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O'Tooles Pub, (now Lord Mayors) Swords.  1950's

Photo by Liam 'Fresh' Herron. Swords Historical Society


Written and compiled by:  Eamon O’Brien

Former Chairman Dublin GAA Handball Board, Irish 3rd Level Colleges Committee, Community & Handball Centre.  Member Dublin GAA County Committee and Dublin GAA Handball Committee.

 

The original version of this short history was compiled to be included in the publication 'The History of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Dublin 1884-2000'.  The publication, proposed by the Dublin GAA County Board, ended up as a work in 3 volumes that was edited and compiled by Professor Willie Nolan of UCD with contributors to the main publication being Jim Wren, Marcus de Burca who was a contitutional lawyer and author, and David Gorry who I believe undertook much of the research as part of a Masters Degree. 

 

My contribution arose because the editor and main contributors, having spent two years putting the information together for the publication, as a final trawl, put a letter into the Irish Times seeking any last snippets of the history that might still be out there.  As it happened, and is still the case, only one father and son have both served as Chairman of the Dublin GAA County Board. They were James Boland, a member of both the IRB and the small Fenian group that included such as Pat Nally that was the strategic driving force, behind the scenes, to get the GAA founded, and Harry Boland who was Michael Collins great comrade and friend  during the War of Independence.  In 1988 the late Sean McBride, Nobel and Lenin Peace prize winner set up the Dublin 1968 Committee and I served as Treasurer on that committee along with Kevin Boland former Minister for Defence who was Chairman.  Indeed Kevin was one of the few cabinet Ministers that regularly attended All-Ireland handball finals in Croke Park.

Kevin, being a nephew of Harry and grandson of James Boland, was very proud of the Boland republican and GAA tradition and I helped him in the production of a private family history on the life of James Boland.  The family gave me permission to make available this history to assist the finalisation of the Dublin GAA history.  While providing the Boland information for the project I discovered that no history of handball was being included and Willie Nolan and John Costello Dublin County Board CEO agreed, given the short period of time left to publication that it would be great if I could compile a short history that could be included as an Appendix to the main work. 

I believed this was a too important and prestigious GAA publication for handball to miss out on and I tried to get others to undertake the task of putting a history together.  Unfortunately no one was available to do so.

Fortunately I located some short stories and histories written by many close to the game in Dublin over the years and along with my own knowledge of events from the 1970's to 2000 I hope I put together a reasonable compilation, although a lot of detail relating to the very strained relationship between GAA officials in Croke Park and Dublin Handball in the period 1988 to 2000 was not expanded on in the book version nor were any photographs included due to lack of space. 

I had written in the book that the story of Dublin Handball would be expanded on in a later book but I believe that this is the medium of the future.

For this website version however I have included photographs and significantly more information.  Being a website it will also be possible to update the history.  Any videos, photographs, stories and information as appropriate that come to hand may be added.  Enjoy the read. 

© Copyright of Eamon O’Brien and contributors​.

History of Handball in Dublin

(1880 – 2000)

 

                                                  Contents Summary                                                                                        

Réamhrá / Introduction

Origin  of the Game   

                                                                                               

The early years 1880’s to 1938 – (Professionalism v Amateur)

J.J Lawlor v Phil Casey for World Title and purse of $1,000                                                         

Famous Handball Courts at the turn of the Century                                                                           Handball in Dublin Schools in the early 1900’s                                                                                

Organisation of Handball Games by the GAA and Clubs in Dublin in the period 1884 to 1924            1924  the inaugural meeting of the (I.A.H.A.) Irish Amateur Handball Association                              Irish  Amateur Handball Union                                                                                          

‘Hardball’ was the popular code well into the late 1920’s                                                                   ‘Softball’ competitions commence in 1925                                                                       

 

Handball surviving in Dublin - 1930’s to 1960                                                                  

Building of the Croke Park Handball Court 1933

Prominent Players in Dublin 1930’s to 1960

Army, Aer Corp and Garda Participation in Dublin County Championships

Appointment of Joe Lynch as IHC Secretary 1954

 

Handball in the Dublin 1960 – 2000                                                                                  

Lighting installed in ‘Old Alley’ in Croke Park – 1963

Dublin Provide four Presidents for the Irish Handball Council

De Valera opens 60 x 30 Glass Handball Court in Croke Park – 1970

Formation of the Dublin Minor Handball Board – 1965 / John Bosco Awards

Naomh Padraigh Club founded 1960’s

St. Michans Club founded 1964 / Na Piarsaigh Club

Formation of the Irish Ladies Handball Council – 1970

Ladies Handball Champions from Dublin / Ladies Handball Administrators from Dublin

Dublin ‘Gael Linn’ Successes 1954 – 1980

National League, Top Ace and All–Ireland Inter Club 1965 – 2000

40 x 20 Handball ‘International’ Code introduced to Ireland 1974

1977  U.C.D. – First Irish University Handball team to visit USA

UCD beat the West Point Cadets but not Mike Tysons manager

1984 GAA Centenary year in Dublin

Dublin Handball Trust Fund

1989 – 2000  Dublin Handball in ‘Survival Mode’ again

Ceannaras Croke Park Handball Social Club

Prominent Players 1975 – 2000

Coaching and Refereeing in Dublin Handball

Administration of Handball in Dublin 1989 – 2000

Media Coverage / Future of Dublin Handball         

The following article is an overview of Dublin Handball over the last 120 years or so.  Much of what is known about handball over the period was written down by people who were directly involved in the game themselves and for that reason I feel that the story, as it is laid out, is a reasonable overview of the progress of the game in Dublin.  In addition to my own knowledge and research, I have drawn from articles or books written by Sean O’Hanlon first secretary of the Irish Handball Council (IHC), John K. Clarke, famed handballer whose family involvement stretched back to the mid 1800s, T. J. McElligott, secretary of the IHC from 1949 to 1954, Ray Doherty, a player of note and one of Joe Maxwell’s (RIP) many handball partners, and Mick Dunne, GAA correspondent who recently died, Tom O’Connor, who has done a lot of work both promoting and researching international aspects of the game, and Sean Clerkin of Na Fianna, a handball correspondent for many years and former Dublin Handball Board chairman.  Thanks too to my county board colleagues and to the IHC for information supplied, and to Jimmy Heffernan and Albert Carrie who rustled through their archives and provided me with added material.

 

The story of handball in Dublin is an intriguing one.  Despair, frustration and, at times, the fear of extinction, have cast threatening glances.  But cometh the hour cometh the men, and the handballers of Dublin, despite all the difficulties over the years, have shone as beacons and brought honour to themselves and county. As the story is related below you will see how the game progressed from the early years when the only form of the game was hardball, played with a leather ball known as the ‘alley-cracker’, then joined in 1925 with the softball version of the game played with a bouncier rubber ball.  Both of these games were played in the same court 60 feet by 30 feet in dimension.  Most of these courts were open-air courts and it was not until the early 1970’s that all competitions were fixed for indoor courts only.  Following the success of the World Championships in 1970 the Irish Handball Council decided to introduce another championship based on the American version of handball which had evolved from the original Irish game but was now played in a 40 feet by 20 feet court.  The ball used was made of rubber, but was smaller and harder than the Irish softball.  The handball courts all had to be indoor, the roof was used in play, and handball players had to wear protective eye-wear and use leather gloves.  With the promotion of the 40 x 20 game in Ireland the way was now open for regular competition at international level. 

Réamhrá / Introduction


Is é an t-alt seo a leanas forbhreathnú ar Liathróid Láimhe Átha Cliath thar an 120 bliain anuas nó mar sin.  Bhí scríofa i bhfad ar cad atá ar eolas faoi liathróid láimhe thar an tréimhse síos ag na daoine a bhí páirteach go díreach sa chluiche féin agus ar an gcúis sin is dóigh liom go bhfuil an scéal, mar go bhfuil sé leagtha amach é, forbhreathnú réasúnta ar an dul chun cinn an chluiche i Baile Átha Cliath.  Is é an scéal liathróid láimhe i mBaile Átha Cliath ar cheann iontach.  Éadóchas, frustrachas agus, ag amanna, an eagla an bháis, a caitheadh ​​amharc bagairt.  Ach nuair a tháinig an uair do tháinig na fir, agus rinne na himreoirí liathróid láimhe i mBaile Átha Cliath, in ainneoin na ndeacrachtaí go léir thar na blianta, scairt mar rabhcháin agus onóir a thabhairt dóibh féin agus contae.

Origin of the Game

Ball games with the hand are mentioned in many cultures throughout the world, including the Egyptian culture as far back as 2000 BC. The general consensus is that ball games were introduced to Ireland by the Celts.   The game of Jeux de Paume with the addition of larger and longer gloves finally became the game of tennis, and indeed a similar evolution from ball games with the hand to games with a racquet or other object was common to all cultures.   The hand versus racquet controversy was commented on by Erasmus, the Dutch Philosopher, in 1524 when he said, "You may sweat more but the game is prettier when played with the hand."  This view may well have been applicable to the powder-puffed nobility in England and on the Continent at the time, but the game of handball as played in Ireland, as well as being prettier, is also one of the most demanding games if one were to measure endeavour by the amount of sweat lost; one can lose over 800 calories an hour playing handball. ​

        Jeux de Paume 17th Century in France         

In Ireland the Statutes of Galway 1527 forbade the playing of ball games against the walls of the town; this is the earliest documentation  of handball in Ireland.  The same laws forbade anyone with names beginning with O' or Mac to be in this English-occupied town between dusk and dawn.  Many accounts of handball by writers of the eighteenth century indicate that one-wall handball was being played in Ireland from at least 1700 A.D.  The southeast of Ireland became a newsworthy area in 1798 as a result of the rising of that year. Contemporary

accounts list Fr. John Murphy, leader of the rebels, as a famous handballer and many of the handball courts were venues for meetings of his followers. The aristocracy were also supporters and players of the game.  Many of the landowners gave sites for the building of courts. The famous Dublin personality Buck Whaley was said, for a very large bet, to have walked to Jerusalem, played handball against its walls, visited holy places, and acquired exotic clothes. Whaley's memoirs that I have reviewed suggest his playing of handball against the famous walls was exaggerated .. see extract below.

