A brief history of Sligo Showgrounds
While the Showgrounds is known as the home of Sligo Rovers since the Club was founded in 1928, the ground has hosted many other activities throughout its colourful history, including Gaelic football, rugby, boxing tournaments, greyhound and terrier racing, festivals and carnivals, community games and much more.
The showground was established by the County Sligo Agricultural Show Committee in 1907, and in their foresight they included the following provision in the rules for their newly established showground “To make temporary or permanent lettings to cricket, football, hockey, cycling and other societies and clubs, and to give facilities for the playing of these or other games”.
Sligo Rovers would remain tenants until the late 1960s, when the club acquired for the leases for the two estates making up the ground, Harper Campbell, (grandfather of the First Sligo Chamber President, Harper Campbell Perry), and Fowler.
The gates of the showgrounds first opened on the 22nd of July 1908 for the County Sligo Agricultural Show, with a one shilling fee “to field and general enclosure” and 2s 6d for entry to “field and grandstand”. The Sligo Independent reported “The County Sligo’s Agricultural Society’s Show was held on Wednesday on the extensive new show grounds on the borders of the town of Sligo, which have been secured on a long lease and enclosed at an expense of nearly £1000”.
The Sligo Champion reporter was equally impressed “The attendance exceeded all the expectations of the most ardent supporters of the show. The merchants, working men, farmers, and gentry of Sligo, Roscommon, Leitrim and Mayo were represented in large numbers. It would do one good to see the satisfactory smiles of the officials at both turnstiles (Knappagh and Rosehill) as the crowds came along and awaited their turn”.
The position of the grounds is the most favourable around Sligo, being only five minutes’ walk from the railway terminus; and the fences, grandstand etc which were enclosed by Messrs Keenan & Sons, Dublin, are such to remind one of Barnum’s expression “You can pay for going in, but you cannot get in without paying”. The ‘Farmers Gazette’ noted “Wednesday witnessed the off coming of this go-ahead show, which was located in the society’s new splendid grounds outside the town. While the morning broke rather unpromisingly, the weather as the day wore on became much brighter, and during the day the handsome, well-equipped grounds were visited by a goodly attendance. The arrangements were well looked after, and the officials deserve much praise for the success that was achieved”.
County finals 1908
The first sporting fixture held in the Showgrounds was a Gaelic Minor County Final between Coolera and Keash on Sunday the 9th of August 1908. This was the opening game in a “Triple Header” that included the County Hurling Final between Maugherow and Dromard and a Senior Football semi-final between Killavil and Ballymote. The Sligo Champion reported “On Sunday last in Sligo were seen some very interesting performances. The first match (minors) played was probably the best of the three. The matches took place in the County Sligo Agricultural Show Grounds. The arrangements left in the hands of some members of the county board were well seen to and everything augurs well for the proper carrying out of the forthcoming inter-county and inter-provincial matches”. Although Coolera were winners on a score of 6pts to 2pts, a series of replays and appeals was required before Coolera were finally declared Minor County Champions in November of that year.
Arguably the most important Gaelic game held in the Showgrounds was the meeting of Sligo and Kerry in 1948 in the National League quarter final where Sligo native and later Celtic legend Sean Fallon scored two goals, an achievement which didn’t prevent Kerry tunning out winners by 3-7 to 2-4.
First soccer game
The first soccer game hosted in the Showgrounds was on the 1st of May 1909 between Sligo St Mary’s and Ballina AFC. The Sligo Champion reported “The meeting of Sligo St Mary’s and AFC Ballina in the third round of the Mulhern (Fermanagh) Cup on Saturday last attracted not a little local attention. The scene of the match was at the Show Grounds, Rosehill, and the turf in that spacious arena was in capital form for a brisk encounter. This was Ballina’s first visit to Sligo, and they were rather handicapped by having to make their debut against the now famous St Mary’s”.
St Mary’s won the game 5-0. “The Ballina team were entertained by the Sligo team at the Abbey Hotel and left for Tobercurry by the 5pm train on Saturday, a wagonette awaiting their arrival at that station to convey them to Ballina”.
Magic soccer occasions
The Showgrounds has hosted many memorable matches, with the following giving a flavour of the unique atmosphere of this special venue.
Rovers win league
Sligo Rovers captured their first league title for forty years on the 10th of April 1977 when they beat Shamrock Rovers 3-1 in the Showgrounds. Rovers’ scorers on that famous day were Gary Hulmes, Chris Rutherford and Paul McGee.
