Build it and They Will Come: Healthy Ireland Chair Keith Wood on Clarisford Park

Keith Wood, formerly one of Ireland’s most well-known rugby players, who has donned the Garryowen, Harlequins, Munster, Ireland and Lions jerseys, and was World player of the year during his incredible sporting career, has long been an advocate of healthy lifestyles. In recent times, Keith has exploited his leadership skills and his love for all things green by leading the Clarisford Park development in Killaloe. In 2014, he was appointed the chair of the Healthy Ireland Council, a multi-stakeholder national forum of representatives from “every sector of society” working together to “make real progress in making Ireland a healthier nation”.

Keith was motivated to get involved in Clarisford Park as it is in his home town of Killaloe, Co. Clare and a place where he used to play as a child. The development of the site was a long-term strategy simply due to the “the amount of energy and money needed for a development of its size”. Keith highlights that the right people needed to be involved and that “we were very fortunate to have a group of people willing to put the effort in and keep the energy up for the time needed”.

One of the aims of Clarisford Park and of Healthy Ireland is to connect and mobilise communities to get everyone to enjoy their best possible health. Clarisford Park was originally built to facilitate the local soccer, rugby and scouts clubs who, prior to the development of Clarisford Park “never had a home”. It is now more than just a home to the clubs. According to Keith it is “something bigger than that and more of the community”. All the clubs have a sub-lease to ensure the security of their club home and a place to call home long into the future.”

Since being developed, Clarisford Park has witnessed the establishment of a new athletics club, table tennis club, Clarisford parkrun, numerous ad hoc running and fitness groups and an open community park appealing to all ages in the community to use and enjoy. Being a family man himself, Keith can see the benefits Clarisford Park has for families; “while the kids are training, the parents can go for a walk or be part of the parkrun every Saturday morning and run together”. The Healthy Ireland Framework places huge emphasis on the importance of “giving every child the best start in life”. With a facility like Clarisford Park it is clear that the children of Killaloe Ballina are making strides in having a brighter and healthier future.

The atmosphere in Clarisford is one of calm and serenity. Keith sums it ups by stating that there is a “lovely feeling to the place; it is sport, it is healthy, it’s simple and it’s free”. With easy access at all times, Keith says “the gate is always open”.

Clarisford Park is a facility close to the hearts and minds of the people of Killaloe Ballina and is a resource that is available right on their doorstep.  Keith believes that being out in the fresh air of the countryside “makes you feel good about yourself too” and Keith loves nothing more than “running off into the hills”. Keith has always been very active from a young age with an early desire to play sport of all types. For Keith it was not all about “achieving at the highest level, it is about getting to that point of recreational activity where you are healthy in body and mind, and there is nowhere better than the countryside and the Irish countryside”. Keith describes the paths, hills and country roads by the water as “the best gym in the country” for him by far.

Clarisford Park was, undoubtedly, a challenging yet extremely valuable project for Keith Wood. He believes that the model of Clarisford Park can be transferred and implemented by other groups, however concedes that a “fair amount of seed funding” is required to make it a reality. The key to making it a happen was, well as Keith put it “fundraise, fundraise, fundraise”. A project of this nature would not have been successful without the expertise in project management and finance. Originally, a 15-year plan, nearly €2.5m was invested into the project to deliver the 3 phase development in just under 5 years.  Clarisford Park, in aligning to the objectives set down in the Healthy Ireland framework, continues to work towards improving the health and wellbeing of those in the community and reducing health inequalities.

Healthy Ireland developed an action plan called ‘A Framework for Improved Health and Wellbeing 2013-2025’ in which they set out four high level goals encompassing a “lifecourse approach and a population wide approach”. Healthy Ireland plays a major part in promoting sports leadership and physical activity. Keith realises that over the years, promotion has been solely focused on “the four main sports in Ireland: Hurling, Gaelic Football, Soccer and Rugby”. These sports have their place, “but it’s for all the people not involved in those, they need recreation and activity”. Exercise is important for everyone and has many benefits for physical and mental health

Keith Wood and Healthy Ireland recognise the value academics, scientists and researchers play in translating the evidence into everyday practice. Keith explains that the incorporation of this expertise into the project is crucial as “we need the data; we need the evaluations all the time to say we are getting healthier, to say that if you do this, you’ll get healthier, both in body and mind; to say that actually we have a pilot done and done successfully”.

Knowing that we can make a difference will be of great benefit to people’s health but “an awful lot of these things come down to funding”. Keith notes that “the harsh economics of all this is if we are an unhealthy country, it will cost the state a fortune”. Investing in our health before it becomes a problem is more sensible and is better for our economy and wellbeing. The partnership between Healthy Ireland and Clarisford Park continues to evolve through hard work and dedication to the cause. Together they have succeeded in raising awareness about health and wellbeing, succeeded in connecting and rallying local communities and are definitely on their way to making Ireland a healthier nation.


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