Returning Irishmen, as well as the English military and police, may have introduced the additional feature of side-walls to Ireland, having played in the English indoor tennis courts where, according to The London Advertiser in 1742,  "Courts may be booked by the hour or day; for handball playing until they are required for Tennis."  There is evidence that many of the players were Irish and had brought the game with them to London, as they were afterwards to do to Australia and America.  The game was encouraged among the military and in the schools of the land-owning classes. Courts with sidewalls were often called Fives Courts, possibly because the games were of duration of blocks of five aces plus one, and such courts have been identified in Wexford, Clare and Dublin. The local people, who were often excluded from these facilities, continued to play in their one-walled "alleys," and often the gable ends of houses and the ruins of castles and churches.

Republican Priest,  Patriot, Handballer. 

Father Murphy was described as "well made, uniting strength and agility''. Bishop Caulfield said of him that he was "ever giddy [impressionable], but not noted for immorality''.  

Fenian influence in founding of GAA - Patrons connections to Handball

Prior to its organisation by the GAA handball competition was run on an ad-hoc basis and games often came about through the issue of challenges, sometimes through newspapers, and usually for a monetary stake.  Organised sport in Ireland post the 1845 period was generally the preserve of the middle and upper-classes in a country where there was a huge gap between the rich and poor.  5% of the people owned 95% of the wealth. To understand how amateur Gaelic passtimes, including handball, came to be prominent within the Irish sports scene one has to first look to the driving forces behind the foundation of the GAA.

Following the famine in the 1840’s and the formation of the IRB, major nationalist figures, including Pat Nally, after whom the Nally Stand in Croke Park is called, P.N. Fitzgerald, Pat Hoctor, John Menton and Jim Boland, father of Harry Boland and later a Dublin GAA County Board chairman in the 1890’s, sought to restore the morale of the Irish people.  Given the failure of the Young Ireland movement in the mid 1800's and the emasculation of Ireland's male population caused by the famine at the same time, which famine many nationally minded Irish people believed was exacerbated by British occupation of Ireland and the landlord system, it was fellt by some Fenians that there was no hope for Ireland unless her manhood's morale and confidence could be restored.  This could only be achieved, the Fenians believed, if an organisation could be set up that would bring people together in every parish while at the same time not be seen as a threat to the Catholic Church or to British rule in Ireland.

A major facet of this campaign was the founding of the GAA for the protection and promotion of Gaelic games and pass times.  Indeed the linking of Gaelic games and pass times with the idea of manliness was a major feature of Charles Kickhams 'Knocknagow' written circa 1870.  Kickham as most of us know was a Tipperary Fenian that wrote in many Irish nationalist newspapers at the time.   That the Fenians were the prime movers in founding the GAA was a belief I had from talking to my late uncle William O'Dwyer from Bansha who had said an O'Dwyer had been at the meeting in Thurles in 1884.  Also at the founding GAA meeting was a McCarthy that was an RIC Inspector from Bansha, and I have since become aware that a police report in the 1880's made the same claim in regard to the Fenian movement being the founding influence of the GAA.  I was also close to Kevin Boland whose grandfather James Boland was one of the prime IRB movers at the time.  In fact not so long ago in defence of the Dublin Community & Handball Centre at Croke Park, Harry Boland, Kevins brother and Jim Bolands grandson, wrote to protest to GAA Uachtaran Christy Cooney about the treatment of the Centres members by the Croke Park GAA who were threatening to demolish the Centre and he made mention in the letter of James Boland's part in founding the GAA, and his dealings with Cusack, while at the same time expressing to Cooney his disappointment at the treatment of the Centre's members, particularly as the GAA was founded as a community organisation.  Marcus De Burca (RIP), GAA historian, that I met when I was making available to him the 'James Boland' history listened to what I had to say and I heard later that he was coming around to the same view in regard to the GAA's true founders.  Indeed the GAA's choice of its first 3 patrons, Croke, Davitt and Parnell, had little to do with sport or nationalism - that was sui generis - but had everything to do with politics as it was stated at the time by Cusack that it was an attempt to balance the IRB physical force representation within the GAA with the democratic movements namely Davitts Land League and Parnell's Irish Parliamentary Party.

Handball recognised by the GAA as intrinsically Irish

 

Handball was one of the games recognised by the GAA as intrinsically Irish and at its second Annual Congress in Thurles in 1886, it laid down the regulation size for handball courts and the specifications for handballs.  Two of the GAA's original patrons Archbishop Croke and Charles Stuart Parnell had played handball, and the brother of the famed Charles J. Kickham had also played, so it was not surprising that the game was adopted by our association’s founding fathers.

Professionalism versus Amateur

While the GAA focus was on the promotion of amateur sport, as this was the only practical way to organise sport on a parish by parish basis for the masses that were poor, it is true to say that in handball there was often a monetary reward for victory and wagering on the outcome of games was also a regular practice; some players were professionals having their own managers, and they travelled throughout the country taking on all comers for purses of varying amounts.

The top player of the early 1880s, David Browning of Limerick, was finally defeated by American-born John Lawlor in 1885.   Lawlor played out of Kenny’s court in Patricks Street in Dublin.  He immediately claimed to be champion of Ireland and as such was challenged by Phil Casey of New York for the World Title and a purse of $1,000.  In Ireland Lawlor won 7 games to Casey's 3, but the return in Casey's own court in Brooklyn saw Casey win the required 8 games to claim the title.  Lawlor remained in the States for eight years and his departure was marked by the presentation to him of a magnificent pair of bay horses, a most suitable present for the man who later had his own fleet of cabs plying for hire to and from Broadstone Railway Station, Dublin.

 

On his return he continued to play handball, chiefly doubles, and when he became a member of Dublin Corporation, mindful of the game he loved, he moved that £3,000 be made available for the erection of a ballcourt.  A final honour was accorded him when, in 1924, he was elected first President of the Irish Amateur Handball Association.

 

The meeting between the U.S. and Irish champions seemed to be the beginning of a fruitful exchange between the two countries but when James Kelly of N.Y. defeated J. J. Bowles of Ireland for the World Title in 1909 it was to be the last occasion for the champions of both countries to play each other until the World Championships were inaugurated in 1964.

The following article from the New York Times 1903 gives a flavour of handball competition and its dominance by the Irish in the USA around the time of the Lawlor v Casey games.

Jim Fitzgerald

Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnell, Co. Dublin
 

Information on some of Ireland’s and Dublin’s old/derelict Handball alleys was recently compiled by Áine Ryan (architect and spatial planner).  This very welcome research project into the architectural and cultural value of the Irish Handball Alley received support from the Heritage Council of Ireland in 2008 and 2009 under the Architecture Research Grants Scheme, and from the Thomas Dammann Junior Memorial Trust in 2011.  Enda Timoney (St. Brigids) also made valuable contributions.  

Most handball courts at the turn of the century were located in either schools or military barracks.  However those that the public in general had access to were often part of licensed premises and these became the better-known courts.

Patrick Street Court / Metropolitan Handball Club

 

According to J.K. Clarke, of the famed Dublin handballing family, (Clarke and his brother Austin won the Senior All Ireland Hardball Doubles in 1942), the Mecca of handball in Dublin a century ago was the flagged-floor court in Patrick Street opposite the Cathedral.  It is not known when or by whom it was built but believed by some old-time players to date to the 18th century.  It was a fine large venue at least 60 by 30 feet floor space.  It had a moveable wooden gallery for spectators that was stored when matches were not being played.  It was unroofed. A player named Kenny is said to have been the first champion of Dublin, reigning supreme at Patrick Street well over a century ago.  When John Lalor returned to live in Dublin around 1895 he continued to play at Patrick Street with other leading locals like Jim Clarke, Tim Hurley, Pat Lyons, Joe Sweeney, Pat McGill, ‘Kruger’ Fagan and the Corrigan brothers.  All the leading Dublin players, professional and amateur, played on this court until it was damaged during a storm around 1910.

 

The Metropolitan was the handball club attached to Patrick Street and the only organised group in Dublin in the late 1800s.  It is doubtful if any handball club in the country contributed more to the game than this club, yet it never had a permanent home!  The first members played in the old Patrick Street court, often referred to as Kenny’s Court, which was situated at the back of a butcher’s shop. 

Location of 'Kenny's' Handball Court ....

it was said to be opposite the Cathedral,  called after Kenny a famous handball player, and at the back of a butcher's shop.   Thom's Dublin  Street  Directory​  1862  lists  two

Kennys that are butchers living at 7 and 8 Patrick Street.  The 1911 Census below also has a Joseph Kenny, butcher, living in Patrick Street with his mother Maria at a tenament bldg.38. 

The meetings were at that time held in the Garter Inn in Kevin Street and the members wore the club medal, shamrock-shaped with an Irish harp, embossed on their watch chains.  The club was jealous of the Irish traditions of ball playing and we find John Lawlor presiding at a meeting of the club on 12th October 1896, when the following resolution was passed:  “That we condemn the action of the American handball players, and we unanimously agree to uphold the old style of serving i.e. from the base to the front wall”.   This decision may have postponed the day when ace-line tossing was adopted, but it was a change that had to come, and by the time Bowles played Kelly in 1909 all tossing was from a centre or ace-line.  With the demolition of the adjoining house about 1907, the Patrick Street court became unsafe and it was eventually pulled down in 1910. 

 

The ‘Mets’ players moved on to Ashtown, then to Clondalkin and later to the Boot Inn, Ballymun.  It was in Ashtown that the club champions, Lawlor and Clarke, lost the double-handed championship of Ireland to the holders Aldridge and Robinson of Athy in 1912. 

In the same year a group of four players from the Met were involved in the official opening of the Ballymore 60 x 30 alley following the plastering of the walls and the laying of a new cement floor, on Sunday October 27, 1912. The four players involved took part in exhibition games, which resulted as follows:

            James Clarke and Tom Redmond (DMC) beat Jordan and Devey.
            Peter O'Shea and Joe Kennedy (DMC) lost to Farrell and Hickey.


John Clarke, son of James Clarke who also served as secretary of the Met Club, believed that Jordan, Devey, Farrell and Hickey were also from Dublin. The famous John Lalor was also at the opening.

It is clear that the Met's John Lalor was also a handballer with a social concience and J.J. O'Kelly, Deputy Speaker the First Dail, mentioned John's  involvement as a Labour Party representative with the National Aid and Volunteers Dependants fund* ..... and from the piece to the right Lalor must have found meetings in Dublin to be every bit as exciting as meetings in New York, if not more so. 
In the 1940’s and 50’s Paddy Perry and Peter O’Neill played in the club colours and each was elected a life-member for his services to handball.  Paddy Perry achieved the unique distinction of winning Dublin Senior Hurling, Football, and Handball titles all on the one day.  In 1923 the club became completely amateur after its affiliation to the IAHA, and the Clarke family in the 1940s did much to restore the glory of earlier days by their victories in the All-Ireland Championship.

