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 email@example.com 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.
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, 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 40x20 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.
New-look Lakers ready for big tip-off
Last year the Scotts Lakers were left to rue a slow start when they missed out on the playoffs by a single basket. With that in mind, starting off on the right foot is sure to be a priority this time around.
The Lakers get their 2022/23 National League Division 1 season up and running on Saturday, October 1 with a home game against the Limerick Sport Eagles. When they take to the court at Killarney Sports & Leisure Centre there will be a new enough look to the team.
Foreign imports Godwin Boahen and Emilian Grudov have moved on during the off-season and have been replaced by American shooter Eric Cooper Jr, Dutch ball carrier Esebio Strijdhaftig and Ukrainian big man Dmytro Berozkin.
Cooper Jr is a graduate of Pepperdine University and his eye for a basket has been evident in pre-season. His 84 three-pointers in a single season is the third best haul in Pepperdine’s history. Bosman player Strijdhaftig plays point guard and he was very adept in defence and in taking the ball to the rim at his previous club Almere (Netherlands).
Berozkin will be endeavouring to use his 6’10” frame to his advantage in both offence and defence. He has represented his native Ukraine at U16, U18 and U20 level. Now based in Killarney, he will be looking to settle quickly into the pace of the league.
Rui Saravia – the Portuguese player who signed last season – is staying put and with local lads Mark O’Shea and Paul Clarke also committed (GAA commitments in the short term allowing), the Lakers are expecting to put out a strong starting five.
Teenagers Jamie O’Sullivan and Senan O’Leary will be looking to add minutes to their court time and, the more he played, David Gleeson improved immeasurably as a force at both ends last season.
The squad will be further boosted by the presence of Irish underage international Ronan Collins, who, like Gleeson, is a Gneeveguilla native. Collins had a very impressive record in the green of Ireland and once he settles into the league he will be a real asset to the squad.
Marko Benčić, the son of former Lakers coach Vojkan, contributed hugely to the scoring effort in the latter part of last season’s league campaign. He will be looking to push on again in 2022/23.
The club will, as always, be looking to harvest the potential of their outstanding underage structure and young guns Mark Sheahan, Jack O’Sullivan and Eoin Carroll – amongst others – will be involved with the squad. Another addition to the squad is Jamie Cooke who is well known for his basketball prowess with the Kerry Stars club.
That sluggish start in 2021 was mitigated somewhat by players being unavailable and the fact that their home venue was being used as a makeshift vaccination centre (their first four home games were staged at alternative venues).
There should be no such excuses this time around and coach Jarlath Lee will be hoping for a positive opening month that includes three home games here in Killarney. The other Limerick side, the Celtics, will visit the town on October 22 and Cork outfit Fr Mathews will cross the county bounds on October 30.
The sole road trip in October is to Waterford to take on the SETU Waterford Vikings October 8. The league is a little more arduous this season in terms of travel; with away days in Donegal and Dublin, a large, functioning squad is vital.
St Paul’s have once again expressed their gratitude to the team’s main sponsor, Maurice O’Donoghue of Scotts Hotel. The O’Donoghue family’s legacy in supporting Killarney basketball goes back over 40 years.
The club is also seeking additional support via the following initiatives: Season Ticket (€100) – Admission to all nine home National League and cup games; Patron Ticket (€150) – Admission for two adults to all nine home National League and cup games; Game Sponsor (€300) – Admission for two to all nine home National League and cup games, your business name featured on the front of your sponsored game programme, and your business name attached to all advertising for the game on social media, local written media and on Radio Kerry previews and reports.
A closer look at sport’s occupational hazards
In Part 1 of a new series, former Kerry goalkeeper Eamonn Fitzgerald examines the complicated world of sports injuries
Injuries are an occupational hazard for players in all types of sports.
Injuries to elite sports stars hit the headlines. Of the Kerry team that won the 2022 All-Ireland, Joe O’Connor, Gavin White and Micheál Burns are out of action with long-term injuries.
Just back is Dara Moynihan, who was most unfortunate to sustain an injury during Tuesday night training before the All-Ireland final. Talk about hard luck for the Spa flyer. I am sure he would have started if he had avoided injury.
