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Silence at the handball alley

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Eamonn Fitzgerald laments the decline of handball, the once popular sport that entertained generations of Killarney people

 

No one shouted ‘stop’. Not my phrase, but that pithy gem came to me when I was walking by St Finan’s Hospital recently, or more specifically viewing the old handball alley, deserted now just like the one in the Old Mon. No longer does one hear or see groups of young people sinking those much-practiced butt shots which bamboozled many an opponent.

John Healy, the well-known journalist with the Irish Times newspaper, used the near deserted handball alley in his native Charlestown, County Mayo as a striking image of what he wrote about in ‘The Death of an Irish Town’, published with that title in 1968. He wanted to use the title ‘No One Shouted Stop’, but the publishers intervened.

They had their way, but Healy wrote it as he saw it. That was his style, writing the popular Backbencher column in the Irish Times. He was the best political columnist up until his death in 1991. The Death of an Irish Town is a very short book, less than 100 pages, but he saw what was happening in rural Ireland from the late 50s/ early 60s. He returned to his native town on some weekends, away from the bustling overpopulated Dublin, where he worked. His description of a lone man, real or imaginary, it matters little, tossing the ball in the handball alley in his hometown of Charlestown and listening to the dull hollow sound of the ball coming back to him. There was no one there to return the serve.

Alone, all alone on the Western front; the scourge of emigration was haemorrhaging the very life out of rural Mayo. Healy knew Charlestown as a busy country town and so did Seán Griffin, my long-time friend and fellow sports aficionado. I spoke to Seán earlier this week and he recalled growing up in the Charlestown area in the 50s and mid-60s.

THE GASÚR FROM COPPLE CURRAGH

“I remember the handball alley in Charlestown very well indeed. As young gasúrs we gathered there, particularly at the weekends, and spent hours upon hours playing each other in friendly games. Sometimes, they weren’t friendly, they were very competitive. You played against maybe your best friend and friendship was put on hold temporarily if it came to 18-20. Could you sink that butt to clinch the game, or was there one last return in him?

“There was always a crowd there and we took no notice of waiting for our turn to play. The doubles were also very challenging. That changed in Charlestown with emigration and migration.”

That was the way it was in the busy Old Mon alley in the 50s, until the pupils transferred to the New Mon at its present location on New Road. You could not wait for the 11am sos to launch an alley cracker. The Presentation Brothers were so generous providing cuts of bread, well covered with red jam and the steaming hot cocoa for our lunches. Cordon bleu, eat your heart out. More like sustenance for those great sporting rivalries to be settled on the handball alley right there in the clós.

There were some great handball players in the Mon. More mature readers of this column will be able to list them off. If any of you readers remember the names of great handball players in the Old Mon, please email their names to sport@killarneyadvertiser.ie for inclusion in next week’s edition of Handball Part 2. Dan Dwyer, that encyclopaedic minded sportsman, will surely recall some.

At that time, players were allowed by rule to drop-kick the ball as well as using the hands, ideal for perfecting the drop-kick in Gaelic football, which is gone out of the modern game. When did you last see a drop-kick in football? Probably Donie O’Sullivan at intercounty level or Gerald Cullinane at club level. They were expert exponents of that skill. Remember Michael O’Hehir’s commentaries: “And he times his drop kick perfectly, sending a long relieving clearance directly down to his forwards and… We have a shemozzle on the edge of the parallelogram.”

THE SEM ALLEYS

There were four wonderful handball alleys in St Brendan’s College; this was the big step-up for the plebs, in particular. Now you had a back wall and a whole new skill to perfect. How could you judge the hop of the ball, when it was injudicious to drop-kick it, an instead letting it come off the back wall, slamming it low to the bottom left-hand corner. Timing was everything and one also had to take into account the quality of the ball. A new ball with the high bounce was a rarity. Most likely it was second-hand, or third-hand from O’Meara’s Shop down the Conc (the Concrete, St Mary’s Terrace). That alley cracker didn’t bounce too high.

I learned from brilliant exponents of the back-wall skill. A few spring to mind. Brian Mac (McCarthy), Pat Harrington, POM (Con Riordan) and Behan (Tony Behan), who was a winner in the colleges competitions. Later in life he returned to the Sem as principal of the college.

One must never forget the exploits of Michael Madden and Seán O’Leary of Rock Road (brother of Sargey). They won the All-Ireland Senior Handball Colleges Doubles in 1958, a wonderful achievement. Both have passed on, go gcúitítear a saothar leo. Seán emigrated to the States and Michael ministered as a priest abroad.

