An aerial view of the expanded facilities at Ballina/Killaloe Tennis Club, including the new indoor dome on the shore of Lough Derg. PHOTO: HAARIS SKEIKH

First Indoor Courts in Munster developed at Ballina/Killaloe Tennis Club

There was once a time when Killaloe/Ballina Tennis Club (KBTC) was nothing more than a humble two-court outpost located on the fringes of Killaloe. How things have changed.

By Thomas Conway

Never, in her wildest dreams, could the likes of the late Noreen Blake, one of the founders of that early club, have envisaged the facility that stands there today, on the banks of the River Shannon on the Clare side of the twin-towns. The place has, quite literally, transformed - from two basic tarmacadam tennis courts to a modern, multi-surface arena, perhaps the most sophisticated of its kind in Ireland, or certainly in Munster.

The decision to expand and add more courts is very much in keeping with the natural progression of any tennis club. Playing numbers increase, demand rises, new courts and facilities become a necessity. But Killaloe/Ballina Tennis Club was slightly different. Someone, at some point, started floating a mad idea, a crazy, off the wall notion that sounds good in theory but requires insane levels of planning and finance: let’s build an indoor court, or two of them, to be precise.

The plan wasn’t just ambitious, it was audacious in the extreme. How would the whole thing work? Where would they get the money? Would the planning authorities even allow it? And yet somehow, more than ten years on from its initial conception, there now stands two brand new, pristine covered courts, right there, towering above the Scariff Road.

For John O’Brien, the man who led this project to completion, the satisfaction is immense. He has watched as this piece of unused grassland was transformed into a visually spectacular, state-of-the-art arena that will now be enjoyed by hundreds of the club members, and many more. Some thought it would never be possible. Others dismissed it as a pipe dream. But John and a group of enthusiasts within the club had unflinching confidence that this thing would work. From the beginning they pursued it, believed it, and just last week, finally brought it to fruition, after more than a decade of talking and planning.

“The earliest discussions would have started around 2010, 2011 - back as far as that,” John revealed.

“Alan Williamson would have been chairperson at the time, and the focus wasn’t necessarily indoor courts, but more looking at the possibility of adding a few additional courts, outside structures. So, the club put a little group together, and they were active for a while, just looking at what the club would like to do in the longer term.

“Dan O’Donnell, Lord have mercy on him, he led that group, and I think a decision was made that the club would like to have indoor courts, that it was a possibility. And then the idea kind of went dead for a while because a separate business had a lease for the field next to the club, the Family Resource Centre.

“Then around 2013 we started to talk directly to the (Clare) County Council, and they explained to us that they were going to acquire the field and place it under their control. So then around 2015, 2016 they developed a master plan for the area, and it was around that stage that we started to get serious in terms of what we really wanted.”

The mention of the late Dan O’Donnell will prompt eyes to water. Dan was among the club’s most committed members, a gentleman with a deep knowledge of the game and a dedication to KBTC. He may not be around to see the finished article, but his contribution will always be remembered.

The innovation and imagination displayed by that initial steering committee would ultimately serve the club well. Sure, it would be financially risky, and sure, the site may not have been ideal, but if it worked, it could raise the status of KBTC and render it a destination for any tennis enthusiast in the wider region. As John explains, indoor facilities are sparse in this country.

“It was kind of progressive thinking anyway, that’s for sure - the notion to build indoor courts. Because at the time, there were no indoor courts in Munster, and even talking to the CEO of Tennis Ireland there about two weeks ago, he confirmed that we’re actually the only permanent structure outside of Dublin. So even today, if you want to find a permanent indoor structure, you either come here, or you have to go to Dublin. So, we’re unique in that sense,” he said.

At the time the idea was first conceived, KBTC was thriving. The club was home to a multiplicity of promising junior members, many of them on the fringes of national squads. There was a sense, amongst both young and old, that the future was bright, and hence, an appetite existed for more advanced facilities. After some initial pushback, Clare County Council eventually jumped on board, and from there, the project was launched into action.

“We had a very active junior group back then,” John added.

“A lot of juniors playing at quite a high level, competing at the national level. So, there was a very high standard of junior tennis within the club, some great coaching involved as well, and I think that kind of influenced the whole project as well I would say. The club was going well, there was a bit of momentum there. That, and more broadly the members’ desire for more courts.

