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.
Almost impossible to look beyond East Kerry but Dingle are best placed to challenge
Adam Moynihan breaks down the groups and likely contenders in the 2023 Kerry Senior Football Championship
Group 1: East Kerry, South Kerry, West Kerry, Templenoe
Defending champions East Kerry are on the hunt for their fourth county title in five years and with a talented squad that’s looking as stacked as ever, only the brave would back against them.
Rathmore’s promotion back to senior level means that Kerry players Shane Ryan and Paul Murphy are missing from last year’s nine-point final victory over Mid Kerry but East Kerry’s strength in depth in all sectors means that no individual player is irreplaceable – excepting the obvious.
David Clifford’s performance for the ages in Fossa’s landmark intermediate semi-final win over Stacks provided a stark reminder of his awe-inspiring talents. Paudie Clifford was excellent too and this year the Two Mile brothers are joined on the panel by four clubmates – another glaring indicator of how far Fossa have come.
James O’Donoghue must be considered an injury doubt after only managing a cameo in Legion’s last outing but his clubmates Brian Kelly, Jonathan Lyne, Darragh Lyne and Cian Gammell are all likely to feature. Current Kerry senior panelists Chris O’Donoghue and Darragh Roche (Glenflesk), Ronan Buckley and Ruairí Murphy (Listry), and Donal O’Sullivan (Kilgarvan) would also be expected to play their part, with plenty of young talent from all seven clubs hoping to break into the starting line-up.
Realistically, the holders should navigate Group 1 with little fuss with South Kerry, West Kerry and Templenoe battling it out for second.
South Kerry and Templenoe played out a draw in the group stage of last year’s championship so there might not be much between them this year either.
West Kerry will be aiming to pick up at least one result after losing all three of their fixtures in 2022.
VERDICT: East Kerry and Templenoe
GROUP 2: Kenmare Shamrocks, Rathmore, St Kieran’s, Feale Rangers
Kenmare came mightily close in the Senior Club final and they should be able to carry that momentum through to the County Championship. Seánie O’Shea is obviously their one bona fide match winner but they’re also strong around the middle third where James McCarthy, David Hallissey and Kevin O’Sullivan put in the hard yards.
The fact that Feale Rangers reached last year’s semi-final indicates that they’re on an upward trajectory. The question now is can they repeat the trick? In 2022 the team was backboned by Listowel Emmets players (seven started that defeat to Mid Kerry) and those lads are coming into this competition in confident form having secured a spot in the still-to-be-played Junior Premier final.
Rathmore are always a tough championship team and the Ryans (Cathal and Mark at midfield and Shane at full forward) are sure to be a handful for any opposition.
St Kieran’s have troubled decent teams in the not-too-distant past – although they lost all three group games (including one against Kenmare) a year ago.
VERDICT: Kenmare and Feale Rangers
GROUP 3: Mid Kerry, Spa, Kerins O’Rahillys, Shannon Rangers
In 2022, Spa found the going tough in a Group of Death that included East Kerry and Dingle. The draw has been kinder to them this time around and they would probably expect to beat Rahillys and Shannon Rangers.
The wheels came off against Dingle in this year’s Senior Club Championship but they impressed the week before against Kenmare. Dara Moynihan, Evan Cronin and Cian Tobin will be important players in attack, with Dan O’Donoghue manning the midfield and Shane Cronin protecting their defensive third from number 6.
Mid Kerry, runners-up last season, will provide their sternest test in this pool. A lot of eyes (including those of Jack O’Connor) will be on Cillian Burke after his heroics for Milltown/Castlemaine in the semi-final of the Intermediate Club Championship. His clubmate Éanna O’Connor (son of the Kerry bainisteoir) will also play a crucial role at centre forward.
Rahillys are facing a relegation playoff if they fail to reach the final of the Kerry SFC and their form in recent weeks would suggest that making it that far is a long shot.
VERDICT: Mid Kerry and Spa
GROUP 4: Dingle, Dr Crokes, St Brendan’s, Na Gaeil
Breaking free of East Kerry’s stranglehold will not be easy but crafty Senior Club champions Dingle are surely best placed to wriggle loose. With four in-form Geaneys in the forwards – Paul, Mikey, Conor and Dylan – they have the tools to trouble any defence, and the return of their established AFL player Mark O’Connor adds solidity going the other way. They also have the incomparable Tom O’Sullivan pulling the strings. As things stand, they are easily the standout club team in the county.
Their Group 4 opponents Dr Crokes will be aiming to improve upon their showing in 2022 when they bowed out at the quarter-final stage. Naturally much will depend on the availability or otherwise of star players Gavin White and Tony Brosnan. White missed the recent Senior Club semi-final defeat to Kenmare with a hamstring injury. Encouragingly, Brosnan (who has been sidelined with a recurrence of a lung problem) was togged for that match, though he did not play.
The Killarney club will be fancied to qualify from their group alongside Dingle, although St Brendan’s – strengthened by the addition of an unknown number of Austin Stacks players to their ranks – could be dangerous.
The other team in the pool, Na Gaeil, are facing a relegation playoff against Rahillys once both sides are finished with the Kerry SFC. Reaching the final of this competition would spare them but Na Gaeil can count themselves unlucky to have been handed a difficult draw for the second year in a row.
VERDICT: Dingle and Dr Crokes
All things considered East Kerry and Dingle appear to be the frontrunners to capture the Bishop Moynihan trophy but there will be plenty of twists and turns along the way, starting this weekend with a full round of fixtures.
All eight matches will be either televised or streamed online. Dingle v Dr Crokes is on TG4. The remaining seven matches are on Clubber.