How many readers of this sports column know that handball was a thriving sport in Killarney from the end of the 19th century, when the GAA Convention introduced a Handball Championship? Keen rivalry developed between Killarney, Valentia, Kanturk and Tralee, of course, which produced the best handball player of them all: Fr Jones. He was never beaten, winning the Irish title in 1888 and also in 1889, when he came from Tralee to the Sem for just one year to further his vocation and call to the priesthood.

BRAVO SPA

The good news is that handball is once again thriving around Ireland, including Charlestown and here in Killarney I am delighted to see Spa continuing the great handball tradition in Killarney.

As with all sports, games evolve, as is the case with handball. By in large the game has gone indoors, a very sensible move considering the vagaries of the Irish weather.

Spa are making full use of their magnificent hall/clubhouse, incorporating splendid handball courts. The Spa Handball Club opens its doors to all of East Kerry, not alone for adult handballs, but also for juveniles. It caters for males and females.

Great work here in Spa by enthusiast Mike Casey (the returned, affable Yank, who played the game in California). Like so many emigrants, such as those from Charlestown, they carried the Irish tradition of handball to their adopted countries. Tadhg O’Sullivan and Deirdre O’Sullivan-Darcy are also key workers in the Spa drive to develop handball, specifically mentioned by Dr Croke in his 1884 vision to ensure it was central to the promotion of the GAA.

FR KIERAN

Fr Kieran, your enthusiastic administrator for Killarney Parish and a keen Rockies supporter (the street of champions) did great work for handball when he was working in the parish of Baile an Fheirtéaraigh and was so happy to see a 40×20 handball court built at An Ghaeltacht GAA club. Eilís Luing is the main contact for the handball back west.

More on handball in next week’s issue as we recall Ball Alley Lane, Kerry All-Ireland handball heroes such as Fr Tom Jones, the McEllistrim brothers, Paddy Downey, Mickey Walsh, Sandy McSwiney and Dominick Lynch, one of my heroes, still going strong on the Masters’ circuit. He contemplated giving up the game in 2001, when the Kerry Handball Board, under the aegis of Kerry GAA, slapped a six-month suspension on him for flouting the sponsorship guidelines. Adam Moynihan highlighted this very subject in recent editions of the Killarney Advertiser. Mick O’Dwyer found a way out of it; Dominick didn’t.

Some hurlers use handball alleys to keep their eyes in and first touch well-tuned preparing for games.

Can the silent handball alleys become alive again in Killarney? Can the sliotars overcome the silence in Charlestown that John Healy wrote about in 1968?

 

Pic: The disused handball alley on the grounds of St Finan’s Hospital in Killarney.

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Eamonn Fitzgerald: Keane should know 11 of his 15 starters

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Kerry manager Peter Keane speaking with David Moran after the Super 8s match against Mayo in 2019. Pic: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile.

As Kerry ramp up towards the championship, Eamonn Fitzgerald gives his assessment of their preparations to date.

One certainly learns more from defeat that from victory, so what has Peter Keane and his management team learned from the 2020 debacle?

In fairness to the Kerry management, they have opened up the panel, brought some new players into the fold. They will bring them along hoping they will be in contention for places in the resurrection, which occurs when they start the 2021 championship campaign with a home game versus Clare in the Fitzgerald Stadium.

Tomorrow, Kerry will meet Tyrone in the NFL semi-final. Their league title is at stake. Too many supporters give them no credit for winning the 2020 National League.

If Kerry win and Dublin win as expected, there won’t be a league final and it will be a shared title. That is disappointing for the players. The GAA should have done better and ensured they a final had to be played.

IDEAL PREPARATION

Peter Keane and the Kerry players have had the ideal preparation for the championship. Three competitive league games so far and one more tomorrow. The Kerry selectors used the matches wisely, trying out as many players as possible to see which combination will deliver success.

Injuries forced their hands for all games and some established players were rested. That gave game time to so many players.

That huge win over Galway in Tralee was a great morale booster. They ran up a big score, inflicting a 22-point defeat on Galway, the worst ever margin of defeat for the Westerners. It was magical stuff, Kerry going at them from the throw-in and imposing their game on hapless Galway.

In my report I said that one swallow does not make a summer, but that one swallow was most welcome and hopefully the rest of the flight would follow to make a summer of delight in Kerry.

The eagerly awaited clash with the Dubs did not disappoint. Kerry were like the proverbial curate’s egg, good and bad in patches. Leaking three early goals was ominous. Had we learned anything about basic defending?

Dublin went seven points clear and looked odds-on to make it a 10-point win, but Kerry responded magnificently hitting six unanswered points. It looked all up when Dublin converted a late penalty, but David Clifford came to the rescue in the dying minutes of the game to snatch a draw. Lessons to be learned against the top opposition. Kerry forwards are very good, but the defence is still the Achilles heel.

