History being lost as alleys fade from view

IT WASN’T a hugely significant handball tournament but that didn’t matter to the two NFL stars who had travelled all the way to Seattle to lend their support to Eric Plummer in January, 2004.

Six thousand miles from the birthplace of Cavan’s Paul Brady, Jake Plummer, then a quarterback at the Denver Broncos, was cheering on his brother alongside his former team-mate at Arizona State and the Arizona Cardinals, Pat Tillman.

Tillman had actually quit the NFL in the spring of 2002 to join the army, caught up in the wave of patriotism sparked by 9/11. That night in Seattle, he was on leave from Afghanistan and was catching up with his buddy from college Saturdays and pro football Sundays. Three months later, he was killed by ‘friendly fire’.

At Tillman’s funeral service, Jake Plummer told mourners that to really honour their fallen friend, they should follow his advice when mulling over a dream: “Get off your ass and do it.”

So in 2007, despite a $5.3m offer to play a season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 32-year-old Plummer walked away from the NFL to pursue his handball aspirations.

And thus the annual “Plummer Family Helluva Handball Bash” was born. Formerly known as “Jake Plummer’s Annual Halloween Handball Bash”, the competition draws top handball professionals to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and is growing by the year.

I’ve long wanted to get my head around the ever increasing popularity of handball (and its offshoots) in the US since it first arrived with Irish immigrants in the late 19th century. Why is it that if you hop off the subway in Greenwich Village at the corner of Sixth Avenue and West Third, a half-block away from New York’s legendary Blue Note jazz bar, there will always be a game of handball in progress?

Then two things popped up around the same time: a Sports Illustrated feature about the strange case of Jake Plummer and an exhibition called “Court” which had just begun at the Irish Arts Centre up in Hell’s Kitchen.

Dublin-born visual artist Andrew Duggan, who lives in West Kerry, rediscovered his interest in the handball alley (first aroused by visits to Mayo) when during a stint in Queens, NY in 2005/06, he began to notice the prevalence of handball courts around the five boroughs.

“My partner and photographer Siobhán Dempsey began photographing handball players in Battery Park City (the southern tip of Lower Manhattan),” Duggan told me last week.

“She befriended a player named Carson Tsang (from Hong Kong) who actually taught Robert De Niro to play handball for a film he was dong with Philip Seymour Hoffman called ‘Flawless’.

“Siobhán’s photographs of Carson and others playing handball gave a unique and new insight to the sport.

The game and the players, through her lens, looked choreographed. They looked like dancers on a cast concrete stage. Siobhán’s photographs struck me so much that I started to think about the distant abandoned alleys back home and their relationship with the courts of New York City.”

Duggan points to the clandestine and aspirational qualities of the rural handball alley, a place to meet up on summer evenings where boys and girls alike sought to navigate the strict youthful hierarchy.

Not to mention the fact that most of the structures sprang up during a boom period either side of independence and on into the first few years of the fledgling state.

Then there was that other less savoury manifestation of seeking out a better life: emigration.

“It has been well documented how language, accent, creed, music and dance was brought over to the new world,” Duggan points out. “But here was something different: travelling with the Irish was a physical relationship to a particular architectural space. It was the game of handball which was brought over but it was also a method of how a people congregated, gathered and met independently.

“A method of social interaction that now flourishes in New York and, in comparison, is defunct in Ireland.”

Duggan sent me in the direction of irishhandballalley.com — a website dedicated to documenting the rapidly disappearing handball alleys in rural Ireland. I found my old hangout at Coláiste na Rinne in the West Waterford Gaeltacht where I served a couple of enjoyable prison sentences as a 13-and 14-year-old. Memories flooded back.

But it isn’t all pleasant viewing. The pictures of soon-to-be (if not already) demolished courts offer yet another sobering critique of the subservience of history to a progress that is now laughable.

Dilapidated though they may be, I’m not sure I’d have the heart to tell Jake Plummer about how the sport he came to love is beginning to lose some of its soul.

Contact: john.w.riordan@gmail.com; Twitter: @JohnWRiordan

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