Tributes have poured in for Michael ‘Ducksie’ Walsh following the sudden passing of handball’s greatest icon yesterday.

The Kilkenny legend took ill on the way home from a tournament in Kingscourt, Cavan last Saturday and his condition deteriorated on Tuesday before he died, surrounded by his family, at 1.40pm yesterday in Beaumont Hospital.

GAA Handball National Manager John Kelly summed up the mood when he stated Walsh was “one in a million, a tremendous competitor, a sportsman par excellence and an iconic figure whose loss has left the entire handball community numb with grief.”

While ‘Ducksie’ hadn’t won a senior championship medal since 2001, he remained, at 50 years of age, at the very peak of the game. His was an extraordinary sporting life. A fortnight before his death, he defeated Dublin’s Eoin Kennedy, the 2014 All-Ireland champion, in the final of the prestigious Irish Nationals and in the recently-released official Irish rankings, he was at number two.

His career was remarkable, especially given he was a prodigy from the first time he played the game, as a nine-year-old on the old, outdoor corporation courts in ‘The Butts’, Kilkenny City, where he grew up.

Only the elite handballers earn their passage to senior ranks; after gobbling up every underage title in the game, Walsh won the minor and junior All-Irelands in 1984 to earn his ticket to the top table. The following year, at 19, he became the youngest player to win the All-Ireland 60x30 Senior Singles title and he was untouchable for the following 13 seasons, smashing every record in the game.

And even when he was finally toppled in 1998, by Meath’s Walter O’Connor, Walsh came back for more, winning three-in-a-row. In the meantime, he had dominated the doubles court, too, winning 16 senior titles in the big and small alleys alongside the likes of Eugene Downey and hurling star DJ Carey.

He finished his career with an unprecedented 38 All-Ireland senior medals and hundreds of tournament wins as well as successful trips to the United States, Canada and Australia.

Off the court, Walsh fought his own demons, successfully. He struggled with alcoholism as his days as number one seemed to be winding down and, in 2001, he checked into the Aiséirí Centre in Tipperary. He became sober and later raised in excess of €100,000 for charity.

As part of his recovery, he re-dedicated himself to the game, with the result that he dominated the Masters grades while continuing to reach senior semi-finals and finals with regularity. He trained daily, often for over two hours at a stretch, and his conditioning and will to win was legendary.

Kennedy took his mantle in 2002 but Walsh, incredibly, beat the great Dubliner in the pre-championship Nationals tournament in late July.

“He was my handball hero growing up,” Eoin told The Irish Examiner. “I watched him countless times and then got to play him in multiple finals. He was the perfect combination of being incredibly skilful and determined. He lived and breathed the game, it totally consumed him. His enthusiasm for playing and coaching was evident right to the end. He’ll be a huge loss to handball – it’s just a terrible shock.” World champion Paul Brady concurred.

“Ducksie was the greatest all-round Irish player in history. He paved the way for my generation, he raised the bar in terms of what can be achieved. All of handball is devastated ,” said Brady.


Lifestyle

These are the nail hues to choose this season, says Katie Wright.Perfectly polished: 5 autumn/winter nail trends you’ll actually want to wear

This early 19th-century table is one of a number of Irish lots at Sotheby’s Style, Furniture and Ceramics sale in New York on Thursday (October 24).Irish lots poised to add bite to Big Apple sale

Something for all at Hegarty’s auction in Bandon, says Des O’SullivanSomething for all at Hegarty’s auction in Bandon

Des O’Sullivan gives a preview of the Irish selection on offer at two sales in DublinPreview of the Irish selection on offer at two sales in Dublin

More From The Irish Examiner