Roscommon proved as tough as ever, but Kerry competed well. Still that goal leakage at the back was a worry. Diarmuid O’Connor improved steadily and will start at midfield v Clare.

Tomorrow’s very competitive match v Tyrone will tell us more.

STARTING 15

I expect at this stage Peter Keane and his selectors have 11 positions filled to start v Clare. They haven’t a surplus of class players and injuries will deprive them of a full hand.

I’ve still to see the Peter Keane gameplan, his stamp on this team. Every manager in any team sport wishes his/her team to play in a certain matter. The defensive tactics in Cork failed. Thankfully, that has changed in the three league games of 2021 and that is encouraging.

The ball is going in much quicker and sooner so that the inside forwards are brought into play. They score freely and once you get the ball inside 50 metres defenders are quite likely to foul. With Seán O’Shea that’s a pointed free in most cases.

I’m not suggesting that the Kerry defenders should send the ball anywhere out of their way. Leave that to supporters of Charlton. Get it out long and accurate setting up an attack, instead of lateral passing and not progressing.

I expect that the Kerry selectors have pencilled in 11 places and the discussion really is for the remaining starting four. They will also will be very mindful of seven other subs. The starting 15 will not be the 15 that will finish. Such is the intensity of the modern game.

DEFENCE

Shane Ryan has been out injured for this league and must be doubtful for the early stages of the championship. Kieran Fitzgibbon has been catapulted into goalkeeping duties and he has performed quite well, especially playing behind a much-maligned defence.

The goalkeeper is just not alone a ball stopper, but he is called into play once the opposition start moving out the ball from the other end of the field. He can see possible developments long before his defenders do. He can see the runner, gaps opening and real danger, before defender do. They are too taken up with marking their own men. The keeper is the eyes and ears of the defenders and must be sure and vocal. It will take time for him to assert his authority and the same goes for the kick-outs. Understandably, he hasn’t always succeeded in picking out a fellow player, be it short or long. That will come. Even Cluxton had to learn.

The defence has been much-maligned and leaking so many goals substantiates that argument. In their defence they are often at sixes and sevens with extra men galloping through, because other players let their men sally up field unmarked. However, I cannot understand why this sextet – and it could be any six – do not realise that their first duty is to mark their own men. Too often they stand off their opponents and gift them the initiative.

These are elite players who have been coached in the art of defence in their own clubs since they were juveniles. Too often, some but not all, do not seem to understand that there really is no defined tackle in Gaelic football, but you can get in close. Use your hands strategically and prevent the attacker scoring or laying it off to a fellow player. That’s all legitimate and there is no need to concede a free. I could name several players at club level who operate this defensive tactic so successfully. Great Kerry backs of the past did it. I think of players such as Paudie Lynch and Mike McCarthy.

The present Kerry defenders are plenty fit enough. They need to be near their direct opponents and be pro-active instead of being reactive. Rarely is there need for a long inaccurate clearance. A hand pass, or preferably an accurate punt kick will set the Kerry forwards in motion.

The Kerry full back line should not be drawn 50 yards from goal and certainly not sprinting out as a link man into the opposition’s territory. How often have we seen it by some of these defenders? Mind the house, don’t leave the goalkeeper exposed and the goal leakage will dry up, or curtailed at worst.

I also feel that Gavin Crowley should not be lured into up field sallies. He has a very onerous job. He must mind his man and also mark space. Tim Kennelly and Mick Morris before him were not classy players but were highly effective centre-backs. No yawning gaps to allow Brian Fenton, Eoin Murchan, or Jack McCaffrey exploit this this tempting mortal sin.

Primary duty for wing backs Paul Murphy and Gavin White is to mark their own man and when the two or three opportunities arise in the game they have the explosive pace to go up field to score or assist in a score. If that run breaks down it is not as serious, as if it happened to a centre back exposing the middle for those Dublin invaders.

MIDFIELD

Midfield has been a problem area for Kerry. David Moran has given Kerry great service over many years, but I contend that he should not be on the starting 15. He may well be on the finishing 15.

I like Diarmuid O’Connor. Big, strong, mobile, well able to score when the opportunity arises, he has a great engine and has youth on his side. Who should partner him?

Jack Barry is in the frame to start, but not Tommy Walsh.

I also expect Kerry to have a Plan B. My preference is to include Seán O’Shea and Paudie Clifford in the half-forward line, one of them centrally and both tasked with helping out at midfield. The older Clifford is mobile, brave and eager and could do a very effective smash and grab possession ploy. He should start. Now he is more even-tempered than he has been in the past. He can open a defence route one and knows when to deliver to the full forward line. I feel that we can get more out of Seán O’Shea.

