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History of Monaghan Handball

The History of Co. Monaghan Handball
By Austin McKenna

History

It is well known that handball is one of the oldest of Irish pastimes. In fact the earliest record of handball in Ireland, is depicted in a painting by John Nixon of 1785, of handball being played in Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan. Ball courts of the last century differed very much from each other and would be unacceptable for present day games. While the ball generally used was the hardball, rules differed from one locality to the next and since the man with service had the choice of ball, it was a big advantage to be able to make your own. Service was taken from a designated spot on the alley, called the “tossing stone”, and strength was very important since the courts were mainly three walled.

While the G.A.A. Congress in 1886 laid down the regulation size for ball courts, it was not until 1924 that a separate body called the “Irish Amateur Handball Association” was formed. This led to the first All-Ireland series in 1925 in Senior Softball and Hardball. Junior championships commenced in 1928 and minor doubles were added in 1938.

Background

In the 1950’s and 60’s handball in the county was linked to a few areas and clubs, Ashburton, Bawn, Ballybay, Clones, Clara, and Monaghan Town. Players like Michael McHugh, the Raeburn brothers, Seamus McCabe R.I.P. and the McGovern brothers, Gerry Moran and the Hanley brothers come to mind. The courts were all open courts with limited viewing and no dressing rooms, toilets or other social facilities. Each of the courts above had a small group of 10 to 20 players who were enthusiasts for the game. Otherwise the game had a limited following. Their links with the G.A.A. in the county were quite tenuous and administration at club and county level was weak and spasmodic. People like Paddy McElroy, Liam McCabe, Liam Hanley, Michael Markey R.I.P., Gerry Cumiskey did their utmost to maintain an organisation at club and county level.

Organisation at provincial level was equally spasmodic and largely seasonal, related to the open courts and the vagaries of the Irish weather. The supply of good quality balls was also a regular problem with a lot of experimentation going on by Dunlops. Hardball was played occasionally mainly in clones with Seamus McCabe being the chief exponent who competed at the highest level nationally.

However the capacity of people to think beyond their own enjoyment of the game to the development of the game in terms of court development, covered facilities, dressing rooms, toilets, coaching, organisation and promotion was limited. And as at many levels of life, personal and club rivalries dominated over the ability to think and combine at county, provincial, national and international level. What was happening at handball was typical of attitudes prevalent at most levels of Irish society in the 50’s and early 60’s where vision, progress, development, management and organisational skills were scarce and the struggle for survival dominated and emigration flourished. There was little travel and little exposure to good developments and good models of court. Organisational developments were beginning to take place in other parts of the country and abroad in America.

Court Developments – Prior 1960

In the 1920’s a three wall court was constructed in Ashburton and two adjoining courts were built on Clara st., Clones around the same time. A three wall court was built, in 1927 on the grounds of St. Davnet’s. Then in 1932 another three wall court was constructed in the Bawn area.

Court Developments – Since 1960

In the mid 60’s four new open courts were built in St. Macartan’s College at the direction of Bishop O’Callaghan who was concerned to develop recreation facilities for the students. The president Canon Molloy directed the work and it is interesting that in the 40’s he was secretary of Bawn Handball club when they built their court. He kept records of fund-raising events and building expenses in the early years. Students from the college began to dominate at Ulster College’s level but faced a huge difference of standards when they competed at national level. Many students throughout the county got an experience of playing the game. There was still little or no base of good quality competition, play, or facilities at club or county level.

The late Seamus McCabe of Clones won four All Ireland titles during this decade and early 70’s. In 1962 he took his first title in a thrilling struggle in Junior Softball Singles with the legendary Mickey Walshe of Mayo. Walsh led 20-14 in the final game and was tossing for the match. McCabe’s return was soft (darkness was falling) and thinking to outwit his opponent, Walsh hit the ball low and hard to McCabe’s strong hand. Seamus retrieved and killed the ball and went on to toss seven aces in a row to take this his first title. McCabe took a pair of Senior Softball Singles titles in 1966 and 1967 but was stopped in subsequent years by the great Joey Maher. Some people claimed that McCabe was a better hardballer than softballer and he had some epic games with Peader McGee of Mayo and Paddy Hickey of Tipperary, yet he never managed to take a singles title. He did however succeed in Senior Doubles in partnership with Lewis Gilmore in 1970.

1970’s

The 70’s saw the breakthrough of two players, Liam Mc Govern and Anthony Cadden R.I.P. to win the All Ireland Colleges senior doubles in impressive fashion for St. Macartan’s. They owed much to practice and competition in Loughmacrory, Co.Tyrone with top players there and where the covered court resembled conditions similar to the new glass court in Croke Park.

