Friday, January 22, 1993

Handballers of the 1920s

The newly built handball court at the rear of Woodstock Street, Athy, attracts a lot of unfavourable comment. Cited as a waste of public funds it has failed to be used for the purpose intended and instead it's walls provide a readymade canvass for young graffiti artists. How times have changed. The town, which for years was the handballing centre of the County and which produced All-Ireland Champions up to 1946, cannot now find use for a handball court.

Athy boasted two handball courts at the start of the 19th century. One court was located on the southside of Leinster Street at the rear of a business premises. Barrack Lane, just off Barrack Street, was the site of the second court which the Military authorities may have built for the use of soldiers in the neighbouring Army barracks. When the army left Athy following the Crimean War, the Duke of Leinster leased the handball court to the Town Commissioners under a Lease dated the 14th of December 1856. Soon it became a popular meeting place for sport-minded men and in a few years a number of outstanding players emerged.

The best players challenged players from other towns for purses normally put up by their backers. Over time a system of rubbers consisting of eleven games or more played on a home and away basis evolved. Out of the challenge system there eventually emerged a player who was rated the champion and who remained so until he was challenged and defeated.

In the 1880's the man to beat was John Lawler of Dublin who went to New York and returned to Ireland in 1886 as the World Champion. On Lawler’s subsequent departure for the lucrative professional handball game in America, John Delaney of Athy was regarded as the man most likely to succeed to the Irish title. A challenge game was played in Athy and Tralee between Delaney and a young man named Tom Jones. In the first round played in Athy handball court Delaney won eight of the ten games played and needed just three more games to win the All-Ireland title. It was not to be as Jones in the return match in Tralee won the first nine games and with them the rubber and the Championship. Tom Jones, who shortly afterwards became a Catholic Priest is regarded as possibly the greatest handballer of all time.

In 1912 the Irish Amateur Handball Union was formed and the first All Ireland Championship under it's auspices was held in 1914. The players were still semi-professional and played for purses with side bets an important part of the sport. George Robinson of Athy with Paddy Coyne of Carlow were regarded as the best players in Ireland. However, it was Robinson of Athy and Paddy Lyons of Dublin who were matched for the Irish Championship in 1914. The first half of the rubber was played in Lyons' own alley in Ballymun in July 1914 and Lyons won on the score of 4-3. Robinson had an excellent chance of winning with home advantage in Athy and so securing the first Irish title for the town. Before the remaining matches could be played however World War I broke out and Robinson, an army reservist was called up. Wounded during the War he lost a thumb and part of the palm of his left hand. Despite this handicap George Robinson was to confound everyone when in 1917 he teamed up with another Athy man, Tom Aldridge, to win the Doubles title under the Association Rules by beating their Dublin opponents 5-2 in Athy and 3-2 in Dublin.

George was never again to challenge for an All Ireland title and played his last challenge game as a semi-professional when beating Terry O'Reilly of Dublin in 1920. He retired soon afterwards. George was referred to as a delightful player who in an Obituary notice written by F.D. (Frank Doran) was described as a "handball artist with a variety of strokes - he could take a ball with either hand behind his back and in close play ..... flick and kill a ball into the opposite corner to which his opponent ran". He died in 1950 aged 68 years having worked in the Asbestos Cement factory as a gateman from 1936.

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