* Note - Objective of National Aid Association:  "To make adequate provisions for the families and dependants of the men who were executed, of those who fell in action, and of those who were sentenced to penal-servitude in connection with the insurrection of Easter 1916 and in addition to provide for the necessities of those others who suffered by reason of participation or suspicion, in the insurrection".

The ‘Halfway House’ at Ashtown

The ‘Halfway House’ at Ashtown was the other well-known court at the turn of the century, and was reputed to have the finest front wall in Ireland, in the erection of which ox blood is said to have been mixed with the cement.  One cannot but wonder did the handball alley at what was then known as 'Kelly’s Public House' provide any cover on the 19 December 1919 when 4 men from the 'home of hurling' joined 6 men from the 'home of handball' and two others and made the daring attempt to ambush the British Viceroy and supreme military commander in Ireland Lord French.  What we do know, from the recollections of Major General Paddy Daly (see copy snippet) who was OC for the ambush, was that the major topic of conversation in the pub was handball as they waited there before the ambush.
The tip-off in relation to Lord French's movements had been provided to Michael Collins by another handball connection, Eamon Broy, 'G' Division political intelligence section of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, who later served on the Irish Amateur Handball Association Standing Committee in 1924. 

 

Martin Savage lost his life, (Kelly refusing to allow the body in to the pub after the ambush, probably in fear of reprisal), and Dan Breen who was shot in the leg was later treated by the captain of the Dublin hurling team Dr. J.M. Ryan in Phibsboro. 
As we will soon remember those men in the 1916 centenary celebrations it is interesting that after the ambush the IRA of the time were called 'murderers' and 'assassins' by the then Irish Independent and as a result Peader Clancy and a few lads called in to the Independent and smashed up the place.  Dan Breen, later a TD, wrote in his book 'My Fight for Irish Freedom' that no newspaper ever called them murderers or assasins again. Peader Clancy along with Dick McKee and Conor Clune met their deaths less than a year later when after having been arrested and brought to Dublin Castle they were murdered on Bloody Sunday 21 November 1920 (see photo below), another eventful day in Irish and GAA history.  They are remembered at a commemoration every year in Dublin Castle and it was the writers privilege to give the main oration some years ago.  Eamon Broy, on the other hand, who was with Michael Collins in London during the Treaty negotiations and became Garda Commissioner in 1933, gets only a rare mention in the history books, despite his immense contribution in helping Collins win the 'intelligence' battle; I did however come across the evidence he gave to the Bureau of Military History in 1955, a copy of which you can read by clicking here and it gives a good insight into the man and into the Dublin Metropolitan Police and Dublin Castle attitudes in the period from 1911 up to the 1922. 

Saint Brigids GAA Club with its share of handball champions, notably the Kennedys and Julie Long (RIP), and coach Enda Timoney is now the standard bearer for handball in this area, being a mile up the road.

Extraordinary photo from Corbis Images of McKee, Clancy & Clune hours before their murder. 

Ashtown -  Ambush by the Alley

Historical footage and re-construction of  the Ashtown ambush. 

 

The ‘Boot Inn’ in Ballymun

Long before it was the practice for famous golf players to design courses the 'Boot Inn' handball court was designed by world famous handballer JJ Lalor.  The erection of the world-famous court at the Boot Inn in Ballymun in 1909 by the late Tom Weldon Snr., then proprietor of the Inn, followed around 1920 by the provision of courts at Clondalkin and Cornmarket by other vintners, gave the game a new lease of life at a time when the ‘alley-cracker’, the leather hardball, was encouraged.   One of the great players who graced the court of the Boot Inn was Morgan Pembroke (1891 – 1978).   Morgan, of the old St. Catherine’s Club, who was the Irish professional handball champion from 1920 to 1925, was watched by hundreds who, 80 years ago, would have taken a Glasnevin tram on a Sunday afternoon and then walked from Washerwoman’s Hill to the Boot Inn.

Another famous player J.J. Kelly (1900 –1960), who succeeded Pembroke as Irish professional champion from 1925 to 1929, played all his handball with the Ballymun Club.  He also played soccer with Artillery, Shamrock Rovers and Shelbourne.  J.J. Kelly really sprang to prominence when, as the Irish professional Junior champion in 1924 at the Boot Inn court, he played a famous challenge against J.J. Heney, World Champion from New York, who was in Dublin to participate in the Tailteann International Handball Games. This game was won by the visitor, and was described as the finest ever seen there.

Articles of Agreement, which formed part of the handball collection of the late J.K.Clarke, were drawn up between the players and signed by their managers - a feature of big games in those days. The Boot Inn Club continued to play with the Irish Amateur Handball Union, a rival to the GAA-promoted Irish Handball Council, until the 1936-37 season when it joined the IHC, and in which year also, as a fitting climax to two wonderful careers, Morgan Pembroke and J.J. Kelly won the Dublin senior doubles title, thus having secured titles under the auspices of both organisations.

 

 

Facilities for the playing of handball by the ordinary citizen were always in short supply in Dublin, and were it not for the provision of alleys in some Garda and military barracks and in institutions such as St. Brendans Hospital in Grangegorman, and alleys provided at the rear of premises by a few vintners, the game might well have died in Dublin.

Photo: Aine Ryan project

In 1910, the School Inspectorate reported that handball was the most frequently mentioned activity in "recreation”.  It had become a street game widely played against any available surface and thus familiar to all the population.   From the schools point of view it was an inexpensive form of recreation for the children and as a non-contact sport did not require too much supervision.  Many teachers of other sports also encouraged their students to play handball as a second sport as it helped in the development of co-ordination, speed, flexibility and upper-body strength.  As a consequence handball was the only GAA sport played in almost all of the schools in the early 1900s, whereas Hurling and Football often lost out to the promotion of Rugby, Cricket and Athletics.  Handball was played in the famed Blackrock College in the mid-1880's.

Padraig Pearse, who sought to promote all aspects of Gaelic culture, included a one-wall handball court in his private school at St. Endas in Rathfarnham. The Christian Brothers that included in their 'objects' and 'mottoes'  .... "To keep the children of the Gael Irish ..... with strength in our arms" became promoters of Gaelic games, handball among them.  Below is the Christian Brothers Our Boys Masthead from the September issue of 1921 in which they also featured an article on Padraig Pearse.   Collaiste

Mhuire became a great nursery for handball as well as the Irish language and many of it's students went on to be both teachers and promoters of handball.   Given the promotion of handball by such as Padraig Pearse and the Christian Brothers the game had every chance of becoming popular when the Irish Handball Council was to be set up in 1924.

In 1919 Tom Soye won his first title in the Dublin GAA Schools Championship and went on to win many other schools titles as well.  ​He later joined An Garda and won the All Ireland Amateur Senior Hardball Singles Championship from 1926 to 1931 and added three doubles titles in partnership with T.O’Reilly (twice) and G. Brown (see list  below  taken  from  the Aonach   An  Garda  souvenier  programme     of  1926).   In   the   1930's   Tom

featured in the Wills Cigarettes Series of the 'Top 50 Irish Sportsmen'. 

I had often heard the late Sean Clerkin mention of the prominence of handball as a sport in the 1920's and '30's and he had emphasised this by mentioning that Paddy Perry, who spent many years in Dublin,  had featured in the Wills Cigarette Card collection, but I had never come across the card or even seen a

photograph of it.  I saw a Wills card set of the 1930's for auction in the UK and e-mailed to see if Paddy Perry was in that set.  With the answer yes I was delighted to nail the winning bid and get the cards.  Imagine my delight and surprise when I discovered the series also included Dublin's Tom Soye.  

The Dublin GAA Schools League appears to have been the only committee that provided competition for schoolboys in these early years.  In 1922 the committee organised 1,050 matches, with Inchicore winning the Senior title, Artane the Intermediate title and St. Vincents the Junior title.

Fives played at St. Columbas's College Rathfarnham

A game very similar to Handball called ‘Fives’ played predominantly in the UK was also played at St. Columba’s college in Rathfarnham.  In fact the ‘Fives’ court in St. Columba’s is reputed by the administrators in ‘Fives’ competitions in the UK to be the first ever built specifically for the game in the world.  Prior to that it is believed that the game was played against the church walls of the many private schools that fostered the game as in the picture included earlier.   The buttresses for the high church walls would have served as the portion of wall between which the game was played and it is possible that this then led to the development of sidewalls when the rules for the game became more formalised.

Little is known about the organisation of handball events by Dublin GAA clubs between 1884 and 1924 when the Irish Amateur Handball Association was set up under the auspices of, and as a sub-committee of, the GAA.  Up to 1924 National Championships were still a matter of challenges and complicated agreements with the holder often reluctant (as in boxing) to put his title on the line.   In the early 20's Morgan Pembroke of Dublin finally dethroned the champion Bowles with the matches being played at the height of the War of Independence.  Sean Clerkin, the great Na Fianna stalwart, commentator on handball for the Irish Press and other publications over the years, related that:​

In 1904 the GAA clubs in Dublin organised competitions in Patrick Street.  The doubles competition was won by a Tom Hogan and Pat Kernan who were then disqualified as they were classified as professionals and the title was awarded to Paddy Gilsenan and Andy Harty.  Andy Harty, a Tipperary man, later became very much involved in both the County Dublin GAA Board and Handball administration until his untimely death in 1926.  In 1909 the Young Irelands GAA Club organised a successful competition with 99 players participating.   A boost was given to the game in Dublin in 1910 by the introduction of a yearly competition that was promoted by the South City Athletic Club.  This competition continued for a few years and the club also organised an Amateur All Ireland Competition for the Murphy Cup.

In 1903 in the USA there was published, as part of the Spalding series on sports, a Handball Guide book {For best viewing 'Zoom' out once or twice ... book starts on page 7 at the Google Docs location}.  The guide was written by none other than Mike Egan of Jersey City mentioned in the 1903 New York Times article above.  Mike had become World Handball Champion by beating Louis Keegan.  His book is very interesting.  As well as giving an extensive history of the origin of handball it also sets out the Rules as they were under the GAA in Ireland at that time, describes the ball, and he also mentions the difference in serving of the ball as between the USA and Ireland that led to the JJ Lawlor Metropolitan Club resolution referred to earlier.

Following this the first Leinster Handball Convention was held in Dublin on 4 May 1923 with Mr. A.C. Harty, Dublin GAA chairman, presiding. 