“We concluded that this was what we wanted to do, and we presented our plans to the Council, and they built it into a master-plan for the field next to us. So, when the master-plan was published, they had indoor courts included, and needless to say we were delighted.”

Cast of characters

John O’Brien is just one of a cast of characters that has helped bring this indoor court dream to life. Standing beside him inside in the dome, right in the middle of the cushioned acrylic US Open style surface, is PJ Seymour.

Along with Pat Grace, one of the club’s most venerated members, PJ has worked tirelessly throughout the course of the courts’ development. He’s able to outline the story in precise detail - every twist and turn, every financial hurdle, every unexpected interruption. As he explains, the whole thing was a risky venture, a leap into the unknown perhaps. Nobody had any experience or indeed knowledge of the sheer scale of work involved, or the problems they would encounter. Covid was of course, a major obstacle, but as PJ outlines, it had a silver lining.

“While we had secured a lot of money through LEADER and we had a certain amount of money there via the Sports Capital grant, we wouldn’t have had sufficient money to start and finish the project, not at that point,” he revealed.

“So, there was an element of financial risk there, you know. Funny enough though, during Covid the club did quite well. Revenue was good and membership actually went up because tennis was obviously one of the few activities you could do that was deemed relatively safe.”

Gradually, through fundraising and donations, the club started to build up its financial reserve. Numerous bodies and organisations contributed, from Keith Wood’s development foundation to Tomer Trust, a local business, and of course JP McManus’ benevolent fund. Fundraisers were organised and held, proving vital in terms of generating additional revenue.

As treasurer, David Ryan was the man responsible for overseeing the entire financial operation. Exact figures vary, but he estimates that the total cost, from start to finish, lay somewhere in the region of €1.2 million. Grants were vital, as were fundraisers and donations from local businesses. Without both, the project would never have come to fruition.

There was a risk, a very real risk, of an unfinished, half-built court lying near the roadside for years to come. That was the nightmare scenario. But determination and sheer audacity made this project a reality. The final push was the most difficult, but they managed it, and the structure is now standing proudly like a sporting monument above the canal bank.

“In terms of the finance,” David Ryan said, “we had Clare County Council, Leader, the Sports Capital Grant, and then regional and local businesses - we had a lot of contributions from them, which we’re very grateful for. And of course, our own fundraising. We ran a draw there before Christmas, a 10K draw, and that brought in about €78,000 and it worked really well. A lot of businesses would have rowed in behind us. It kind of came at a good time as well, because people could see that the structure was really taking shape and that we were approaching the finish line.”


The impact of this new facility is self-evident. It renders Killaloe/Ballina Tennis Club unique, and it’s likely to attract a myriad of tennis enthusiasts from all round the region. But as David notes, the community as a whole will benefit massively from the facility, from club members to schools to outside groups. It’ll spur kids and adults alike to pick up a racquet and play, even those with little prior experience of tennis and minimal knowledge of the game.

“The benefits speak for themselves” Ryan added.

“You know, all-weather, all-times, there’s LED floodlights in it so it can be used at night. It just opens up a huge amount of possibilities. We hold an open week every summer, so it’ll be great for that.

“There’s a novelty factor there as well - people will want to come and experience playing indoors. And then the primary schools can use it. We do junior coaching as well. Wesley O’Brien does coaching with special needs groups; we have Ukrainian tennis. All those things will benefit from this project.”

Stroll into KBTC on a Saturday morning and you’ll find a club hopping with activity. Members now have a range of surfaces to choose from.

They can lace their shoes and slide onto the sand-based clay of Roland Garros or bounce around the cushioned acrylic hard-court surface of Flushing Meadows. And there are still two artificial grass courts in the middle of it all, bringing the total number to six.

The club’s open week this summer should be a festival for the ages. Players will presumably flock from all round to taste the new indoor experience. It all started off with those two old tarmacadam courts, but the club has been on a journey ever since. This facility is just the latest addition. What was once a small rural tennis club is now a thriving sporting institution as modern and futuristic as any to be found on this island. It’s now time for the players to enjoy it - inside and out.