Hurling today dominates all other sporting activities in the parish and rightly so as they have proved they are the best in Galway in all grades and we hope they will keep it up for the next hundred years. But if you spoke about sport in days of yore it was handball that was the topic of conversation as it was the most popular sport in Athenry. The ball alley was sited next to the old boy’s school with the result everybody was able to play it. Another thing that stood in its favour was that times were very bad and money scarce; that meant everything was scarce. The only thing you needed for handball was a ball of any kind so everybody could play it. Like all other games that are played there are always a few that are more gifted at it than others, so it was the same with handball. An interesting statistic that a lot of people might not know about Athenry handball is that all National Titles won by Galway from 1925 (when Records began) to 1970 (five in all) were won by Athenry.
Starting in 1926- Senior All-Ireland Soft Ball Doubles
Joe (Racquet) Whyte and Christy Barrett (snr)
1939- Junior All-Ireland Soft Ball Singles
Michael (Berla) Walsh
1940- Senior All-Ireland Soft Ball Singles
Michael (Berla) Walsh
1961- Junior All-Ireland Hard Ball Doubles
Michael (Barman) Kelly and Gerry Cronnelly
1965- Minor All-Ireland Hard Ball Doubles
Tony Corley and Sheamy Lynch
For those not too familiar with these names Christy Barrett was from Caheroyan and was a grand uncle of the bould Juno. Joe Whyte was from Cross Street where his wife Bridgie resided until her very recent death. Michael Walsh came from McDonnell’s Lane where Christy Archer has his barber shop. Those who were privileged to see Walsh play said, had he kept it up, he would have been one of the greatest handballers of all time. Michael Kelly came from North Gate Street where his mother had a public house opposite Reilly’s cake shop. He is now a retired postman in Oughterard. His partner, Gerry Cronnelly, if you don’t know him you are not from this planet. The last title won by Athenry was in 1965, the Minor Hardball Doubles. Tony Corley, son of Paddy and Eileen Corley of Bridge Street, now resides in the USA. His partner that day was Sheamy Lynch from The Square. Sheamy like Gerry Cronnelly is part and parcel of Athenry. Those mentioned are the ones that brought the highest honours to Athenry but in between there were hundreds who played the game for fun and brought trophies of all kinds to the club. As a matter of fact the old timers say only for the fact some of them peaked at the one time, they would have went on to win more National Titles.
To name but a few, as it would take a manuscript to name them all, the Barretts were very big in the game as everyone of them seem to have the gift of playing it well – Christy (Jr) and his brother Sheamus, won many titles as did the Walshes; Berla, Petie, Tommy (Buster) and Billy. Jack Rooney from Caheroyan, of whom it was said could burst a ball with one toss, Martin (Banjo) Ryan from Caheroyan who claimed he could tell at Mrs Woods house (Bridie Finns) by the crack of the ball in the alley that Michael(Watt) Doherty was playing, who in turn claimed that the only cure for a bad cold or flu was four or five tough games of handball. Thos Glynn of Davis Street was another player of note and had an epic encounter with Donny Brennan of Kilkenny who went on to the All-Ireland in 1929. At that time the norm was fifteen games home and away. Paddy Corley was even handed and could play with the best, John Joe Whyte a strong powerful player: Paddy (Pigeon) Collins one of the most stylish ever. There were dozens more too numerous to mention, some that this writer had the honour of seeing playing: Christy O’Grady (snr), Micky Hession, Jacky Egan, Gerry Cronnelly and his brother Gabe, Micheal Kelly, Jimmy McCormack and Murty Qualter.
There is one player that I have deliberately left out, until now, because in this writers opinion he was the daddy of them all, the heart of the rowel. He was not a great player but would keep going forever; he seemed to be always there, decades of handball. Anyone who wanted a game anytime he was there and he lived for the game of handball, he was the one and only Joe (The Nailer) Howley from Abbey Row, nicknamed The Nailer because he could butt or nail a ball at will. He was a great character full of tricks, known far and wide and will be remembered forever. Nicknames were the order of the day: Martin Banjo Ryan because he was a lovely singer; Joe Racquet Whyte could use his hands like a tennis racquet. Berla Walsh because he could put a twist (berl) on the ball.
Names associated with the game included: the Ballinasloe toss, circulars, angle strokes, lobs and kill and losing the ball (especially if you were losing) was called canting the ball. Hours were spent looking for the ball in the Old Abbey, saying prayers to St. Anthony that we would find it. Most times he came up trumps. Handball was so popular that you would have to wait hours for a game. The gallery would be packed for the big matches, both tournaments and championship games. The cheering could be heard all over town.
Michael Whelan of the Square Inn told the story of being down fishing at Taylors Dam, the cheering was so loud from the ball alley and the fish were not biting that he threw the fishing rod in Burke’s meadow and went down to see the game. When the game was over he went to collect his rod as he picked it up from the meadow he knew he had a bite. After playing it out for some time he discovered he had caught a fine corncrake, and if you believe that you would believe anything.
At present handball is played very little in Athenry and mores’ the pity as it is a great game, a game that can be played as training for any sport. It makes you use every muscle in your body, makes you quick to turn, change direction, and teaches you to keep your eye on the ball. It would be ideal training for hurling – ask PJ. Molloy or Gerry Dempsey.
This is only a very short version of the history of handball in Athenry. There are hundreds of names and tales left out; as already stated it would be impossible to include it all, maybe some other time. To finish, thanks to all those who played it and put the name of our beloved Athenry into the history books of Irish handball.
Editor’s note: It must be remembered that the author himself was no mean handballer and could put “a Berla” on the ball as good as the best of them and come to think of it, he was no mean fisherman either who caught his own fair share of “corncrakes” in his time and come to think about it again after reading this article Pa is “NO MEAN STORYTELLER” either.
Written by Pa Hall
Published here 09 Feb 2021 and originally published August 1995
Christy Flynn: Interview by Vincent Murphy
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