Six counties, including Dublin, were represented.  Famous Dublin handball champion John Lawlor was elected President.  The Council received a grant of £50 from the GAA Leinster Council and this tradition still continues.

 

Mr. Jim Murphy of Inchicore made an effort to organise players into clubs, culminating in a Dublin Board that lasted for a short time to be overtaken in 1924 by the formation of two separate national organisations.

The photograph of the 'Irish Handball Champion' to the right is probably from the 1900 - 1920 period.

In 1905 it seems that a County Dublin Handball Committee was in place as the National Library of Ireland has a 4 page booklet of rules and bye-laws in its collection.

In 1922 the GAA organised inter-county handball along similar lines to football and hurling.  Part of the GAA’s concern was that many of the handballers were also playing soccer in defiance of ‘the foreign games rule’ and it was felt that to counter this a more formal structure needed to be put in place.  That year, at a meeting of the Leinster Council on 16th December, it was decided to circularise all counties in the province with a view to establishing a Provincial Handball Council to both organise and control handball. 

1921:  GAA sponsor 2 gold and 2 silver medals for IRA prisoner Handball tournament in Kilmainham Jail during the Truce

On 27th January 1924, following on from the Leinster Handball Convention of 1923, the inaugural meeting of the Irish Amateur Handball Association was held in Croke Park.  Dublin provided the first President in J.J Lawlor and first secretary in Sean O’Hanlon, from the East Wall.  The first competitions run by the new association were trials to select Ireland’s representatives for the 1924 Tailteann Games.

The original Tailteann Games pre-dated even the ancient Olympic Games. The Games were presented as the restoration of an ancient Irish custom, crushed by the Norman and English invaders. The 1924 Aonach Tailteann programme traced the origin of the games back to 632 B.C. when King Luaghaidh Lamhfáda ordered the celebration in honour of his foster mother’s funeral, Queen Tailté, ‘where athletes famed in Irish history met in friendly competition'.

Following the achievement of an Irish Free State in 1921 the government decided to hold a Tailteann Games.  However the intervention of the Civil War delayed the holding of the games until 1924.  It was also felt that August 1924 would be a better time for the games as athletes of Irish ancestry from all over the world would be competing at the Olympic Games in Paris that summer and could then travel on to Dublin for our Tailteann Games.  Prior to 1924 Michael Davitt in 1885 in a letter to the first AGM of the GAA appealed for a pan-Celtic festival and De Valera as President of the Provisional government of Ireland in 1919 proposed re-launching the Tailteann Games.  Postmaster General JJ Walsh was selected to chair the Tailteann committee and he reported to the Dail in relation to the games, mentioning handball in June 1922 as can be seen from the parliamentary debates section hereunder.

It was amid the excitement of this era that the inaugural meeting of the Irish Handball Council, then described as the Irish Amateur Handball Association, occurred.  Pathe Gazette had an office in Ireland and covered the Tailteann Games as it was a major presentation of Ireland as a newly established nation. 

To enhance the handball history I was looking for old film reel of any examples of handball or fives played in the early decades of the 20th Century when I discovered the short film reel of the Irish Amateur Handball Association congress delegates gathered to organise for the Tailteann Games, and possibly the first ever Irish Amateur Handball Association congress, and I contacted and registered with Pathe Gazette to purchase a copy for use on this website, which by-the-way remains the copyright of Pathe Gazette.  What follows is a video that includes the IAHA delegates and also gives a sense of the occasion surrounding the Tailteann Games.  The Games, though not on this film reel, included a shinty/hurling match ... Ireland v Scotland.  National teams are shown parading in Croke Park in this short clip (music and fireworks audio added by the writer to give a sense of the occasion) as well as the 1924 actual waterfall and 'Banrioghan Tailte' fireworks display, a photograph of the actual fireworks display, and a contemporary fireworks display similar to that depicted in the photograph.  

The new association attracted the support of state bodies, particularly the Army and Garda, and the Garda Commissioner General Eoin O'Duffy became a member of the IAHA Standing Committee along with Colonel Broy and encouraged his members to play and built facilities in the garda stations for them.  Not only that, but in order to make An Garda more acceptable to  the general community in a post civil-war Ireland Eoin O'Duffy encouraged successful sportsmen to join An Garda; as a result one young sportsman that had intended to go to the USA  joined the force and he was Paddy Perry.  Handballers became national figures and top players such as Soye, O'Neill, and Perry were featured in sports card series and other advertising literature.

As a result of a ruling given by the GAA, the title of the newly formed body was changed to the Irish Handball Council.  The GAA in its ruling pointed out that the new body was a sub-committee of the GAA and as such could not use the word ‘Association’ in its title.  This seemed to bode well for the new fledgling handball council (IHC), as the GAA was clearly taking the game of handball under its wing.  With such a move came responsibility and it was argued by many that the GAA would not live up to its responsibility, and that it might be wiser to be independent.

It was unfortunate that a great advocate of handball within the GAA hierarchy, Andy Harty Dublin County GAA Board chairman 1916 - 1925 died in 1926.

O'Brien Collection

An Garda:  On the 8th August 1923 the newly established Irish Government created An Garda Siochana that was to play a significant role in the development of the nation.  It was required to end the traditional animosity the Irish had for policemen and to be the cement that would hold communities together in a post civil-war Ireland, not an easy task by any means.  To its credit An Garda adopted many of the ideals of our nations founding fathers in seeking to promote Irish Cultutre and the Irish language.  Now in 2013 as I write the mission of An Garda Siochana is still 'Working with Communities to Protect and Serve'.

​An Garda played a pivotal role in the promotion of handball from 1924 onwards not only in Dublin but throughout the nation with handball courts annexed to Garda barracks and a major 60x30 court in the Garda Depot in the Phoenix Park  where  many  an  All-Ireland final  was  played  on  the

Col. Eamon Broy

morning of the All-Ireland Hurling or Football final as recounted to me by Seamus J Leahy who used write a little column as 'SJL' about times gone by in the Irish Press.  The handball alley in the Garda Depot was built after the amalgamation of the Dublin Metropolitan Police with An Garda in 1925. General Murphy of the DMP became Deputy Commissioner of An Garda and Chairman of the Coiste Siamsa for promotion of sports within An Garda.  It was as Chairman of the Garda Review controlling committee that Murphy allocated the funds for the handball alley in the Phoenix Park and the Garda Boat Club at Islandbridge. The Aonach An Garda extracts below show how particularly well handball was promoted within An Garda as early as 1926 when the Garda ran their own national sports and cultural competitions.

Col. Eamon Broy.  Broy was also depicted in the Michael Collins film, being a spy for Collins within the DMP - although the film depicts him as being tortured and killed he actually survived the War of Independence, partly because Collins convinced another ex DMP man to flee to America creating uncertainty as to the role played by Broy who had been arrested and interrogated in Arbour Hill.  Interesting to note that both Broy and O'Duffy, as well as their involvement in the IAHA Standing Committee, were also both Presidents of the Olympic Council of Ireland.  Broy retired from An Garda in 1938 and died in 1972 aged 85 years.  

Irish Amateur Handball Union

At this time then a rival organisation, the Irish Amateur Handball Union, also existed.  It catered for amateurs and professionals, the latter resigning from the Union when due to meet a professional engagement, returning again to the Union following games.  Most of the leading players were, accordingly, associated with the Union.

J.K. Clarke in his writings recalled that most of the professionals were not fulltime but continued to follow their everyday vocation.  They had honorary managers like J.J. Heney, A. Durkin and J. Murphy in Dublin, while some like J.J. Boles of Limerick engaged a solicitor.  The Union had a number of now historic challenge cups, notably the Weldon World Cup used eventually for the Irish Senior Hardball Championship, and the Weldon Cup for the Novice HB Championship of Dublin.  The Evening Mail presented a cup for the Junior Championship.

There was at times some bitterness between the players of both organisations.  A newspaper controversy over the exclusion of IAHU players from the Tailteann Games only intensified the rivalry between the two associations.  While, as J.J. Kelly, a champion who played all his handball out of Ballymun said, the only place to settle a dispute about the merits of players is in the ballcourt, it is difficult to believe that the Tailteann handball programme of 1928, confined as it was to IAHA players, was representative of Irish Handball.  In a letter to the Irish Independent, J.J. Kelly wrote:

                                            “I repeat that I beat Tom Soye and Mick Dunne.  In 1922 I was competing in junior handball and made my debut in the senior ranks in the Tailteann trials of that year which I won, P.J. Lyons being the only man to take a game off me.  It is true that Mick Dunne met with a mishap in his game with me. He was accidentally struck with the ball during a rally for the last ace of the game.  Mick is a sport and I am sure that he will admit that I beat him on his merits.  Since then I defeated Coyne, Pembroke, Lyons and Aldridge, all whom beat Dunne.  As regards Soye, I beat him in the Dublin Senior championship at Ballymun. I also defeated the late P. Fields and P.L. Purcell, who had victories over the G.A.A champion.”

Within weeks of the publication of that letter, Pembroke regained the Dublin IAHU championship by defeating Kelly on scores 21-10, 21-12, 21-18, 21- 6.  But a young player, Tommy Leahy, from Ballymore-Eustace upset all the odds by beating Pembroke decisively for the Irish title.  He confirmed this form a year later when he beat Kelly for the same title, and then when his career was but beginning, he died tragically young in 1940.  Such intensity of competition is rarely seen between players nowadays, at least not manifesting itself in the media.  Our handball galleries might be more full if this were the case.

The Irish Amateur Union faded out around 1938.  Since then there has been only one organisation that, along with its parent body the GAA, has responsibility for keeping the native game of handball alive.

For as long as the Irish Amateur Handball Union existed it was not unusual for the handball correspondent of a newspaper to provide information on the games of both the IAHU and the GAA's IAHA.  Thanks to 'Black' Pat Ryan for the cutting.

In terms of codes of the game, the hardball, also known as the sheep-skinned alley-cracker, so named from the ring of the ball against the wall, was the popular code up to the late 1920’s.  There is a story told of this characteristic ring of the ball in the court at Moone which caused British armed forces to enter that venue during play to check if the noise was armed target practise by the locals.  Indeed, handball alleys are known to have been used as meeting places for many a group that harboured rebellious thoughts.  Players in the old days had their favourite ball maker;  Morgan Pembroke (Dublin) for example preferring the Limerick-made ball.  Aldridge of Athy could also make a good ball and provided most of those used in the 1930s and for decades afterwards.   Dublin makers of ‘hardballs’ included A. Durkin and J. Bray.  Tom Soye and Austin Clarke have been the two great Dublin exponents of hardball over the years.  Soye was dominant from 1926 to 1931, winning 6 senior singles and 3 senior doubles.  Junior Singles All Ireland Hardball Champions from Dublin in the 30’s included, W. Butler and M. Butler and Junior Doubles All Ireland Hardball Champions from Dublin in the same period included M. Butler and J. Roche.

