Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Whatever Happened to Handball?

Is handball the most ancient of the Gaelic Games? We associate hurling with Cúchulainn, of course, but no less a scholar than Flann O’Brien himself opens At Swim-Two-Birds with the proposition that Finn Mac Cumhaill was so physically enormous “three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was large enough to halt the march of men through a mountain-pass.”

If that’s not the image of a Gael, I don’t know what is. But now, many years after the Fianna, handball seems to have disappeared off the map.

It wasn’t always like this. Sports Stadium used to feature handball as part of its smorgasbord of sports, and was certainly very handy to slot in in those moments when presenter Brendan O’Reilly had to spend more time than was ideal smiling inanely and speaking … very … slowly as he tried to fill in time because the live link to Leopardstown had just gone wallop.

Handball was a regular feature of Sports Stadium, not least, perhaps, because RTÉ’s internal politics saw more GAA people in the ascendency than is currently the case. Everybody who followed sports knew who Michael “Ducksy” Walsh was. And every school had a ball-alley, a great concrete thing out in the corner of the yard. These ball alleys were used more often for illicit smoking than handball, but still. They were there, for anyone that wanted them.

Handball has nothing like that profile now. When the GAA insist on doing their ten-cent mardi-gras before the All-Ireland finals, with the balloons and the drums, they also have a group of youths in one of the corners of Croker, playing Rounders. Rounders is poor man’s baseball but the Association considers it Gaelic and has done so since the days when whether or not something was sufficiently Gaelic mattered a great deal to people.

Handball is nowhere to be seen on All-Ireland day. It’s easy to set up a rounders – what? pitch? diamond? – in the corner of the Davin and Cusack Stands. Building some sort of instantly inflatable ball-alley is a more challenging task, but still. It’s a pity that the only solo sport the GAA has is so underground a movement.

All this comes to mind because a younger generation is doing its best to do what the Association itself seems reluctant to do, and give handball some of the publicity it deserves. RollOutHandball.com styles itself as “the voice of Irish handball,” and that’s exactly what they’re trying to be.

The site is dedicated to handball and handball alone and, although online for a little over a month, it has already managed to kick up the dust with a provocative article on the future of handball and the role, if any, of the traditional 60x30 game in that future.

One the most interesting features on the site, and just the thing to draw people back to the ancient game, is the Five Most Stunning Handball Courts in the world feature. The site lists just that and, while you expect Irish locations, you’re reminded of and slightly stunned by the game’s international dimension when you see ball alleys in the Basque Country, Nigeria, the USA and even, the Lord bless us and save us, Kilkee on the west coast of Clare, looking out towards America across the wild ocean’s waves. Take a stroll over to the site and check it out. It’s all good stuff.