flanagan, an Irish-American mother in her seventies. Father Waldron was a cousin of Rose and her two distinguished sons - one a professor of psychology at Boston College, the other a District Attorney. Father Waldron was staying with the Flanagans while he negotiated with the last holdout from the commonage - a farmer who had left Connemara and sought work in America.
Only the day before Rose had engaged her guest in a discussion about Bernadette Devlin, the mini-skirted, twenty-year-old member of the British Parliament who had galvanised protests against the unfair treatment of Catholic workers in Northern Ireland.
“What do you think of Bernie Devlin?” she had asked over tea.
From the tone of Rose’s voice, Father Waldron knew he was on slippery ground. He weighed his answer. “I’m surprised you asked me that question, Rose” he said.
“Well I’m interested in your answer,” said Rose pointedly.
"Well…she’s really a very articulate young lady, and bold as brass you know, and some people like her and some don’t. Why do you ask?”
Rose could hold it in no longer - the words came out in a torrent. “Well I want to know where she gets the idea that she can come over here and tell our president how to run our country, and her skirts up to her ash-can! “
Father Waldron had howled at that, but there was nothing to laugh at this morning in the news reports. What made it worse was that things were not going all that well in Boston. The last negotiation was a difficult one. Every Irishman abroad wants to come home - and have something to come home to. The young emigrant from Ballyconneely – his name was Michael Lavery - was no different, and Waldron saw, with pang of realisation, that Michael did honestly aspire to return some day. It was understandable that he had resisted all the persuasion that he and the Flanagans could bring to bear. They could only wait in hope. And pray.
“You can’t bring people here just for the scenery” said Paul Hughes passionately. “Golf is the kind of destination activity we must have to turn this community around economically, and to compete with the others.”
Two hundred people packed into the small meeting room at the Clifden House Hotel, and most were nodding their heads in assent.
“Now that Father Waldron has secured the last part of the commonage it’s time to move ahead while we still have the momentum.”
Father Waldron had returned triumphant after all, closing the deal at the last possible moment at the Boston airport. An offer to guarantee the emigrant’s son employment for five years should he ever return to Connemara had been the clincher. (But it was still a wrenching decision for Michael Lavery. In the end, perhaps, he did not want to prevent the young people at home from having the chance in life his generation never had.)
Few in the room had laid eyes on a golf course, but optimism was in the air. There were hard questions, the inevitable suspicions, but you could tell people wanted the project to succeed. After years of seeing their community emptied, bit by bit, of its youngest and brightest, here at least was some hope to grasp onto. Among the chief instigators, the combination of skills had proven to be effective. While Paul had the business skill, and innate sense of when to pull back, the young priest was the group‘s ace in the hole. Everyone knew that his presence meant that no one was going to line their pockets with this project. Hadn‘t he gone all the way to America, at his own expense, to make it happen?
A corporation had been set up and supporters could buy shares at £500 apiece. They could pay £175 now and the rest later. A few thousand pounds had been raised. Not enough, but a fantastic start. Until this point everything had been done on faith alone, with agreements drawn up in principle without a penny in the bank.
Whether it was from jet lag or the ‘flu bug he had picked up in Boston he wasn’t sure, but Father Waldron felt lightheaded as he sat in the room and watched things fall miraculously into place. More from relief than exhilaration, Peter Waldron allowed himself a smile. Not only was the idea becoming a reality, but it was happening in just the way he had hoped and prayed it would. It was truly a community project now.
[Editors Note. The meeting described above took place on 10th February 1972. This was the crunch first public meeting. Three months earlier, in October 1971, a meeting of 22 hoteliers and business people from the area had given their expected enthusiastic imprimatur to the venture, and their initial offers of financial backing. But this open public meeting was bound to be a much harder sell.. Now the community would buy into the project. Or kill it stone dead, with apathy, cynicism, scepticism, or just plain fear. A company had been set with a local solicitor (Brendan Allen) as Chairman. This, it was explained, was to be ‘non-profit’, and would be the vehicle for the ownership and capitalisation of the project. It was to be a ‘community company’, guaranteeing the local control of the property and its development. Prospective members could buy shares at £500 apiece. As agreed at the initial October 1971 meeting, they could pay £175 now and the rest later. Four thousand pounds had been raised at the first meeting, with a further £3,500 promised. At the February 10 meeting, more money was committed, everything from £500 to £1! A Committee was elected, representing all the different sub-regions, to canvass support throughout the entire area of Connemara and to help carry on the project along the lines already set up. They were on their way!]
“What do you mean we don’t own the land!” Father Waldron all but shouted into the phone. Never in his life had he felt such a mixture of surprise and dejection. He simply could not believe what he was hearing. It only happened in the movies.
But it was true. Four years earlier a group of businessmen from Galway had secretly bought a small wedge of land, also from Mickey McDonagh, near the shore. The maps hadn’t been all that clear; even Mickey McDonagh hadn’t realised that the property encroached on ground being used for the clubhouse.
“How much do they want?” Father Waldron couldn’t believe his ears. The amount seemed astronomical - many times per acre what the farmers on the commonage had received. The entire project was in jeopardy. Just as it had gotten off the ground.
Since the exultant meeting at the Clifden Hotel, the community had rallied solidly around the project. Joe Clark, a local landscaping contractor, had agreed to do the first landscaping for a mere £365. He already had the first tee in and had hired local lads to carry out the job. Suddenly there was a little work out there. The clubhouse was being put up, with more enthusiasm than sense, around a rock that stuck up through the floor of the bar. It was daft - the rock would have to be burned out - but the point was to keep moving on. Someone had discovered a book on clubhouse development from England. Everything was being done on a shoestring, but no one cared. There was even some crazy talk about the course being open in June - just weeks away.
Now this - a community project - threatened by land speculators. It couldn’t be allowed to happen.
This time Father Waldron was reading the Irish Times, and this time he was thoroughly enjoying himself. Paul McWeeney, bless his soul, had written a magnificent piece in praise of the new Connemara links. It couldn’t have come at a better moment. Though the course had opened the month before (Father Waldron had played in the first fourball with Eddie Hackett) the club was far from out of the woods. [Editor’s note: Doc Casey and John Markes were also in that first foursome, and the day was 7 June 1973.]
The debts were piling up (the machinery was so expensive!) and there was no money yet from the tourist board. The clubhouse, fashioned so enthusiastically, already needed to be changed.
The last-ditch negotiations with the men from Galway hadn’t helped things, of course. After months of often tense negotiations, they had gradually lowered their price. Still, it had been an agonising decision to fork over £8,500 for such a small parcel of land.
McWeeney’s article would tell the world what Father Waldron, in his heart, already knew -- that the blood, sweat and tears had paid off, that the dream had been worth pursuing.
He knew what even Paul McWeeney couldn’t - that the golf course had turned the community around. Not the course, but the project. Looking back, Father Waldron could see that it had become a self-believing point for the community. By working together, by supporting the committee, and by applying their own individual gifts they had shown what they could do. The golfing visitors had not yet materialised - they could expect only a handful of paid green fees this first year. But it was there. The community had made it happen without the help of any big developer or big government grant. What had been done elsewhere for millions of pounds had been done here for a hundred thousand. And when the money did start rolling in it would go to the local bed-and breakfast owner, the lad who worked with Joe Clark on the greenkeeping crew, the waitress in the Abbeyglen.
Peter Waldron put on his jacket and headed for the door. Time to call on O’Neill’s - a birthday party for wee Hugh. He was a tiny mite now. But would he grow up to be Connemara’s first amateur champion?