The first ‘Softball’ All Ireland competitions commenced in 1925 and M. Joyce of Dublin won the senior title that year.  Softball was a faster game than hardball, there being much more ‘bounce’ in the rubber ball than the sheepskin leather hardball.  Serving, while always important, was much more critical in the hardball game.  In many ways the softball game was easier to play and soon became the dominant code of the two.  Only between 1941 and 1945 did hardball re-emerge as the dominant code owing to a scarcity of rubber during World War II.  In fact, so scarce was rubber, and so important was it to the war effort at the time, that it was forbidden to export it either to Germany and any of its allies.  A story is related that a ship was stopped in the Irish sea by the British navy and was found to have a cargo of rubber.  The captain was asked to explain where it was bound for.  His reply that it was for handballs in                                                                                            Elephant Logo on the 60x30 Handball in 1960's

Ireland and condoms in Sweden fell on deaf ears. While the level of competition in softball in Dublin was always great, with many inter-county players located in the city, Dublin did not secure as many All-Ireland senior titles as it did in the ‘hardball’ code.  In the 1920s and 30s, Senior Singles softball winners included M. Joyce in 1925 and W. McGuire in1927.  The only All-Ireland Senior Doubles softball winners in the period were M. Joyce and C. Ryan in 1927.  Larry Rowe had also won the All-Ireland Junior Singles title in 1938.  Dublin players winning Junior Softball Doubles titles included A. Roe and H. Gallagher 1935.

From 1938 onwards in an effort to promote handball among the younger players a Minor Championship was introduced.  Doubles winners included J. Doran and G. Brogan in 1938.

T. J. McElligott, national secretary of the Irish Handball Council from 1949 to 1954, some time ago outlined the progress of handball through this period and much of the material below is derived from his article.

 

Ever since the founding of the Irish Amateur Handball Association in 1924, handball in Dublin faced a problem that no other county had to face to the same extent.  As the ballcourts on the fringe of the city closed, particularly those at Clondalkin, Ashtown, Lucan and Ballymun, no new ones were built to replace them, and all the time the population was growing.

Dublin county championship titles were decided in such courts as the Castle, Terenure, Clontarf, Inchicore, Crumlin and, when it was available, the Garda Depot court in the Phoenix Park.  Of these, only the Depot was a first-class venue for both hardball and softball.  The early ‘sixties’ saw the end of inter-county handball in the Depot and with it the long established custom of having big matches on the morning of the All-Ireland hurling and football finals.  It was not unusual for the Lord Mayor of Dublin to find himself on the edge of the seat reserved for the referee and marker.  Peadar Doyle, Martin O’Sullivan and Cormac Breathnach came there more than once during their term of office.

That Dublin produced so many outstanding players in this period is all the more remarkable when one recalls that many of the top players often had to train in three-wall courts such as that which still exists beside Green Street Courthouse.

What helped to keep the game alive was the extensive coverage given to handball in the Sports Mail which was published every Saturday.  In two full columns  ‘Alley-Cracker’ (Sean O’Hanlon) dealt with the activities not alone of the Dublin players but of players in the provinces.  Sean, who figured prominently in Dublin GAA affairs, was a marine engineer with the Dublin Port and Docks Board and was the first Secretary of the Irish Handball Association.  Promoting the international image of the game in 1926, in the role of secretary, he attended the International Amateur Athletic Federation and was elected president of the Court Handball Commission, the chief aim of which was to present rules and regulations acceptable to all countries for the playing of handball.  Sean also had the distinction of being presented with the German badge of honour.

Dublin also provided a President of the IHC during the years 1944 to 1947 in the person of Padraigh O’ Murchu.

Handball clubs associated with places of work were also a feature of this period.  John Foskin and Christy Drudy, both Faughs clubmen, set up the Johnston, Mooney and O’Brien Club in Ballsbridge.  Dublin hurling referee of the 50’s Tommy Kearney was also a member of the club as were Dan Aherne, Tommy Land and “Whacker” Paddy Breen.  Guinness employees had a club known as The Gate at the company’s grounds in Crumlin.  The Gate had an excellent court fit for National competitions and it was not unusual on a winters Sunday morning for players to remove ice or snow from the concrete floor so that a Gael-Linn match could commence.  Dublin Corporation Officials also had a club and on October 9th1956 the Evening Mail reported on the presentations to Corporation workers who had won the various grades.  It was noted that Austin Clarke was there in his capacity as Chairman, Dublin County Board, while an apology was received from the city Marshall who could not attend owing to illness on the night; the city Sheriff, who presented the Junior Challenge Cup, did make the occasion.   

Two trophies, draped with the City colours of blue and white, were presented and included the Senior Challenge Cup donated by the Lord Mayor, Clr. R. Briscoe, T.D.  Winners included J. Clarke, D. Cooney, M. Murphy, T. Rothwell, J. McCormack, M. Carroll, J. Prendergast, A. Dunphy.Mention of Guinness above also brings to mind that in the 1940’s handball was being played at 0’Tooles bar (now the ‘Lord Mayors’) in Swords.   By this time the alley was in a poor state but nevertheless attracted many players dressed in their Sunday best, to have a game after mass.  All over Dublin there would have been similar scenes denoting what handball is all about - people playing just for the fun of it and for that reason I chose the picture as the masthead picture for this site.

Eucharistic Congress June 1932

Interestingly in 1932, the year of the Eucharistic Congress, a special handball was made to commemorate the occasion.  There was a symbol of a ‘phoenix rising out of the ashes’ on the ball.

As the Congress was taking place in Dublin groups from countries that had a strong Catholic tradition, timed a visit to Ireland to coincide with the Eucharistic Congress; 7 ocean liners moored in Dublin Port for the event.  Whether this motivated the visit by the Basque (B)pelota/handball players I do not know but as you can see from the Evening Press report to the right Dr. Hernandorena was very impressed by the fitness, physique and all-round ability of Paddy Perry.  Contact between Basque and Irish handballers continues to the present day.

Building of the Croke Park Handball Court 1933

The building of the Croke Park (Hill’16’) handball court in 1933 never quite realised the hopes that it would give a new impetus to the game in the city.  The great difficulty was one of access to the court, as it was a part of the stadium and the key was kept in the G.A.A offices.  The building cost was £1,700 which in 1933 was a great deal of money.   Ironically the courts demolition in 1989 to enable re-development of the ‘Hill 16’ standing area, and which resulted in a dispute between the GAA authorities and the Dublin Handball Board, is likely to give impetus to the game in the city.  Part of the settlement reached between the Dublin board and the GAA authorities, in the late 1990’s, was the setting up of a Trust Fund in the amount of IR£150,000 for the promotion of the game in the City.  Below is a photograph of this alley after the GAA in Croke Park in 1988 used one of their contractors to effectively vandalise the alley and make it unplayable.  This greatly antagonised the Dublin handballers and local community so much so that one member bought a video recorder, costing around IR£1,500 at the time, to record the damage as ordinary GAA people at the time would not believe this could happen.

Prominent Players in Dublin 1930’s to 1960

 

The dominant players of the period included the Rowes, the Clarkes, Mick Fahy, Paddy Munroe, Mick Glesson and Mick Griffin.  The partnership of Daly and McCoy who lost an all-Ireland softball doubles title to the famed Paddy Perry and Alfie Mullaney in 1933 also figured prominently in the thirties.  Paddy Perry, a Roscommon native and who played inter-county for Roscommon, played much of his handball in Dublin.  Perry once played P.J.MacDonagh, who had studied at Blackrock College, and later went to the USA where he won the 1924 USA championship, at the Garda Depot alley in an unusual ‘ball-and-ball-about rubber’, i.e. alternate games with the Irish and American ball, which Perry won by the odd game in five.  The Rowe brothers, George and Larry, were the players who had the greatest following among Dublin enthusiasts and they gave value to those who backed them; for it must be admitted, some hundreds of pounds often changed hands whenever they were engaged in championship handball.  Larry was a delight to watch and was often referred to as ‘The Fox’ because of his slick brand of play.  Larry annexed three senior all-Ireland softball singles titles, one doubles with his brother and sixteen Dublin county titles.  He was unbeatable in short-line play while George could be relied on to deal with anything off the back wall. Larry Rowe won Senior Softball Singles titles in 1947 / 1949 /1951. Larry and George Rowe won the doubles title in 1946 and 1948.   G. Brogan and C. Donohoe secured a junior softball doubles title in 1947 making the late 40’s a good period for Dublin in the handball court.

No mention of handball in Dublin during this period could possibly claim to be complete without mention of the Clarke family.  The four brothers, Austin, John, Jim and Willie were all accomplished players in the forties and fifties.  Austin Clarke won 6 senior hardball singles and 2 senior hardball doubles titles, including one with his brother John and the other with G. Moran, in the period from 1942 to 1955.​
Whether in his capacity as Chairman of the Dublin Handball Board or as the county representative in the All-Ireland championships, Austin was a distinctive character.  Holding the Dublin ‘hardball’
singles and doubles titles for the best part of 20 years (1940’s –1960’s) Austin was first and above all else a Dubliner, in his tendency to regard any matches fixed for a venue beyond the edge of Dublin as a day in the jungle.  Training never had much attraction for him and he contented himself with tying the togs to the crossbar of his bicycle after his day’s work at Brown, Thomas & Co, and going up to the Garda Depot or across to the alley at Dublin Castle to play a few games. 
 
He often said that John Bray and Francie Mulligan were the two who taught him anything he knew of the game.  He could strike a ball beautifully off either hand and few players could equal him either in skill or sportsmanship.  In 1951 the United States Handball Union recognised Austin as world ‘hardball’ titleholder and the gold-wreath medal that combined the flags of Ireland and the USA that he received from that body was one of his proudest possessions.  John, who partnered him to an All-Ireland victory, was a far more consistent player.  A heavy service and good judgement made him the ideal partner.  John’s great work for the sport was recognised as far away as the USA when he was elected to the American Hall of Sporting Fame.