I hope Peter Keane doesn’t fall back on the Cork gambit where the half-forward line’s role was to go back to their own half-back line helping out. Tracking back is important, but that last-ditch ploy inevitably draws out the inside forward line. Wouldn’t David Clifford’s marker love to see him 70 yards from goal? Even Kerry’s jewel will not score from that position. Again, send in the ball quickly to Kerry’s best scorers, Clifford and whoever is with him. Paul Geaney, Paudie Clifford, Tony Brosnan and Killian Spillane are in the frame to score.

You can have all the fitness in the world, elaborate game plans and astute use of the bench, but those ingredients alone will not propel Kerry forward in a realistic bid for Sam 2021. Pride in the geansaí will oil the winning machine.

Over to you the present Kerry players, whichever 15 starts v Clare, then Tipperary followed by Cork. Bryan McMahon the former Kerry player and songster was spot on with the importance of dúchas and tradition.

“You cannot box or bottle it, nor grasp it in your hand,
But pride of race and love of place inspire a love of land
.”

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Tom O’Sullivan and Tony Brosnan start as Keane makes raft of changes

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Tom O'Sullivan, Peter Keane and Tony Brosnan. Pics: Sportsfile.

Dingle defender Tom O’Sullivan and Dr Crokes sharpshooter Tony Brosnan have been named in a much-changed starting line-up for Kerry’s National League Round 3 match against Roscommon.

The pair had missed out on Kerry’s first two matchday squads of the season but they look set to feature from the off in Dr Hyde Park on Sunday. The game will be shown live on the TG4 Player (throw-in 3.45pm) with deferred coverage on TG4 at 5.35pm.

O’Sullivan is joined in the full back line by his namesake, Graham O’Sullivan, and Jason Foley, who moves from No. 2 to No. 3. Regular full back Tadhg Morley drops to the bench.

The versatile Brian Ó Beaglaoich will line out at half back alongside centre back Gavin Crowley and there will be a first start on the other wing for Mike Breen of Beaufort. First choice wing backs Paul Murphy and Gavin White are listed as substitutes.

David Moran and Diarmuid O’Connor retain their spots at midfield as Jack Barry misses out on the 26 for the second week in a row.

Stephen O’Brien gets his first start of the year at right half forward with Ronan Buckley of Listry on the 40 and Paul Geaney at 12 for the third consecutive fixture. Seán O’Shea is named amongst the subs.

There is no place on the panel for Killian Spillane as the Clifford brothers, David and Paudie, are joined in the full forward line by Brosnan. David will captain the side in Paul Murphy’s stead.

As expected, Kieran Fitzgibbon holds on to the No. 1 jersey. Eoghan O’Brien of Churchill has been drafted into the extended panel to provide extra cover in the absence of the injured Shane Ryan, but goalkeeping coach Brendan Kealy continues to deputise as sub keeper.

Liam Kearney of Spa makes his first matchday squad of the campaign.

Roscommon, meanwhile, are expected to name their team tomorrow. Listowel native Conor Cox, who made seven appearances for Kerry before transferring to the Rossies in 2019, was a 50th-minute substitute in both of their matches to date.

Following those defeats to Dublin and Galway, Anthony Cunningham’s side will be facing into a relegation playoff semi-final whatever the outcome of Sunday’s match.

Kerry can mathematically join them in the bottom two but Peter Keane’s men would need to lose by at least 14 points and Galway would also need to beat Dublin.

Kerry team to face Roscommon

1. Kieran Fitzgibbon (Kenmare Shamrocks)

2. Graham O’Sullivan (Dromid Pearses)

3. Jason Foley (Ballydonoghue)

4. Tom O’Sullivan (Dingle)

5. Brian Ó Beaglaoich (An Ghaeltacht)

6. Gavin Crowley (Templenoe)

7. Mike Breen (Beaufort)

8. David Moran (Kerin’s O’Rahilly’s)

9. Diarmuid O’Connor (Na Gaeil)

10. Stephen O’Brien (Kenmare Shamrocks)

11. Ronan Buckley (Listry)

12. Paul Geaney (Dingle)

13. David Clifford (Fossa)

14. Tony Brosnan (Dr Crokes)

15. Paudie Clifford (Fossa)

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Adam Moynihan: So many GAA rules need tidying up

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Seán O'Shea evades the challenges of Brian Fenton and John Small. Pic: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Is there a sport in the world that alters its rulebook more frequently than Gaelic football? Every year when the first ball is thrown in, we’re left scratching our heads, frantically googling “GAA rule changes”, trying to come to terms with the latest updates to our playing protocol.