First European game
The League title success earned Rovers their first taste of European football when they were drawn against the formidable Red Star Belgrade. Emerging from the away leg on the 14th of September 1977 with a creditable 3-0 defeat, the home fixture was held in a packed Showgrounds two weeks later. While Red Star also won this game 3-0, Rovers fans had got their first taste of European football and would enjoy many special encounters in future years, most recently the outstanding success against Motherwell in July 2022.
The largest attendance in the Showgrounds was in May 1954, when an estimated crowd of 25,000 attended Fr. Peyton’s “Rosary Crusade”. Fr. Pat Peyton was born on the 9th of January 1909, in Carracastle, Attymass, Co Mayo. In his autobiography “All for Her”, he describes his homeplace as “a scraggy little village of thatched one-storey cabins set in a fold in a foothill of the Ox Mountains”.
Fr Peyton was famous for his saying “The family that prays together stays together”. He held 40 rallies in England in 1951/52, including one at Wembley Stadium. He brought his ‘Crusade’ to Ireland in 1954, attracting an attendance of 100,000 in Belfast. The Crusade visited Sligo on Sunday the 30th of May, with the Sligo Champion reporting “Father Peyton addressed a rosary crusade rally in the Sligo Showgrounds on Sunday last which was attended by a huge gathering of people from all parts of the northwest. It was a wonderfully impressive scene as the words of Fr Peyton spoken with great sincerity and at times deeply emotional were carried across the vast sunlit grounds and he appealed to fathers, mothers and children to give ten minutes of every twenty four hours to the recitation of the rosary in the quiet of their homes. The Showgrounds presented a breath-taking spectacle of colour for the rally, during which wonderful scenes of devotion and reverence were witnessed”.
“Sounds of Sligo ‘71”
Among the most controversial events hosted in the Showgrounds was the “Sounds of Sligo” Music Festival in June 1971. The Sligo Champion reported “The all-music June Holiday weekend attraction which brought thousands of pop fans to Sligo, has left in its wake a town sharply divided in opinion. Was the event sensational or sickening? The biggest and most amazing ever to be staged in the town, the target for an unprecedent invasion of ‘hippie-like’ young people who thronged the streets in brilliant sunshine, the festival turned out to be a major national event and caught the town completely unawares. One hotelier complained ‘I would emphatically oppose the holding of a similar event again in the future’. The crowd may have been nice people, but they were a source of distress to our regular clientele, and in many ways they were an objectionable crowd and certainly not the kind Sligo wants”. Festival compere Shay Healy was not impressed with Sligo’s hospitality, writing to the Sligo Champion that those attending the festival were “met with hostility by local publicans and hoteliers”.
International boxing tournament
The Showgrounds hosted two international boxing tournaments against Germany in the 1930s, an amateur contest in August 1935, and a full international programme in August 1937. In that tournament was Sligo’s legendary Jumbo McCarrick, who lost his bout to German Champion, Baumgarten. In May 1940 the ground hosted a schools boxing tournament – one of the boxers taking part was a young Christy Houze, who would go on to serve on the Rovers Management Committee for many years. The Sligo Champion reported “C Houze, Sligo Boxing Club, beat M Burns, Sligo Boxing Club. Burns was a plucky fighter, but Houze had the superior ring craft, and won a good fight”.
Many of these stories are exhibited in the Showgrounds outdoor museum, the first facility of its kind provided by an Irish soccer club. It is an accessible and informative overview of the diverse and inclusive history of Sligo Rovers. Given the important role played by the club in the community, it also represents a social history of Sligo over almost 100 years.
Sligo Rovers has always been a welcoming Club, and many who came to play made Sligo their home, including Johnny Armstrong, Chris Rutherford, Tony Stenson, and Paul Fielding. The Museum also honours the many volunteers and supporters who were at the heart of this community club – Johnny Chadda, Packie McGowan, Nancy Callaghan, and Frazer Browne.
The next 100 years
Sligo Rovers recently received planning permission for the first phase of the Showgrounds Masterplan. The redevelopment will see the construction of a modern 6,100 capacity stadium which will ensure the Showgrounds place at the heart of the Sligo community for the next 100 years.
Researched and written by Kevin Colreavy
Sligo Rovers Heritage Group
Supported by the Sligo Chamber Centenary Committee:
- Catherine Maguire – Admin & Photographic Research
- Geraldine Courtenay – Creative Direction
- Aidan Doyle – Review & Publication
The next Article in the series commemorating The Centenary of Sligo Chamber and entitled
“Following the Numbers (2 of 2)” will be released on the 11th of September 2023.
#Sligo Chamber Centenary