Among the non-native born players who wore the blue of Dublin in this period, Des Dillon was outstanding.  An equally talented hurler, he played handball with Offaly and Clare before winning a Dublin senior title in 1957.  His style was unusual.  While capable of the finest shots, he was often beaten by players who were not really his equal.  He beat Tom Ginty of the New York Athletic Club in Croke Park in 1957 in a match that was marked by his ability to out-manoeuvre the tough American.  What is surprising is that he never won an All-Ireland title even in the years 1955 and 1957 when he won the Gael-Linn trophy from a Nation-wide entry.  The answer to this perhaps lies within his chequered sporting career; Dillon the handballer was also Dillon the boxer, the swimmer, the hurler, the footballer and the tennis player.  He captained the Combined Universities against the Rest of Ireland in 1952, has two Oireachtas trophies, one each with Dublin and Clare, five Fitzgibbon Cup medals, a Railway Cup award for 1954, and an all-Ireland junior medal won with London.  It was Des Dillon who eventually dethroned ‘the fox’ Larry Roe in1957 to take the Dublin County senior softball singles title that had been held by Roe for the prior fourteen years.  Dillon’s enthusiasm for handball was shown by the fact that while professional duties brought him to England, he nevertheless made the weekly trip from Wigan to play in the championships in Ireland.  In 1964 Des Dillon’s perseverance was to be rewarded when, in a thrilling game against Kerry’s Paddy Downey at Ballymore–Eustace, winning 21to 20 in the second game, he secured the right to represent Ireland along with Joey Maher in the World Championships to be held at the New York Athletic Club in 1964.  Soon after his return from these games Des Dillon died tragically young, having not yet turned 40 years of age. 

 

Army, Aer Corp and Garda Participation in Dublin County Championships

 

During the 1930’s to 1960’s period the participation of the top Army and Garda players in the county championship helped to raise the level of the game in Dublin.  Even after the great days of Perry and Reid, many other Garda players - Willie Doran, Mick Sullivan, Gerry King, Jim Connell, John Flemming and Tom Lagan – all won Dublin titles while stationed in the Depot or in suburban areas.  From the 1970’s onwards many Garda Club players have distinguished themselves in either Dublin and/or National competitions including Dick Walsh (a former chairman of the board), Eddie Flynn, Willie McGee, Seamus O’Connor, John Landers, Len Ahern, Liam Ferguson, Dennis McBride, Jim and Gerry Cadden, Des Fitzgerald, Pat Farren, Declan Quigley, Mick O’Leary, Mick ‘Tipp’ Ryan, Mick Dunne, the Morris brothers, Joe McCahill, Jim Smith, Peadar O’Maolain, Nicky Devereaux,  J. Robinson, Tony Spain, Pat Griffin, Alan and Dennis Kenny, Michael Maher, Pat Hall, and Eugene Downey winner of many All Ireland Senior Doubles titles with his native county Kilkenny. 

In the sixties, Army players from the Eastern Command, notably Mick Hoare, Chubby Geary, and Willie Cockburn, took Dublin titles at both intermediate and senior level.  Martin McKenna was also prominent.  Later into the eighties and nineties, players such as Liam Stubbs, Ray Quinn and Francie Cunningham were to come to prominence.

 

In the seventies and eighties also, players from the Aer Corp in Balldonnel achieved success in Dublin and national competitions and included such as Sean Oaks, Joe Rossiter, ‘Sledge’ Reilly, Fintan Lawlor, Tommy Carr and Joe Warren whose brother John also played.

Paddy Perry:  Playing for An Garda he won county finals in Hurling, Football and Handball all on the same day. 

Tony Conby of Roscommon wrote a great artilce on Paddy in his Essays & Observations website. 

He revealed that in 1934 Paddy won three Dublin Senior Championships on the one day representing the Garda. In the football final they defeated St. Joseph’s. He was persuaded to play in the hurling final against Faughs, which they also won. Paddy sustained a badly injured ankle and rib and was strongly advised not to play for some time. However on that evening he defeated Peter Berry (a prominent Civil Servant in the early 70's) in the handball final.

Berry had refused to have it postponed. This made Perry's injuries worse but he later felt the uniqueness of his achievement made it worthwhile.

 

Click here for link to full Paddy Perry story.

Appointment of Joe Lynch as IHC Secretary 1954​

Towards the end of the 1930’s to 1960 period the Irish Handball Council in 1954 was to see the appointment of a new Secretary from Dublin namely Joe Lynch a member of the Guinness Gate club.  Joe Lynch served in every capacity from club to county and Leinster Council before this appointment.  He was a very energetic and committed official and he established a very strong bond with GAA officials such as the late Director General Sean O’Siochain.  Joe Lynch’s tenure, well in to the 1980’s, was to see massive strides in the development of facilities for the sport and much greater publicity 

with the commencement of the Top Ace series in 1973.  Joe also recognised the importance of getting handball into the Universities and Colleges that would, after all, be producing the teachers of the future.  The ‘Third Level Colleges Handball Council’ was set up under Joes guidance to promote competition among the colleges and Joe acted as secretary to this committee as well as persuading Guinness to sponsor the colleges trophy, and the GAA Third Level Colleges Council to provide solid silver medals for the winners.

Telefis Eireann cameras were focussed on handball for the first time on a sultry, overcast May evening in 1962 at the Crumlin alley.  It marked the end of a period of speculation as to when handball would find a place on Michael O’Hehir’s ‘Sports Desk’.  Noel Andrews who had played the game himself, interviewed Joe Lynch, Secretary of the Association, against the background of an exhibition game between the Dublin players Des Dillon and Paddy Munroe.  The picture shown on the black and white screens was exceptionally good and the way seemed to have been cleared for the regular screening of handball games.

 

Handball in Dublin in the sixties was very competitive.  Players like Des Dillon before his death, Jim Doyle, Mick Sullivan, Chubby Geary, Mick Hoare, Fintan Confrey and Joey Maher were very much to the fore.  Fintan Confrey was considered a great stylist and often predicted the score by which he would beat an opponent, which added to the excitement of watching his games.  He later tragically drowned while abroad.  Joey Maher, a Louth man, became World Champion in 1967.  Joey’s handball skills helped get him a job as a policeman in Canada, and because he was such a good player he always had to have his handball gear with him as a senior officer would often take him from his beat to play a game.  A story goes that, on a call out to an incident in a remote area during the winter, their patrol car skidded and hit a tree.  Soon after, a grizzly bear appeared and Joey leaned back to the back of the car and brought forward his handball gear.  His partner said there’s no point in putting on handball gear, you’ll never out-run the bear. I know said Joey, but I’ll out run you.

 

That medals were hard won in Dublin in the 1960’s, is indicated by the fact that Joey Maher who won every accolade in the game, always regretted that he had not received his doubles winners medal won with Mick Hoare, and a singles winners medal.  These he had not received because he had emigrated to Canada before the presentation.  By coincidence Mick Hoare had not received his either, as United Nations duty had called him to the Congo.  Their regrets ended with a surprise presentation to both players in 2000.

 

Through the 1960’s Sean Clerkin, then a young man in his mid twenties, set his sights, as chairman, to transform the sports playing people of the metropolis into a handball craving confraternity.  A look through some of the innovations in that period and in the 1970’s show how successful Sean was.

 

Lighting installed in ‘Old Alley’ in Croke Park - 1963

The winter of 1963 was a special occasion for the Dublin Board when the lighting in the old alley at Croke Park was switched on for the first time.  In a city of limited handball facilities this was a critical move and competitions could now be run off in late evenings and night times.  Thereafter, the alley became the Mecca of Dublin activity and any reference to it would not be complete without a tribute to the Gill family who held the key and handed it out, with a smile, to the steady stream of players who called at their home on Clonliffe Road each day.  Berni Gill himself played the game well into the early 1980’s.

Ater 1960 Dublin Provide 4 Presidents of the Irish Handball Council

 

It was significant that in the 1960’s and 70’s three people associated with Dublin handball became Presidents of the Irish Handball Council, and in 1990 another.

Rev. Fr. E.T. Neville served between 1962 and 1965.  He made a very significant contribution to handball by pioneering the construction of the first 40 x 20 roofed court in Ireland at the North Dublin village of Oldtown.  Nobody, at the time, could have envisaged the impact this venture would have on the development of the code over the following years.  Fr. Neville also made a major contribution to administration in a number of areas and was a member of the committee that built the new court in Croke Park.

Rev. Bro. B.O’Murchu, founder member of the Na Piarsaigh club and credited with an explosion of juvenile participation in the sport was based in the O’Connell Schools, and was President between 1968 and 1970.  He also served as IHC Cisteoir, and for many years served on the IHC Coaching Committee and was IHC delegate to the GAA Central Council.  He served on a GAA Commission, Development Committee and a Communications Committee.  Along with former Dublin referee Clem Foley, he also gave many years service to the Ceannaras Handball & Community Club management committee.

Joe Jennings, who also built his own handball court in Goatstown, was President from 1971 to 1975 and along with administrators such as Joe Lynch, Bro. O’Murchu, Liam Marren, Liam Doyle, Ray Doherty and Sean Clerkin and others, played a pivotal role in the development of the new glass walled alley that was built in Croke Park for the 1970 World Championships.  Joe who was known to be a man with a strong Nationalist outlook, and who felt strongly about the preservation of anything that might once have been threatened

by our former colonial masters, set down his own recollections in a book entitled ‘The Big Stone’.  In perusing through the first 15 pages or so I noted that most pages had an un-complimentary remark or two in regard to the said colonial masters.  I decided to check to whom did Joe dedicate the book and I wasn’t let down.  Joe had dedicated his book as follows:-  “To my father and mother I dedicate this small collection of memories …… , remembering that you both endured the humiliation of the occupation and exploitation of our country for so much longer. ….”.   It was the pleasure of this writer, then a student at UCD, to have played his first competitive game of handball in Dublin against the late Joe Jennings in 1974.

Niall Cahill, who had won the All Ireland junior softball doubles title in 1969 with Pat ‘Bat’ Masterson, an All-Ireland Senior 40x20 Inter Club title with Naomh Padraigh in 1974, and who also won many Dublin titles, became involved in the administrative side of the game at Dublin, Leinster Council, and National level.  Recognition of Niall's contributions came when he was elected Uachtaran, Comhairle Liathroid Laimhe na hEireann 1990 to 1993.

