The challenger was 19-year-old Oliver Drew from Nicholas Hill in Evergreen. He had sailed out of Cork in February and prepared for the contest by overwhelming local players in warm-ups, occasionally defeating two of them at a time with a flourish that wowed the watching Americans.
A century ago, professional handball was pretty similar to boxing in the way it conducted affairs. Challenges would be issued by the various claimants to a significant title, financial stakes would be made — often augmented by wealthy backers — and the world’s finest players sailed over and back the Atlantic Ocean to prove their worth. From Brooklyn to Jersey City to Manhattan, the finest courts around New York were owned by Irish immigrants and these canny promoters tried to fuel the competition between the best locals and the boys back home. In Cork, Basques from Spain used to arrive in the city looking for matches.
There was money to be made at it. Drew won the international championship title in 1905, pocketing $1,500, from Francois Ordozgoili, champion of France and Spain, at Tarrant’s Court in New Jersey. That was handy money back when the average annual wage in America was just over $800. Although we’ve kept a weather eye on the participation of Cork’s Tony Healy and Cavan’s Paul Brady on the American professional circuit in the last couple of years, Ireland’s illustrious history in the sport came to mind again this past week with the various stories emanating from the U.S. National Handball Junior Championships in Des Moines, Iowa.
A group of Irish boys and girls, ranging in age from 9 to 19, and hailing from the four corners of the island, traveled to the American Midwest over the holidays and covered themselves in glory. Kerry’s Maria Daly won two titles. Robert McCarthy, from Mullingar, took the Boys 17-and-Under. Caolan Daly, from Carrickmore in Tyrone, won the 13-and-Under. And Wicklow’s Keith Kavanagh collected the 11-and-Under. Not to mention Irish competitors filled three of the four slots in the semifinals of the Boys 19-and-Under.
Dismiss it as small beer if you like, but Ireland so rarely gets any genuine international success these times (well, at least without the whiff of a drug scandal coming soon after) that this is quite an achievement. Forget that handball has long since been the GAA’s neglected third sport, the country’s forgotten national game. This was an instance when Irish teenagers went out, measured themselves against their peers from all over the U.S., and emerged with so much credit.
Their achievements only served to remind us too of the pitiful way that handball was allowed to drift off the map in recent decades. To understand the place it once held in Irish society, you need do no more than open your eyes the next time you are driving through rural Ireland. Get off the bypasses, take in a few towns and villages, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single one without a ball alley. Of course, discovering one that isn’t overgrown with weeds and generally in disrepair is quite a task too. Inevitably, some of them will be converted into houses pretty soon.
These alleys were more than just excellent amenities in a country with a pretty cavalier attitude to constructing sports facilities of any kind. In some towns, people of a certain age recount yarns of memorable trad music sessions held in the open air in the handball alley, the acoustics of the venue adding a certain flavor to the tunes. This wasn’t the only contribution they made to rural life, either.
As has been detailed most evocatively by Justin McCarthy in his autobiography of a couple of years ago, the handball alley at Rochestown College in Cork was where he honed his hurling skills and worked on his game. He wasn’t alone in that pursuit. Thousands of other hurlers used alleys all over Ireland in similar fashion, and in recent years, more than one GAA club with no handball facilities considered building an outdoor wall to replicate the sort of training available in the alleys.
Even those of us not from rural Ireland but who came of age in the ’70s have fond memories of the classic RTE handball program “Top Ace.” This pitted the best Irish players against American visitors and was considered compulsive viewing by sports fans. Admittedly, it was thought compulsive at a time when most of us had only one channel on the television and computers weren’t yet home entertainment systems.
Perhaps the victories of the various Irish teenagers in Des Moines may yet have a long-term impact. Surely, a few of those boys have ambitions to follow Healy and Brady into the pro ranks pretty soon. And who knows, maybe An Taisce might slap a preservation order on a few of the disintegrating outdoor handball alleys around the place. Although Tom McElligott wrote a magnificent history of the sport 20 years ago, it would be no harm at all to try to keep this sport’s past alive in the folk memory.
And in case you are wondering, Egan and Drew put on quite a show for the crowd in Jersey that day 103 years ago. After seven games of the best-of-15 contest, the Corkman led by 4-3. Far slimmer than his physically impressive opponent, Drew used his speed and agility around the court to great advantage. The remaining games were scheduled to take place back in Cork as per the contract agreed, but when Egan wouldn’t hand over the gate receipts to Drew in Jersey, a row broke out and the match was never finished. I did warn it was like professional boxing.