A final serve for an iconic venue in Irish handball

At one time, there were anything up to 1,500 of them, dotted around the country.

A final serve for an iconic venue in Irish handball

At one time, there were anything up to 1,500 of them, dotted around the country.

At crossroads, riverbanks, on common ground, in the yards of barracks, schools and seminaries, ball alleys were stamped on the landscape.

The handball tradition reaches back centuries but from the early 1920s on, when the sport came under the auspices of the GAA, there was a ball-alley building boom.

By the 1960s, there were tens of thousands of players.

And when, at the end of that decade, a magnificent new state-of-the-art facilty was constructed at Croke Park, handball seemed to set to cross over to the mainstream.

In an era when the majority of alleys were basic, uncovered outdoor structures, the court at Croke Park — Ceannáras — was almost space-age in its vision.

Three of the walls were made of glass and, outside, there was seating for over 1,000 spectators.

“At the time, we couldn’t believe our eyes, going into play handball in a court with three glass walls and with such a crowd,” recalls Wexford’s Dick Lyng, a three-time All-Ireland Senior Singles champion during that golden era.

Lyng would win the first-ever final played in the new centre, the Open Doubles at the 1970 World Championships, along with partner Seamus Buggy. Buggy had learned the game on an old stone outdoor court at Clonard outside Wexford town.

The contrast with Croker, under the bright lights and before such a crowd of spectators, could have not have been starker.

The complex had to be finished for the opening night of the Worlds, which ran from a Monday to a Saturday in October of that year and it was, just about — it was reported that the plaster on one exterior wall was still drying as the fans took their seats for the official opening, performed by President Éamon de Valera.

“The World Championships was a massive deal. The games were on for a week. It opened with Ireland versus Canada, USA versus Canada, Mexico versus Australia and then it alternated,” recalls Buggy.

“There used to be between 1,200 and 1,500 people there, they came from all over Ireland for it.

I never minded the glass one bit, I used to love playing in it. Fellas would get this thing into their head that they weren’t fit to play in it but it was a great court.

When Lyng thinks back on that groundbreaking tournament, it’s the crowds and atmosphere which first springs to mind.

“There was a huge crowd there the night of the World Championship finals,” Lyng smiles.

“It was packed. You’d be roasting inside the alley and you’d look out and there would be a fella with a pint of something. And in the alley, your tongue would be out! Don’t get me wrong, it was a big thing.

"There was a homecoming, we got a big reception from Wexford County Council. It was huge, there was great excitement around it. But it was the occasion moreso than anything.”

On the night after that doubles final, two of the sport’s all-time greats, Pat Kirby of Clare and Louth’s Joey Maher, would contest the Singles final.

The indomitable Kirby, representing the United States, won in straight games before a full house again. The entire event was an unqualified success.

Handball was having ‘a moment’ and suddenly it appeared that anything was possible.

Enter, then, Mick Dunne. The renowned Gaelic games scribe and RTÉ broadcaster was a handball fanatic and very friendly with the top players, including Lyng, with whom he spent time with on an All-Stars trip to San Francisco.

Off the back of the feelgood factor engendered by the new court, Dunne spoke to an ally, Michael O’Carroll, in Montrose and together, they devised Top Ace, a made-for-television handball competition.

The series, broadcast in colour, was highly innovative. Traditional 21-point games were ditched in favour ofa timed format and the old black ball was replacedby a TV-friendly red version, made by Dunlop.

The event was filmed at Croke Park after two days and screened over seven weeks, hitting the screens for the first time on February 7, 1973.

A 15 inch x 15 inch glass panel in the front wall allowed for a new camera angle and the quality of the coverage was a revelation. The series opened to rave reviews in the newspapers.

The Irish Press reckoned it would “acquire a widespread enthusiastic following” and would revolutionise the sport in this country with “an inevitable influx of new players into the ballcourts of Ireland”.

“Viewer reaction was so favourable that RTÉ Head of Sport, Fred Cogley, has already decided that the tournament will be slotted in as an annual part of the station’s sport schedule,”reported the Irish Independent.

The game was at its zenith, with 1,240 players entering the national Gael Linn competition that year. Handball surfed a wave and the greatest superstar of them all was yet to arrive on the scene.

In Lyng’s last match, at 40, he played a young gunslinger from Kilkenny called Michael ‘Ducksy’ Walsh in Clonmel.

Walsh, half his age, won and would go on to smash every record in the game.

An unprecedented era of dominance began. After his breakthrough in 1985, Walsh would win another dozen titles in succession.

He lost once in 1998 before adding three more. The Singles final would be played the night before the All-Ireland hurling decider; Kilkenny followers turned out in their droves and Walsh, more than any other player, became synonymous with handball in Croke Park.

“It was a great place, there was an aura about it,” says Cavan’s Michael Finnegan, who won a record number of minor titles there.

“People have often told me that they used to come up to Dublin for All-Ireland final weekend and they’d either go to the handball at Croke Park or the greyhound racing at Shelbourne Park the night before.

“They were people who were not involved in handball but they knew it was a great night, plus you would have some GAA officials there and well-known GAA people,dignitaries and sponsors, and there was always a chance maybe of getting a ticket for the match the next day.

All those little things fed into the excitement. Ducksy was in his prime and had huge support and other lads were desperate to beat him. It was some atmosphere.

Walsh’s run had to end somewhere. In 2001, Eoin Kennedy, a kid from the St Brigid’s club in Blanchardstown, emerged to take the throne.

“I started going in the late ’80s and there were some great games and great occasions. You had Ducksy and Walter [O’Connor] going at it and the Artane Boys Band used to be there and would help to create an unbelievable atmosphere,” recalled Kennedy this week.

The Cat with the sharpest claws was taken down on a night like no other. The place was wedged and everyone knew, the guard had changed.

“They were standing in the hallways and on the stairs. You literally couldn’t have gotten anyone else in. It was unbelievable,” recalls Kennedy.

Kennedy went on to dominate for the rest of the decade, going undefeated from ’04 to ‘09 before being usurped by now long-time rival Robbie McCarthy. But by then, the iconic venue’s lustre had faded.

A long-running dispute, which took over a decade to resolve, had seen finals moved out of Croke Park and McCarthy won most of his seven titles elsewhere. When they eventually returned, capacity was limited and the place had suffered from a lack of investment.

This evening, the walls will go silent again at some point after McCarthy and Kennedy — 40, now, and chasing just one more — finish up in the final Singles decider to take place in handball’s big house.

A new facility around the corner is nearing completion and hopes are high that it will herald a new dawn for the game, just as the opening of the original complex did 49 years ago.

And if handball history tells us anything, it’s that the next Ducksy, Lyng, or Kirby just might be watching from the gallery tonight, too.

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