Friday 8pm Na Gaeil v St Brendan’s (Austin Stack Park)
Saturday 3pm Templenoe v West Kerry (Fitzgerald Stadium)
Saturday 5.30pm Rahillys v Shannon Rangers (Austin Stack Park)
Saturday 7.30pm East Kerry v South Kerry (Austin Stack Park)
Sunday 1.30pm Rathmore v St Kieran’s (Fitzgerald Stadium)
Sunday 2.15pm Dingle v Dr Crokes (Austin Stack Park)
Sunday 3.30pm Feale Rangers v Kenmare Shamrocks (Fitzgerald Stadium)
Sunday 4.15pm Mid Kerry v Spa (Austin Stack Park)
Kerry’s old dogs ready for Tyrone challenge in All-Ireland final
Adam Moynihan chats to Kerry Masters goalkeeper Tony Lyons ahead of the over 40 All-Ireland football final
Hi Tony. Thanks for speaking to me.
No problem, Adam.
Can you tell me about the Kerry Masters’ season to date?
We played six round robin games in the league phase to see which competition we would be in at the end. There are five championships in all with the senior championship being for teams that finish 1st to 4th in the league, the plate for 5th to 8th and so on. There were 23 counties involved in total this year with new entrants like Armagh, Derry and Limerick.
We won five of our six league games against Limerick, Cork, Waterford, London and Clare. Unfortunately we were well beaten by Dublin during the league phase but that served us well because we knuckled down after that and upped the training to twice a week.
We also got a physical trainer on board from Keel, David Clifford, and he has had a huge influence on our development the last couple of months, allied to Adam and Gary O’Reilly from Glenflesk, and Jason Foley from Keel.
We then beat Derry in the All-Ireland quarter-final by a point, setting up a semi-final against Galway in Limerick which we won by 12 points to 7 a couple of weeks back. it That quarter-final win against Derry was our most pleasing result of the season because we were down a few bodies.
What’s the standard like?
The standard is actually very good. While we don’t have a lot of former Kerry players with us – aside from William Kirby and Aidan O’Mahony – we do have a very good calibre of club player with us, the likes of John O’Connor from Kerins O’Rahillys and John Paul Leahy from Ballyduff for example. We’ve come across some big names in some of the games. Limerick had Ciarán Carey, Dublin had Denis Bastick, Cork had Nicholas Murphy and John Miskella, and Derry had Paddy Bradley.
The first halves of the games are really competitive with the second halves probably becoming more of a war of attrition. The key is having depth in your squad and being able to bring players in and out at the right time as players tire, and I think Adam and his management team have mastered that at this stage.
Would a number of the players have represented Kerry at some level in the past?
We haven’t a huge amount of former Kerry seniors but some of the guys would have represented Kerry at junior and underage level at various stages. What the management team focused on when it became apparent some of the former players weren’t joining was getting good quality club players who could commit and make most of the trainings, and I think that has worked well for them.
What’s key as well is that a lot of the players have been playing very recently for their clubs either at senior or junior level. That’s a huge help.
How are the fitness levels?
Depends on what time of the season you’re talking about! The first few weeks is all about trying to knock off the pounds and get to a certain level of fitness. In fairness to Adam O’Reilly, he places a big focus on the warm-up which is important for players of all ages but especially for those of us over 40.
Very few of the starting 15 would last the 60 or 65 minutes so it’s important that the replacements coming in can add an impetus and build on what the guys before them have done. Last year our panel was probably a little light but we have added well with the likes of Kevin Lynch (Castleisland Desmonds), Mark Crowley (Kenmare) and James Nagle (Keel) – all strong and very fit guys – coming in.
Tell me more about your management team.
Adam O’Reilly is the manager. He came on board this year and brought Gary O’Reilly and Jason Foley with him. Gary looks after the statistics, gear and so on and Jason is a selector as well as taking parts of training at various times. David Clifford came on board about two months ago as physical trainer and he has added greatly to the set-up, improving our fitness levels and tackling in particular.
What’s the most enjoyable part of playing with the Kerry Masters?
A huge part of it, Adam, is playing with guys who you would have tried to knock lumps out of at club level over the years! There’s a big social part to it also with us meeting for a pint or two after games and, as well as that, guys getting back into a dressing room environment and having the craic at training.
For some guys who were never lucky enough to wear the Kerry jersey, there’s a huge sense of pride to put it on at this stage. It’s a real an honour. To be fair to the other teams we played, they have treated us with a lot of respect because they know Kerry teams will play football first and foremost.
Also it’s nice to involve our families, kids, partners, and wives and for them to come to the games. We have noticed a lot more people coming to our matches this season.
Which of your teammates are the best craic?
There are a few fellas like Tim O’Donoghue who thinks he’s hilarious but the jury’s out on that one. I suppose the goalies, myself and Niall Hobbert, would be jokers but then the rest of the panel would tell you the jury is out on us too! Kirby is good craic, as is the former Spa man Brian O’Sullivan Darcy. It’s great fun. I would thoroughly recommend it to any guy 40 or over who wants to play a bit of competitive football and also continue training in what is almost like a club environment.
How would you rate your chances in the final on Saturday? Are you expecting a difficult challenge from Tyrone?
Look, it’s going to be very tough. Tyrone have won the last two All-Ireland finals at Masters level and they have the experience, whereas this is our first go, as it were. They have a solid team built with the likes of Seán Cavanagh, Conor Gormley and Stephen O’Neill in their ranks.
It will be a tall order for sure but we’ll give it our all and the whole panel are chomping at the bit and ready for action.
Kerry v Tyrone takes place on Saturday at 4pm in Roscommon. Follow @KerryMastersGAA on Twitter for more information.
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