Fr. Sean Nolan was the driving force for handball in St. Macartan’s during this period and he had the vision to roof the four courts, two 60×30 & two 40×20, at St. Macartan’s college in the mid 70’s. Players and followers of the game got first hand experience of handball as an all year round sport and attractions of the 40×20 game took off. The benefits of the glass back walls became obvious with the increase of players and spectators. Around this time, Fr Nolan became County Chairperson of the Handball board and later became Ulster Handball Chairperson.

Under the promptings of Joe Lynch R.I.P., administrator of the Irish Handball Council, guidance in club and county administration, covered courts and related developments. With promotion of the American 40x 20 game and the coaching of players was introduced in the county and at provincial level. Representatives from the county began to attend summer coaching camps in Gormanstown College and training courses in administration was delivered.

There was a revival of interest in Ashburton, Bawn and Clara by Gerry Cummiskey, Seamus McGeough and Michael McCarron with players like James Woods and P.J Hatzer, Michael McCarron and Seamus Connolly emerging. A group of players from Clara and Monaghan began to develop the 40×20 game further. A small group in Clones took up this challenge also but the development and promotion within other parts of the County had still to be taken up.

More players and officials entered clubs, county competitions and attended the annual national coaching courses promoted by Joe Lynch R.I.P. They got first hand experience of good planning, administration and management from other clubs and counties throughout the country and from the development of the game in the U.S.A. Ideas and plans began to germinate in the minds of many throughout the county. A wider base of clubs, courts, facilities, players and administration was needed.

The county board officials were getting good interest and support at this stage from the G.A.A. at county and provincial level. They realised that a major breakthrough was needed outside the range of existing clubs.

Two movements coincided to facilitate a significant expansion of the game in the county. In the mid 70’s under President Dr Con Murphy saw an extremely well thought out, comprehensive and well executed plan for the development of the G.A.A. at club, county, provincial and national level. The county was very fortunate to have a very able administrator in place at this time and who went on to be the President of the Association in 1999 Sean Mac Thaidhg.

In the county they picked up and promoted the whole Club Development Programme. These programmes gave an outline of the potential and range of club activities and facilities and the importance of good management and coaching. Clubs through the county began to assess where they were, where they could go and how to get the highest standards.

At the same time, the Co. Handball Board, as part of the National Sport for All week in 1975, launched a team competition for G.A.A. clubs through the county over the winter months. The aim was to introduce a wide range of players and officials from the G.A.A. clubs to an enjoyable experience particularly of the 40×20 game and covered facilities. The competition was particularly successful in attracting a wide range of entries and has flourished since, thanks to good administration and sponsorship. Many G.A.A. clubs were developing new facilities and proceeded to include covered 40×20 handball court in their plans.

1980’s

With the completion of 40×20 courts throughout the county in conjunction with G.A.A. club developments many young players were emerging. Martin Cooney, Brian Brady, Cathal Linden, Brendan Duffy (Ballybay), Martin McKenna, Declan Connolly, Garrett Boyle (Monaghan). These were great juvenile players but only for the great Michael ’Ducksy’ Walsh some of these would have taken All Ireland titles. Adults around this time included James Woods, P.J. Hatzer, Michael McCarron and Ciaran Corr. Throughout the 80’s these players were winning very tough Provincial titles, however they were unable to make the final breakthrough at the All Ireland stage. Officials through this period were Ciaran Corr, Michael McCarron, Martin McEntee, Cathal Higgins R.I.P. and Noel Mullaney.

In 1982 the Oriel club was formed in St. Macartan’s with players from all the north Monaghan parishes. Their team of Martin McEntee, Michael McCarron, Ciaran Corr and Cathal Higgins R.I.P. won the Ulster 60×30 Novice club championship title that year. Following on from that was the setting up of three clubs namely Tydavnet, Monaghan Harps & St. Mellan’s in Truagh when G.A.A. club developments were completed. During this period, the Lough Egish league was keenly contested by all the clubs.

In 1989 Lorcán O’Ruairc was appointed to the position of National Handball Administrator and took the council from strength to strength for almost the next twenty years.

1990’s

In the early nineties Pat Kiernan from Carrickmacross was one of the main officials, others in this decade included Johnny McPhilips, Cathal Higgans R.I.P., Charlie Gollogly and Terry McRory. This was a very successful period for Handball in the county. In 1990 Damian Cumiskey and Mickey Burns won a 40×20 Vocational Minors Doubles title. This was followed in 1992 with the Tydavnet club winning the county’s first 40×20 Novice Club Championship title, the team was Cathal Higgins R.I.P., Anthony Cadden R.I.P., Jim Balfe, Brendan McCague and Ciaran Leonard.