Sean Clerkin was instrumental in the formation of the Minor Board along with Rev. Bro. B.B. O’Murchu.  O’Murchu’s forte was in the promotion of juvenile handball and he was Chairman of the Minor board for many years.  At the same time his enthusiasm contributed in a large degree to the widespread promotion of the juvenile game, nationwide.  Indeed, the development of the game for young people in Dublin was one of the success stories of the sixties with Fr. Herlihy forming a club in Green Street.  From the time of the formation of the Minor Board right up to the 1980’s there was hardly a year went by when Dublin did not win an All-Ireland at juvenile level.  Many trophies were sponsored by companies such as Tayto and, as 1966 heralded the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, it was not surprising that Fianna Eireann provided a ‘Corn na Casca’ for the under-14 grades.

 

That schools and colleges were also answering the handball call during this period provided a healthy scenario.  There were many notable clashes between students representing such as Colaiste Mhuire, O’Connell Schools, Artane, Glasthule, Terenure College, St. Vincents, St. Michaels, Eoghan Ruadh, Good Counsel, St. Michans, St. Particks, Scoil Mhuire and Na Fianna.

 

Inter–county and All Ireland success followed when Macartan Brady won an All-Ireland Minor title in 1969 to supplement the one taken by Pat Murphy in 1967.  But, prior to that, Gerry O’Neill had won a Leinster title in 1964, to bridge a gap of twelve years, from the time Willie Lamb won one in 1952.

 

In the later years great credit for the promotion of the game among our youth must go to the late Seamus O’Reilly and to Michael MacCluskey who did trojan work from the 1970’s right through to the late 1990’s and both were very worthy recipients of the John Bosco award.  During that time also Nick Ryan, father of current Dublin players Fergal and Declan O’Riain, and Brendan Nicholl were ever present as invaluable officers of the Minor Board, and often bringing Dublin’s youth to far flung villages and towns to compete in Leinster and National competitions.

 

Currently the promotion of the game among our youth lies on the shoulders of ‘Black’ Pat Ryan, Fintan Brennan, and Frank and Cliona Daly of Na Fianna; Neville and Niall Farrelly, and Con Carr of O’Tooles; Julie Long, Maria McCarthy and Tom Lawson of St. Brigids; Padraigh Gaffney D.I.T., Eoin Kennedy D.C.U., Alan Pearson U.C.D., Billy McIlroy Portobello, with Jimmy Heffernan of Naomh Padraigh always obliging with coaching sessions.

 

John Bosco Awards

This award is given annually to the individual in Dublin who is deemed by the County Board to have made the greatest contribution to the development of a club.  It was sponsored by the late Gus Warren, from Oldtown who himself did tremendous work for juveniles and who was particularly associated with the Community Games movement and the other Cinderella of GAA games namely ‘Rounders’.  Recent recipients of this award have included, Michael McCluskey of the Minor Board; John Landers of Garda Club; Brendan O’Murchu of Rathmines; John Molloy, Vinny Farrelly, ‘Black’ Pat Ryan, Eamon O'Brien all of St. Malachys; Dick Kenneally, John Hoban, Jimmy Heffernan, Mick Fitzgerald, all of Naomh Padraigh; the late Seamus O’Reilly of St. Brigids; Mick Finnerty of Portabello; Frank and Cliona Daly of Na Fianna; Niall Farrelly of O’Tooles; Padraigh Gaffney of D.I.T.

 

In the 1960's three clubs, St.Michans, Na Piarsaigh and Naomh Padraigh were formed by people involved with the Dublin Minor Handball Board.          

 

St. Michans Club founded 1964

Green Street, famous for its law-court, has a famous handball court in the Corporation grounds facing Halston Street church.  In late 1964 Fr. C. O’Herlihy at an inaugural meeting in the school helped form the St. Michans Club, becoming President himself and supported by youthful administrators in Peter Rice, Pat Darcy and Phillip Duignan, who became county board chairman in the early 1970’s.  Many young players participating in Minor Board competitions came from this club such as the Domnigans Pat and Paul, Matthew and Eddie ‘Redser’ Williams, Paddy Munroe junior, the Whytes, O’Tooles, Quinns, Conlons and Farrellys. 

 

Na Piarsaigh Club​
As mentioned earlier the Na Piarsaigh Club was founded by Rev. Bro. B.B. O’Murchu, and interestingly among Brother O’Murchu’s objectives in setting up this club was to get ‘lapsed’ handball players back playing the game again.  It is fair to say that handball is indeed a very healthy addiction and among the many great players, lapsed and otherwise, who played for Na Piarsaigh were, Colman McKenna, Ray Graham, Vinny Farrelly, Tony Brown, Paul Lee, John Brady, Cecil Halpin, Pat Crossan and Larry O’Brien.
Naomh Padraigh Club founded 1960’s
Gerry O’Neill, mentioned earlier, was in fact the founder of the Naomh Padraigh Club and had the distinction of captaining his team to victory in the final of the Senior League at Croke Park in January 1966, to capture the Arthur Guinness Perpetual Cup and replicas for the first time.  It was a great occasion for Naomh Padraigh who, besides O’Neill, had outstanding players in Jim Bennett, Andy Byrne, Malachy Kane, Niall Cahill and Seamus Galligan.  Jim Bennett a famed Kilkenny hurler also served as county chairman for a year and Niall Cahill became president of the IHC from 1990 to 1993.  Other Naomh Padraigh players later to come to the fore included John Hoban famed referee, the O’Riains Fergal and Declan, Mick Enright, Dick Kenneally who served as county secretary, Jimmy Heffernan - Ceannaras chairman for many years, Tom Hurley, Macartan Brady, Neville Farrelly, who served as county vice-chairman, the Downey’s Ned, Richard and Eoin, Ian Griffin who won the World Mens C championship in 2000, the Fitzgeralds Jimmy, Mick and Tom - Jimmy became county board chairman in the middle 1980’s, Seamus Ahern, Fintan Price, Tom McNamara, Willie Grant, Vinny Baker (R.I.P.), Seamus Galligan, John Downey, Tom Earl, John O’Connor, Peter McTiernan, Colm Cronin, Ken Lynch, Eamon and Oliver Henry, Paul Hand former county assistant secretary, Con Murray who also served a stint as county chairman, Leonard Dillon, Tony Bennett, Tony Brown former county treasurer, and the Cash and Ward families including John, Ned and Martin. 

 

Most of us in the Golden Master age bracket and older will remember all the excitement of the 50th Anniversary Commemorations of the Easter Rising.  We were all taught either at our mothers knee or in our schools to be very proud of the men and women of 1916 that put us on the road to achieving our Independence as a nation.  Bulmer Hobson and Countess Markievicz and others had founded Fianna Eireann as a Gaelic alternative to Lord Robert Baden Powell's boy scouts and its members included Sean Heuston, Con Colbert and national organiser Liam Mellows.  Padraig Pearse, it was recently revealed, was approached by Baden Powell to write an Irish Handbook  for what was a British Colonial oriented Boys Scouts ..... talk about asking the wrong man.

After the War of Independence and the Treaty, Fianna Eireann continued in existence, and in 1966 it was to play a prominent part in the 1966 Easter Commemorations.  There was a Fianna Eireann member at every one of the planned actions that took place on that fateful Easter Monday in 1916.  Handball intended to pay its tribute to the men of '16 by holding a tournament and various schools competitions.  Both Sean Clerkin (RIP) and JJ Jennings (RIP) mentioned to me how proud many handball people were in 1966 that Fianna Eireann thought that a most fitting tribute they could make to their fallen comrades of 1916 was to donate a 'Corn na Casga' Cup for under 14 handball competition in Dublin.  Fianna Eireann itself was a nationalist youth organisiation for youths up to 17 years of age.

A friend of mine from Galway, then living in Vancouver, had once invited me to see his extensive collection of Irish Independence memorabilia that included the original script of our National Anthem and a half page of the original Proclamation.  I was a member of the Ireland Institute for Historical Studies so I was very keen to see his collection.  As he was putting some of the collection into the Adams/Mealey auction I decided to go along to the auction and I could not believe my eyes when I saw the Fianna Eireann Cup listed as item 293.   Like the Paddy Perry Wills Cigarette sports card the 'Corn na Casga' cup was something I had heard about; but no one knew where it was at the time that I was writing the Dublin handball history for publication in 2000.  It was now 2008 and here was the 'Corn na Casga' cup at the Adams and Mealey Independence Auction.  So, given that it had disappeared for many years, it certainly chose the right auction to make its come-back.

O'Brien collection

I stayed to bid for the Cup and to my surprise an auction house representative was also bidding on the Cup for an anonymous client and this put the bidding past the estimate.  But it was too important a piece of Dublin handball history to let go.  After I had bought the cup I was really looking forward to showing it to another great handballing friend of mine Dessie O'Brien who was like myself a Tipperary man of the strong nationalist tradition. Dessie when he was CEO at Tayto Crisps had always been willing to support Dublin handball when the call went out.  When I met Dessie in the Croke Park Community & Handball Centre great was my surprise to find out that he was actually the one and the same Deasun O'Briain of the Fianna Eireann GHQ Staff that had proposed to his GHQ

colleagues in 1966 that a fitting tribute to the fallen comrades of 1916 would be the donation of the 'Corn na Casga' to the Dublin Handball Board.  In 1963 Dessie was also on the committee that re-issued the Fianna Eireann handbook. Now that we have the 'Corn na Casga' cup back it would be nice to do something similar for the 2016 Easter Rising commemorations.

Below is a depiction I found on Youtube of the 1916 Rising taken from the Michael Collins film staring Liam Neeson.  Harry Boland who was a Chairman of the Dublin GAA County Board is also depicted in this film. 

After the Easter Rising the rebels were rounded up and sent to Frongoch. Another friend of mine, and one of the earliest members/handballers of the Handball and Community Centre in Croke Park, Sean O'Mahony wrote the book on Frongoch. Sean has been Treasurer for a few of years of the Dublin Old IRA 1916 - 1921 Committee.  Also members of the same committee are Croke Park Handball & Community ​Centre Management Committee members Cllr. Nial Ring, whose grand-uncle Liam O'Rinn did the official translation of our National Anthem into the Irish 'Amhran na bhFiann' and who, along with three of his brothers, was present at the GPO in 1916, and myself  

    

Eamon O'Brien whose grandfather Martin O'Dwyer along with Ben Hickey were the first two men arrested in South Tipperary when martial law was declared as the War of Independence commenced with the Soloheadbeg ambush, and who were only released after a 20-day hunger strike.

The provision of the glass court in Croke Park also gave the capital city a much needed facility, and while it was heavily subsidised by the GAA, the Department of Education, Dublin Corporation and many Dublin based companies including Shell & BP, Sisks, AIB, Guinness, Dunlop, Bank of Ireland, Bord Failte, B&I Lines, Readymix, Coca Cola, Gilbeys, and O’Neills Sports also provided assistance and sponsorship. 