Fellow clubman Dan O’Donoghue was also unlucky. He was playing great with Kerry during the league and was shaping up so well to nail down a position at corner back. Injury denied him that privilege and up sprung Graham O’Sullivan to get the corner back position.
Injuries are also heartbreaking for the regular sportsperson at club or individual levels.
They suffer the disappointments of missing the National Indoor Championships, the All-Ireland Cross Country, the National League games in basketball, the Celtic v Athletic local derby in the cup, the county final, the O’Donoghue Cup and many more occasions. Missing out on the next race or match is a worry and if the injury is serious enough they may well lose out for the rest of the season. That is hard to take after the enforced inactivity during COVID.
While researching for these articles, I talked with players and athletes from a wide range of sports about sports injuries. It also proved interesting to get the perspective and perceptions of trainers, managers, selectors and others involved with the injured competitors. What I learned from these people I relayed to doctors, physios, dieticians, and other medics. In all cases, I offered them anonymity and, with that assurance, they spoke freely. That wish is guaranteed. I am indebted to them all for being so willing and helpful to engage in the process.
The athletes/players I have contacted have been very forthcoming and helpful because injuries are so much part of their lives.
“I knew straight away it was serious and wondered if this knee injury would mean that I would miss out. I was devastated,” Player A said.
The contributions from all will help me to clarify opinions of my own on sports injuries, how they are caused, prognosis, diagnosis, treatment, remediation, rehabbing, and a return to action. The big question for the competitors is ‘when’. When will I be ready to play again?
In the case of a very serious injury, the question (and the pleading) switches to ‘Will I be able to return to the sport I love?’.
The consultant/doctor/physio may well have to explain to the injured party the difference between the urgent and the important. It is urgent for the athlete to be able to play in the cup final in two weeks’ time; it is important for the medic to emphasise that risking a return to play after two weeks rehabbing in a four-week programme is too risky, when further damage will most likely be caused. In some cases the harsh reality is that the person may have to end their career, or switch to a less demanding leisure activity.
Participants suffer injuries in non-contact sports, high-contact sport and collision sports. Go to any game and in most cases some player has to be substituted because of an injury sustained and not because the player in question is playing poorly.
Fortunately, in modern day sport, the referees suspend play while medical attention is sought to determine the extent of the injury and whether the player is fit to continue or to be substituted. Most teams now have a person in their backroom team with some medical expertise
That can be the relatively straightforward ruling where a player has to leave the action temporarily and a blood sub is allowed. The injured player may return to the action after the medics have done running repairs.
Which are the most dangerous sports? Are males more at risk than females? What goes through the mind of a sportsperson when he/she suffers a career-threatening injury? How are their domestic and professional lives affected? Are their dangers for young players being over-taxed and pushed on too early? Are individuals and teams training demands too high at intercounty, club and individual levels?
So many questions to tease out.
At grass roots level the most common injuries are soft-tissue and muscular. Then there is the unmistakable hamstring. Injuries to ligaments and joints are common. One cannot forget breaks, of course, and lacerations.
The high profile one now is the ACL .The journey to Santry Sports Clinic, or elsewhere, will cost in the region of €5,000 and that is just for the surgery. There are other considerable costs such as travel, accommodation, physio sessions, and missing work.
In some cases, the injured party will be covered for wages, but what about the self–employed plumber?
Most sports associations at national level have player injury insurance, but that only offsets some of the expenses incurred. The remainder, which can be quite considerable, falls on the individual. Her/his club may or may not be able to lessen the load.
There is also the mental health and well-being of the injured athlete to consider in the long rehab programme before returning to action.
A high percentage of games are played at weekends and it is surprising to find that sports injuries accounted for nearly one in three visits to the A&E departments of hospitals for minor injuries like cuts, sprains, or broken bones playing sport. Add this to the usual many hours of waiting in the A&E for other ‘emergencies’.
Weekend is busiest, of course, but the x-ray departments are also very busy on Mondays.