Then in 1993 Michael Rafferty from Carrickmacross won the 40×20 U17 All Ireland Singles title and in 1994 John Kiernan and Brendan Daly also of Carrickmacross took the 40×20 U15 All Ireland Doubles title. Other good juveniles in this decade that were unlucky not to win All Ireland titles included Raymond Leonard, Kenneth Rafferty, Eamon Burns, Terry Kiernan, Shane Treanor and Paul Donaghue.

In 1998 Michael McCarron from the St. Mellan’s club won the 40×20 Silver Masters B Singles title, this was Monaghan’s greatest adult success since the McCabe era. Michael also took part in the 1993 World Championships that were held in Ireland. He competed in the Masters B grade were he reached final only to loose to Dominic Sheridan of Cavan.

The New Millennium 2000’s to the present

The new millennium proved to be the most successful period for the game in the county as Monaghan won nineteen national titles and in the last months three World Titles. All this was achieved under the guidance and direction of the main County Officials Austin McKenna and Conor McDonnell.

There was an early recognition among the officials of the importance of juvenile development under the auspices of coaching and playing competitively as much as possible. During this period we organised a number of foundation coaching courses and a level 1 course. All of which were to enhance adult skills in order to coach juveniles at a higher level than ever before. Monaghan County have certainly reaped the rewards of the hard work and efforts of many that went into this coaching with great successes at the end of the decade. Coaches that have excelled during this period include; Martin McEntee, Peter Larkin, Michael McCarron, Austin McKenna and Michael Todd.

During these years of the ‘celtic tiger’ handball development in the county did not suffer but also moved in leaps and bounds. Monaghan clubs with the backing and encouragement of the Handball Board, developed new clubs such as Connons/Wattlebridge and also saw the re-emergence of the former Bawn club with their new purpose-built state of the art 40×20 facilities. The renewal of lapsed clubs such as Tydavnet, Corduff and Emyvale was a measure of the revival of handball within the county. 2008 saw St Mellan’s of Truagh being our first club to have two 40×20 courts. This new court with its glass backed wall with extensive viewing is one of the best in Ireland. The importance of the development of handball facilities continued with the Tydavnet club refurbishing their court to include a new glass backed wall.

The handball County Board identified PR as a means to developing and promoting handball.

The dedication and commitment involved in reporting fixture results, writing articles and photographs has resulted in a great rise in the profile of handball and of the handball player’s successes. The high profile of handball has in fact instilled a sense of community among players of all nations and resulted in sponsors coming on board.

The participation of Ladies in handball commenced in 2005 with the introduction of girls county championships and their involvement has gone from strength to strength with girls now doing very well & winning Ulster Championships titles. It is hoped that this aspect of handball will continue to grow further in the years ahead.

Achievements have been plentiful throughout this decade with nineteen All Ireland titles coming home to Monaghan. Eleven of these were ‘Masters’ titles and the remaining eight awarded to juveniles (see list that follows this). Thirteen of these were won in the 40 x20 court, Adults include MartinMc Entee (5 titles), Michael McCarron, Peter Larkin, Michael Todd, Peter Cassidy, Cathal Earley and Cathal Higgins R.I.P. Juveniles include the St.Mellan’s feile team- (Padraig McKenna, Christopher McKenna, Fergal O’Neill, Darragh McGinn and Sean O’Hagan), Padraig McKenna, Christopher McKenna and Terry McElvaney (all 2 titles) and Darren Doherty. Three were won in the traditional 60×30 court by Martin McEntee, Peter Larkin, Michael McCarron and Conor McDonnell. And finally three were won in one wall competitions by Darren Doherty (2 titles) and Peter Larkin. In fact Monaghan will seek to develop this one wall game, with its ever increasing international dimension, in anticipation of its inclusion as an Olympic sport in the not to distance future. Other notable players of the twenty-first century who reached All Ireland Finals include Mark Downey, Colin Donnelly and Eamonn Todd.

This year we celebrated the 125th Anniversary of the GAA and it was also a wonderful year for Handball in Monaghan. Monaghan won six juveniles and one adult All-Ireland title and this success was capped with the bringing home of a hat-trick of world titles from Portland, Oregon, U.S.A in October 2009. Darren Doherty won two world titles namely the 13 and under singles one wall event and the 40×20 13 and under singles competition. Padraig McKenna, who was the first player from Monaghan to be on an official Irish squad, won the 40×20 15 and under singles title. These achievements were the reality of dreams and demonstrate that Monaghan County has become a force to be reckoned with, not only in Ireland but also on the world stage.

The successes of the past decade are attributed to the drive, determination and dedication of officials, coaches, players and supporters. We will continue to strive in the development of these juveniles and other players. To develop their self-confidence and belief, that they can achieve successes in competitions.

2010 and beyond will see the advent of new challenges. As we face the downturn of the economy, we must capitalise on the changes that this will bring and perhaps use the freedom of time available, to create a community spirit and willingness to volunteer and get involved in our sport of handball.

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