The changes to the advantage rule are causing consternation at the moment but the irony is that the game already has a number of laws that are either vague or poorly enforced. Below are just a few that come mind.

Surely it would make sense to iron these out before we even think about introducing further amendments.

1. Advanced mark. At its best (I would say less than 10% of the time), the advanced mark is a decent rule that rewards long-kicking and catches close to the goal. At its worst (the remaining 90% of the time), it’s a stupid rule that rewards nothing skills like short-kicking and unchallenged chest-catches. Plus, it abruptly stops the play for no good reason.

Of all the rule changes in recent years, it possibly holds the title of ‘most hated’. It simply has to go.

2. The tackle. You can only use one hand, but sometimes that’s a foul. You can only use an open hand, but sometimes that’s a foul. You can’t pull an opponent, but sometimes you can. You can’t push an opponent, but sometimes you can. What is a Gaelic football tackle? It’s so vague and open to interpretation. From game to game and even from tackle to tackle, you never really know what’s going to be foul and what isn’t.

It’s a difficult one for rule-makers to sort out but it’s not going to sort itself out, that’s for sure.

3. Booking both players when there’s a wrestling match. The ball is coming up the field. As the play approaches, a corner forward and a corner back become entangled and end up rolling around on the ground. Who do you think initiated that contact? Who has something to gain from that wrestling match? It’s almost always the defender. Is the forward supposed to go limp and play dead like they’re being attacked by a grizzly bear?

They have to stand up for themselves, and they shouldn’t be booked for doing so.

4. Feigning injury. The law states that attempting “to achieve an advantage by feigning a foul or injury” is a bookable offence. While the “foul” part can be tricky to spot on the fly, the latter half of the rule is generally far more black and white. Thankfully, players flopping to the ground and holding their faces when they’ve barely been touched is less prevalent in Gaelic football than it is in other sports, but it does happen. Yet how many yellow cards have been brandished for this infraction?

The shame of getting booked for playacting would be a huge deterrent and help stamp this behaviour out for good. It should be punished to the letter of the law.

5. Moving frees too far forward for dissent/impeding the kick. When a free is awarded, the penalty for dissent or impeding/slowing down the taking of the free is 13 metres. How many times have we seen an over-zealous referee bring the ball forward 20 metres or more?

I recall playing a minor game for Legion out in Rathmore. I committed a foul outside of our 65-metre line. For questioning the call, the ref carried the ball forward well inside our 45. For questioning the distance, he brought it in – and this isn’t a joke or an exaggeration – to the 13-metre line. That’s roughly 55 metres of a penalty instead of 26.

That’s an extreme example, granted, but even a five-metre bonus out the field could change the course of a match.

6. Hop balls. From the throw-in at the start of each half, every player bar the four midfielders is meant to be inside the two 45-metre lines. A metre or two encroachment here or there isn’t the end of the world, but in the 2019 All-Ireland final we saw what happens when the rule isn’t properly enforced. At the beginning of the second half, there were two extra players within the 65s by the time David Moran touched the ball down. Another six were just about to enter. One of those six, Eoin Murchan, gathered possession and scored a season-defining goal.

If a rugby or soccer player got away with being 20 metres offside from a kick-off, the referee would be demoted to the lower leagues in a flash.

Hop balls during open play are even messier. The players not contesting should be 13 metres away from the referee. The most you’d normally get is five, and that’s if the referee makes a big song and dance about it. By the time the ball reaches its apex there is invariably a sea of bodies awaiting its return to earth, and the resulting maul is anything but pretty.

Allowing the two nominated players to properly compete for the hop ball would lead to a greater possibility of clean possession, and some football as opposed to a spot of rugby.

7. Steps. Speaking of that Eoin Murchan goal… (No, I will not let it go.) The manner in which players travel with the ball is one of the most fundamental aspects of Gaelic football, yet it is arguably the least properly policed. Four steps is the rule. Four steps before you have to release the ball or hop or solo. But, of course, the inside joke is that it’s not four, is it? Not really. Sometimes five is okay. Sometimes six. You’d get away with seven. Maybe eight. Possibly nine. Ten? Ten is taking liberties. But yes, you could feasibly get away with ten as well.

Stringently enforcing this particular law might seem like a potential nightmare because players are so used to getting away with five or more steps. It would certainly prove contentious at the beginning, but everyone would adjust.

As it stands, it’s just another half-enforced rule that makes you wonder why they bothered writing it down in the first place.

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