Membership of this club included many from the local area, and indeed not all of the handball enthusiasts who joined were attached to any specific Dublin handball club.  Given the sponsorship from the banks referred to above, it was not surprising that many bankers became members and included such as John O’Mahony (IBI) who later published a book on ‘Frongoch’ –the Irish prisoner of war camp in Wales, post 1916, Mick Geraghty – Chief Dealer – Bank Of Ireland, Damian Ward and Pat Giles – Trustee Department IBI, Dermot Desmond IBI, and later to become one of Ireland’s greatest entrepreneurs, and who was said to have a great overhand shot.  Members from AIB included Lynham Treanor and Nicky Hunt.

Irish President Eamon De Valera opens 60x30 Glass Handball Court in Croke Park – 1970

 

Coincidentally, the first three of the above Handball Presidents mentioned earlier featured prominently on the committee that was set up to build the new glass alley in Croke Park (see picture of committee). The official opening of the Glass Handball Court to launch the 1970 World Handball Champioship event was performed by his Excellency, the late President, Eamon De Valera.  This event along with the capacity crowds at the games, the input of R.T.E. and the televising of a handball competition for the first time were highlights for handball as the 70’s dawned.  How appropriate it was that Eamon De Valera performed the official opening as, interestingly, Tim Pat Coogan, in his book on De Valera, brought to light the fact that De Valera played handball while in Lincoln Jail and also played with Austin Stack while in jail in Arbour Hill.  Stack noted, in his diary on the 26th of April 1924, that  ‘Dev beat me decisively a couple of times’  at handball.  That, even in those days, handball was considered as ‘a game for all’, not to mention the accomodating nature of the prison regime in Arbour Hill, is indicated by the fact that according to Coogan “one of the lieutenants guarding the prisoners made up a foursome for strenuous handball matches with de Valera, Keegan and Stack”.

1969:  Eamon De Valera reviews the plans for the new Handball & Community Centre.  Along with Joe Lynch, Liam Marren and Ray Doherty also included in the picture are three Dublin handballers that became president of the Irish Handball Council namely Fr. Neville

JJ Jennings, and An Br. C O'Murchu.

      60 X 30 Glass Court Croke Park

New Croke Park Court Entrance

Muhammad Ali trained for a week at the new Croke Park

Community & Handball Centre in 1971

​Not many people know that when Muhammed Ali fought his World Championship fight in Croke Park, in the 70’s, that it was in the Glass Alley in Croke Park that he did all of his training in the days immediately before the bout and we are told that he became friends with Dublin handballer and successful businessman Liam Marren.  And such a showman was Ali that he also had a go at the handball and played one or two of the Dublin lads including Raphael Walsh.  Needless to say those were bouts that he did not win while here. 

 

Formation of the Irish Ladies Handball Council – 1970


 

 

The genesis for the formation of this body can be traced back to a number of individuals and to a club that has since its formation in 1955, with trustees such as Dermot McNulty and Sean Clerkin, sought always to promote all of the ideals for which the GAA was founded.  It began at the headquarters of the Na Fianna G.A.A. Club in Mobhi Road at the annual Feile in June, 1970.  A handball competition for women was included in the schedule of events and, while the standard was not very high, the enthusiasm shown by the participants was the cue for future developments.  Subsequently, the same club sponsored an open tournament that was very successful and the organisers of the World Championships in 1970 recognised the emerging movement by inviting some of the girls to participate in exhibition games.  The inevitable happened and even the handful of dissenting men, who abhorred the entry of women into their preserve, did not bat an eye-lid, when the Irish Ladies Handball Council was formed in July, 1970.

 

The ladies can rightly claim to have been playing the game for years.   We have read about the popularity of the game in Greece where it was played extensively on the occasion of the first Olympic Games, held there about 500 years after the establishment of the Tailteann Games.  Readers of Homer {and there are many; whether they play handball or not is open to question} will recollect that he made reference to a Princess, named Anagalla, who distinguished herself as a player. She also proved her capabilities as a coach for the young ladies in her castle. 

 

Having read the above and emerging from the mists of the past, and the scourge of drink, and returning to Dublin, we recall that the late Jack Fagan, who won his first medal at the game well over a century ago, taught his daughter Beatrice, to play against a gable-end, near their home in the Aughrim Street area.  After the turn of the century, there were a number of girls who distinguished themselves at the code, Nano Dorrington from the Francis Street district could match most of the male players, while Katie Parker ruled the roost in the Whitefriar Street area.  Mary Clarke of Green Street was possibly the most colourful player of them all.  She could hold her own with any of the men and liked nothing better than a good doubles game, for a side stake with such celebrities as Larry Roe and Jack Leonard, the famous local player with the crutch.

 

It is also interesting to note that Eamonn Ceannt’s sister, Eileen was a fine player, and could hold her own with any of the police players on the Ardee Alley, attached to the barracks, where her father resided.

 

From the establishment of the Ladies Handball Council in 1970, and coming from the same area as Mary Clarke, Dublin player Mavis O’Toole became the dominant national player well in to the mid 1980’s.  Mavis, who like Mary Clarke could hold her own in a game of doubles with the men, was to represent her country on many American tours and in many exhibition games.  She started playing in Green Street and later joined Na Fianna.  Mavis, who teamed up with Liz Nicholl in doubles won over 20 Senior All-Ireland titles.  In achieving another major success in the code of Racquetball, Mavis O’Toole demonstrated the all round benefits of handball over other sports.  The Racquetball Association, in the early 1980’s,  decided to hold trials to decide one place on the Irish team to travel to the World Championships in the USA.  Mavis, who did not play the game decided to try her hand and entered the trials.  In a thrilling final she defeated Mary Gheney, the legendary Cork camogie goalkeeper and Irish hockey goalkeeper for many years, and Mavis then went on to achieve a third place doubles finish at the World Championship.

 

The advent of 40x20, being a smaller court, also heralded the arrival of more ladies into the sport.  Soon other great Dublin ladies were queuing up to take over from Mavis O’Toole and these included the Hall sisters Geraldine and Elizabeth, and Susan Carey.  These ladies achieved the ultimate success when in 1986, at the World championships in Kelowna, Canada, Susan and Elizabeth, won the senior ladies doubles title and Susan won the singles.  At the same time, although in the twilight of her handball career, and while cheering her friends on to victory in the World competitions, Mavis O’Toole also annexed the Canadian Ladies championship. 

 

Ladies Handball Administrators from Dublin

No mention of ladies handball would be complete without mentioning administrators of the Irish Ladies Handball Council who have come from Dublin clubs.  In the early years Stasia and Sean Clerkin of Na Fianna did tremendous work to help get the organisation off the ground.  Anne Flynn from Oldtown put in a phenomenal effort on the Ladies Council, and was President for many years.  Christy Clarke and Seamus O’Reilly gave invaluable assistance.  Anne Cody and Attracta Egan filled the post of secretary at various times.  In recent years Bridin Ui Mhaolagain and her husband Aidan have been very much to the fore in the promotion of the ladies game and Bridin was instrumental in having ladies handball integrated at administrative level with the IHC.  Bridin herself a great camogie stalwart, and former President of the Camogie Association, has served as President of the Ladies Council for many years and been recognised for her contribution at the Waterford Crystal National Handball awards.  When not caught up in administration Bridin has also won an All Ireland anseo is ansiud.

Ladies Handball Champions from Dublin

Following on this success Dublin produced many more lady players who competed at National and International level.  Between 1970 and 1983 there were three clubs producing lady players namely Na Fianna, Oldtown and Eoghan Rua. The following players all won All-Irelands at various levels for their clubs during this period. Na Fianna’s winners included Mavis O’Toole, Liz Nicholl, E. Shannon, Marie Deignan, B. Foy, B. McAnaney,  E. Joyce,  P. Kavanagh, A. Henehan, A. Sherlock, D. O’Shea, G. Grey, M. Lynch,  P. Collum, D. Doyle, M. Fitzgerald and Ann Cody, Cliona Nic Ionraic, S. Henderson, A. Kelly, N. O’Boyle, N. Coleman, B. Kelly, Bridin Ui Mhaolagain.  Oldtown’s winners included H. and M. Flynn, C. Monks, Geraldine and Liz. Hall, K. Finn, H. McCabe, P. Hynes, C. Byrne, A. McArdle, A. Byrne, M. Meehan, R. Hogan, M. McKeever, A. Sheridan, A. Barker, A. Monks, J. Mulvaney, M. Kelly, C. O’Brien, J. O’Brien,  M. O’Brien, C. Kelly.  Eoghan Rua’s winners included such as Susan Carey, L. Cox, J. McDermott,  B. McAneney, E. Doyle, V. Harris, B. Murphy, P. Keogh,  M. Mullins, J. Byrne.

Oldtown and Na Fianna have also been winners of the Ladies Senior Team Champioships.

 

Later through the great dedication of Seamus O’Reilly, St. Brigids also featured prominently in ladies handball.  Ladies such as Sabrina Hughes, Antoinette Long, Susanne Dempsy, Suzanne Kavanagh, Claire Devlin, Adrienne Flemming, Susan Ennis, Maria McCarthy and Julie Long achieved notable success for the club.  Julie Long dominated both National and USHA (United States Handball Association) competitions in her age group from 1995 to 1998.  Other ladies who featured for St. Brigids have included Sinead Sweeney, Patricia Brown, Orla McCarthy, Sharon Noonan, Tanya Ennis, Audrey McCormack, Idel Rice, Tracy Hutchinson, Joanne Devlin, and Catriona McLoughlin.  It is encouraging to note that St. Brigids ladies and the handball players in general are now getting great support and encouragement from the current committee and the club premises manager Mick Sweeney. 


Another ladies club was founded by Bridin Ui Mhaolagain.  This club was known as the Cumann Na Naomh Club based in Glasnevin and was prominent in the early to mid nineties.

In the early years ladies handball also featured in a 'Women in Sport' newspaper coverage.

.​

The World Handball Championships in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada 1985

A Watershed - Irish (Dublin) Ladies Win All The Major Titles

Represented a high point in Irish Ladies international handball success.  Sue Carey (Dublin) won both the World Senior Ladies open singles and the doubles with partner Liz Hall (Dublin).  Mavis O'Toole (Dublin), then in the twilight of her handball career, annexed the Canadian Open singles and along with her partner Mary Connolly from Belfast almost pulled off a shock victory in the World Open semi-final Senior doubles bringing that game to a tie-breaker.

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