Text by Georgina Downes, Tralee Chamber Alliance

Photography by Johanna Simon, Tralee Chamber Alliance

Kieran Ruttledge bounces into the Aqua Dome café, bang on time and neat as a pin in a navy suit. The youthful 61-year-old is relaxed and ready to talk. We start with his accent.

“I’m Manchester, born and bred, but my father was originally from Mayo,” he begins. His mother was a Galway girl. Like many second generation kids, he spent his summers in Ireland running around a farm, in this case his uncles’, bailing hay, milking cows, footing turf in the bog.

“Four kids in my family, then my five cousins, and usually the neighbours’ kids too. We had no TV so we made our own fun. We played hide and seek a lot.” He smiles after each revelation, as if there’s more to it but he’s just not saying. Or maybe he’s simply enjoying the memories. Either way, the CEO of the Aqua Dome is good company.

Did he feel English or Irish growing up?

“Well, in Manchester we were called Irish and when we came back during the holidays they’d say the Brits have landed,” he laughs, then he shrugs. Nationality isn’t that important to him either way. Probably unsurprisingly, growing up in the shadow of the Manchester United football club, where all allegiances are directed towards soccer. In fact, he played professional soccer for two American college teams when he was 21; Okaloosa-Walton Community College and Pensacola State College, Florida.

How was that, I ask. “Great,” he grins. I can only imagine because he doesn’t elaborate.

After 6 months in the States, Kieran returned to the UK to begin a career in the leisure industry. He completed a Leisure Management Degree and became a qualified  trampoline coach, a swimming coach, an athletics coach, and a soccer coach. He ran competitively for Salford, in Lancashire until he was 25 and even went head to head with Sebastian Coe. He didn’t win, but still. Which does he identify with more, sports or business?

“I’m a businessman now,” he says with a rueful smile, acknowledging the inevitability of age, but he admits in his heart he’s a sportsman still. He’s very active, swims in the Aqua Dome pool regularly. Does he venture down the slide, I ask?

“Yes.”

I think he’s joking.

“I do. You have to test the equipment,” he says, reasonably.

Kieran is polite, affable and easy-going, just don’t get him started on the state of the Irish insurance industry. He doesn’t turn into the Hulk or anything as crass as that, but his frustration is palpable, seemingly justified and infectious. If you do start that conversation, you may well find yourself fighting the urge to march on Leinster House, demanding the politicians to more to loosen the legal profession’s grip on the industry, as I did. But there was no time for that. Kieran was about to take Johanna and me on a whistle-stop tour of the complex, including the parts visitors don’t get to see, and frankly, if it weren’t for prohibitive insurance premiums, should see: the spectacular and mysterious underbelly of the pool.

It’s a different world down there; Tolkienesque, vast with concrete tunnels snaking around dark spaces like the roots of an enormous tree. Steam erupts from valves. Kieran explains the filtration system, the hydraulics, the temperature gauges. He skips around the maze briskly, Johanna and I oohing and aahing in his wake.

The Aqua Dome was designed by renowned sports specialists S&P Architects, with construction completed in 1993. The plan was to stimulate tourism in the region and it’s fulfilled its brief nicely; 140k visitors come a year, 60 per cent of those arriving in June, July and August. Kieran was head-hunted from the UK to manage the complex. Initially, he hadn’t intended staying long-term but one particularly pleasant night out with friends in The Oyster Tavern changed his mind. In 1994, his then-girlfriend, Jackie, moved to Ireland and they were married. The couple have two grown children.

“Kerry is a fabulous place to live. Tralee has all the facilities of a city with none of the problems. We’re surrounded by beautiful scenery and I can play golf on one of the best courses in the world.” (Tralee Golf Club, located in Barrow). I get the impression things run smoothly for Kieran, but it’s likely he’s the swan, gliding gracefully on the surface while toiling away furiously underneath; like the Aqua Dome itself. He knows everything about the water in every pool; how it comes in, where it goes out, when it’s cleaned, how’s it’s treated, what the temperature is, even what it tastes like. To prove the point he tried it. Not a glug, mind you, but he left no doubt as to the water’s quality.

The Aqua Dome doesn’t need him 5 days a week any more, he tells me, such is the proficiency of the team, so Kieran works as a consultant with his business partner Liam Bohan, advising local authorities on running leisure centres.

Is the Aqua Dome environmentally progressive, I ask. Absolutely. Kieran introduces us to Mags O Sullivan, their environmental ambassador and she takes us through the laudable policies recently adopted by the facility. It’s very impressive. For more on what they’re up to see here:

https://aquadome.ie/category/news/environmental/

Our tour is over and the interview complete. It’s been a pleasure. Johanna and I each receive free passes. So, the final question. Is it true they put something in the pool to make it change colour if a swimmer, eh, has an accident?

Kieran looks me in the eye and leans in. “Well,” he says…

Actually, I think it’s better, for operational purposes, if I leave that one unanswered.