Community ethos is driving force behind Downshire club

Downshire's ''Sam Bothwell
Downshire's ''Sam Bothwell

Gaelic games are not top of the sporting agenda in the quaint Co Down village that is Hillsborough but the local tennis club has bought into the GAA’s ethos.

That organisation prides itself on the notion that the club is at the heart of the community and that’s precisely what Downshire Tennis club is attempting to replicate - and with considerable success.

This is more than just a mere tennis club as it sees itself as an integral part of village life and a visit to the small but immensely hospitable and welcoming outfit certainly bears this out.

Downshire is situated a stone’s throw away from the Hillsborough Forest Park and first impressions are, well, very impressive.

The club won the Ulster Tennis’s Club of the year award in 2012 having aslo received the Club Mark award and it is widely viewed as a model of good practice.

On the day of my visit scores of kids were receiving expert coaching from Ross McCarey and Will Boyd as club chairman George Lucas acted as tour guide.

The balcony provides the perfect viewing facility as it looks down over the courts and is well appointed with tables and chairs.

It has risen from small beginnings to provide some of the top players in the province notably the Bothwell brothers, Sam and Peter, along with Emily Beatty, all of who have represented Ulster at various levels.

Emily is currently competing in the Under 18 event at the Irish Junior Open while Peter is currently in his first year as a tennis professional while his younger brother hopes to follow in his footsteps.

George Lucas and his wife Lette represented Ireland at the Veterans World Team Championships not so long ago and both are regulars in the Ulster teams at the same level.

But the club is not only about excellence and striving towards it as it prides itself on its special place in the community and the industrious approach of its members in attempting to doing just that.

Downshire had close links with local schools and is, at the moment, embarking on a massive fund raising drive in the hope of adding to its already impressive facilities by laying several new courts nearby.

They will be located a short distance away and, significantly, they will be covered by domes to allow play to take place for 12 months a year and not just in the summer months.

But success in any walk of life doesn’t come without hard work and a look at the club’s brochure reveals that Downshire has a committee of no fewer than 43.

Apart from the usual posts like chairman, secretary and treasurer other office bearers include communications/website, publicity/sponsorship, membership growth/community outreach and even club solicitor and auditor.

“We see Downshire as a story of continuous improvement and things are very different from what they were back in 1939 when we were formed,” George explained.

“Then we had just two clay courts a wooden club house and we rented the land but we eventually purchased the site, and installed running water and electricity.

“We now have three astro turf courts and we re-roofed and refurbished the club house in 1994 supported by a Lottery grant.

“Our membership has seen dynamic growth and we have grown it from 100 to 500 in the space of the last 10 years.

“We have a partnership with eight local schools, we offer 10 weeks free coaching and regularly run four or more Open Days per year to tie in with other events such as Wimbledon or, closer to home, the Hillsborough Oyster Festival,” he added.

“Ninety per cent of our members live within a five mile radius of the club and the ratio of members to the village’s population of 5,000 is very high.”

None of this, of course, happens by accident, and George goes on to emphasise the hard work that goes into making Downshire such a thriving club.

“We see ourselves a bit like a GAA club in that we try to be at the heart of the community by making a visit to the club an enjoyable experience whether or not you want to play tennis,” he added.

“There’s free tea and coffee and WIFI in the club house and it’s almost like a youth club in some respect as far as the kids are concerned.

“Fortunately we are in the black and we expect to have £250,000 in the bank at the end of the year which will help our new project.

“The plan is to have two covered courts which will cost a total of around £400,000 but by 2016 we would hope to have £100,000 shy of that in our coffers.”