That is just one more common scenario that beggars belief why such a busy town as Killarney does not have full x-ray and MRI scan facilities for locals, visitors, and in this case for injured competitors. For many years Councillor Michael Gleeson fought a real battle to have a one-stop facility in Killarney for many services including the facility for detecting and diagnosing sports injuries. Conversion and adaptation of St Finan’s was one proposed location.
It is not too late yet to provide that facility in Killarney for all, including the worried player who wants to know as soon as possible if the right hand is fractured. If so that has huge implications if it is close to the Leaving Cert exams or the finals at third level.
A whole new language has emerged in the weekday sports reporting and previewing of games. What exactly does ‘a clean bill of health’ mean when managers indicate that ‘everyone is available for selection’ or that ‘we have a few niggling injuries’? What exactly is a niggling injury? Are the players in question fit to play or not?
If they are not fit to start why are you holding them in reserve with every intention of springing them into action at a strategic time in the game? What does 90% ready mean and why is the player still rehabbing?
These and other terms favoured by the team managers in their guarded responses to the queries of sports reporters make it a mind game. Yes, we can read behind the lines and the jargon, but what is the reality?
I will be looking at these and other questions and responses in the coming weeks after speaking to those at the receiving end of injuries and the people who assist in clearing up the injuries so the players return to action fully recovered.
Car rallying, motorbike racing and high altitude mountaineering are very obvious dangerous sports, so there is a high level of mandatory safety precautions. But what surprised me in the team games is that basketball is always at the top or very high up in the statistics for injuries.
I put that very point to a well qualified person in the medical scene, suggesting that poor quality footwear and constant landing on a hard surface over the years must have been very hard on the ankles. The playing surfaces for the game are much improved from those in the past, but still basketball ranks high on the risk factor for injuries.
Those professionals that I spoke with agreed that these were causative factors, but pointed out the specific demands on players in basketball.
“It is a game of high forces, changes of direction, high speed and high skill factors. These are key factors in the high rate of injuries in basketball.”
Then there is the eternal question: is it dangerous and inadvisable to send a talented young player into the senior ranks too early?
It will be interesting to follow the progress of 15-year-old Ethan Nwaneri who became the youngest player in Premier League history. He came on as a sub for Arsenal as they returned to the top of the Premier League with a comfortable 3-0 win at Brentford on Sunday last. If he was here in Ireland, he would be studying for the Junior Cert, even too young to go into TY (Transition Year).
Of course, Wayne Rooney was still only 16 years old in 2002 when he scored a magnificent goal for Everton against Arsenal. He progressed to a hugely successful career with Man Utd and with England. I think he is still the highest goalscorer with Manchester United and with England. Local soccer aficionados will surely update me, if that record has been bettered. He also holds the record for the most appearances of any outfield player for the England national team.
These are elite professional players, but how about the talented 16-year-old in a small, rural club in Kerry who are caught for numbers to make up a team. For the love of the parish often rears its head and in he or she goes to make up the team. It’s the modern-day Matt the Thrasher O’Donovan leading his team to victory with the war cry ‘Up Tipperary’. Substitute Tipperary with St Pat’s/Fossa/Mastergeeha/Ballyhar Dynamos/Killarney Valley AC/Workmen’s/The Valley.
Yes, you are doing it all for the love of the parish.
At the other end, you have men like Dan Shanahan. He retired from club hurling just this year aged 45 after winning four Munster Championships with his beloved Waterford and three All-Stars (but no All-Ireland medal).
Closer to home are the Dooleys of Ballyduff. Father John Mike and his son Gavin played on the Ballyduff team in the 2022 Kerry Senior Hurling Championship final. They are the exceptions.
I wonder what age was Dan Kelleher when he hung up his boots and hurley. And is there any end to Jim O’Shea the Masters champion in the long jump and in the high jump in London? Modesty and humility are the qualities of this Firies native. No éirí in airde in this man, who has celebrated a very significant birthday ending in a zero. The first digit will surprise you. While other sports enthusiasts settle for spectating and watching sport on TV, Jim just continues to excel. High or long, it doesn’t matter for the greatest lepper alive, in what for him is active retirement. Keep raising the standards Jim. Is fearr léim maith ná droch–sheasamh.
That and more on injuries in future editions.
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