By Charlie Keegan
AN article by Garryhill’s Pat Ryan in Carloviana, the annual journal of the Carlow Historical and Archaeological Society (CHAS), reveals that the earliest account of the game of handball in the county was recorded in the famous book of William Farrell titled Carlow in ’98.
Farrell was born in Carlow town in 1772 and was an eyewitness to the events that took place in the insurrection in the town in 1798.
He was gate-keeper at the Mental Asylum on Athy Road, now St Dympna’s psychiatric hospital, who concluded his account of the rising some 13 years after he started penning the book.
In his account of the period, Farrell referred to the perfection of those taking part in sports, writing: “Neither time or pains were spared to obtain a mastery of them (sports).”
He said that the Carlow handballers “were of the very best description that could be found in Ireland and might be divided into three classes: first rate, second rate and third rate.
“Of the first-rate players there were about 10 or a dozen so nearly equal that take any two of four of them that chance would put together and you could rarely fail of having a good match.”
Farrell referred to a man named Jack Bagot from Rutland who, he wrote, “might be placed foremost.” Then there was Joe Dowling and his brother Jim, Paddy Foley, whom he described as “one of the sweetest players I ever saw standing in a court”.
Tom Nowlan came next, “a powerful player”. He and Foley “once played a single hand and it was literally a dead match; there was but one ace between them and that gave the game to Nowlan, but it was his superior strength won it and not any want of skill on Foley’s part.”
Doyle’s ball alley in Tullow Street, built by a man named Tom Doyle, was a cradle of handball in the county town. His son was a famous player “who challenged the world” but could get no-one to play him.
Doyle’s Alley was where all the famous Carlow handballers trained. It had the disadvantages of being on the small side and being roofless. It was stated that Patsy Nolan of Carlow struck an alley-cracker so hard one day that it rebounded, went over the houses at the back of the alley into the street, a distance of nearly 100 yards.
Patsy was reputed on another occasion to have split the cover on a handball with a hard return.
Tommy Cleary and Darter Nolan were also referenced as having played in Tommy Doyle’s ball alley.
Jimmy McGrath was a champion handballer from Carlow whose son, ‘Vesty’ McGrath was among the few great three-code players ever to wear the Carlow colours. Vesty, a well-known O’Hanrahan’s GAA man, as was his son, Jim ‘Jobber’ McGrath, was a member of the Carlow football team that won the Leinster junior football championship in 1933.
Surnames of fine Carlow handballers of that era include Clery, Doyle, Hopkins, Fenelon, Burgess, Moore, Nolan, Halligan, Martin, Rourke, Brady, McDarby, Ronan, Gough, Hayden, Hanlon, Kavanagh, and more latterly Coyne, Doogue, Murphy and Whelan.
Paddy Coyne was one of Carlow’s greatest handball exponents from the turn of the 20th century.
He was Irish Professional Hardball Champion from 1910-1912. During his career the man from Dublin Road, Carlow had amassed a vast collection of championship trophies. Pride of place among those trophies was the Murphy Cup won in 1912, the Governey Cup of 1917 and the Bergin Cup of 1919.
A carpenter by trade Paddy Coyne was still playing handball in 1927. At the age of 42 he played Tommy Leahy from the Ballymore Eustace club in County Kildare, who was only half his age.
However, the Carlow man beat Leahy by five games to one at the timber racquet court in Carlow. Later, the younger Leahy turned the tables on his home court, winning six games, to win 7-5 overall.
Coyne was one of the last of the professional handballers to have tossed from a flagstone near the front wall. He was described as “a rugged player who relied on his strength and endless endurance to wear down better equipped opponents”.
In October 1910 he played Johnny Bowles in Patrick Street, Limerick. At the end of the day he had lost eight of the 10 games played. A fortnight later, he faced Bowles in the second leg of the rubber in Carlow and won the nine games he required for the loss of one.
That was for the Irish title which, two years later, he lost to Bowles who won all 11 games.
Paddy Coyne believed that a good trainer and a good manager were worth many aces in the court and he was well served in that regard by two fellow Carlow town men, Tom Lawlor and M J Doyle.
He liked to play the first half of a match in his opponent’s court and then, with the money down, come from behind to win. This he did with Paddy Lyons, Terry O’Reilly, George Robinson and once, with JJ Bowles.
Choice of ball meant a lot to Coyne and in that 1910 rubber with Bowles, the ball used by Coyne is said to have had a rebound of 3 feet 6 inches on the wooden floor in Carlow, while the rebound in Limerick was only 2 feet 3 inches.
One result of this was that the 10 games in Limerick lasted in all for 176 minutes while those in Carlow, where 10 games were also played, lasted no more than 95 minutes.
In 1922, Paddy Coyne took part in the trials to represent Ireland in the Tailteann Games but was beaten by JJ Kelly of the Dublin/Ballymun club and later holder of the Irish title from 1925 to 1929.
Paddy Coyne was recorded as playing hurling and football for Carlow during his great years in handball.
Records indicate that Carlow’s first taste of success under Irish Amateur Handball Association (IAHA)/GAA rules came about in 1928 when Mick Dunne teamed up with competitors from Dublin and Kilkenny to win the Inter Provincial Senior Hardball Team Championship. Later Dunne was part of the team which won the Senior Softball crown. Carlow’s first All-Ireland under GAA rules was won by Pa Delaney (Borris) when he captured the Junior Softball Singles crown in 1931. This win proved to be the first of many to be won by Carlow players.
Bill Doyle and Jim Fleming (Borris) won the Junior Softball Doubles in 1932.
Paddy Reid was a member of the Garda Siochána and while stationed in Carlow he won the 1934 All Ireland Senior Handball singles in the Carlow colours, defeating Jerry O’Mahony of Cork in the final.
Last of the Carlow pre-World War 2 winners were Paddy Ryan and Davy McDonald from the Garryhill Club who won the All-Ireland Junior Softball Doubles title.