When writing recently of Athy’s White Cross Committee, I came across the name Frank J Geary. I had not previously encountered Mr Geary’s name, but some days after writing that article I was researching the minutes of meetings of Athy Handball Club in the 1920s and found Geary’s name again mentioned. He was described as a journalist and on 16 June 1920 he attended a special meeting of Athy Handball Club “to make arrangements for the coming season” as well as arranging 2 matches between George Robinson, Athy and Terry O’Reilly, Dublin.
The meeting was chaired by PP Doyle of Woodstock Street, a farmer and proprietor of a pawn shop located in Duke Street. Others present at the meeting were ME Doyle, clerk of the union [now St Vincent’s, John Blanchfield, a sawmiller from Leinster Street, Joseph Lawler, the town clerk, Patrick Dooley, an urban councillor of The Bleach, the earlier mentioned Geary and George Robinson, handball player. The meeting was described as a special meeting and the first business was the election of officers. Peter P Doyle was elected club president, with Joseph Lawler as honorary secretary and Patrick Kelly of Leinster Street as honorary treasurer.
Following the elections, those in attendance discussed the possibility of promoting handball matches involving the club’s best player, George Robinson. It was agreed to issue a challenge to senior play-ers in Leinster on behalf of Robinson. A press report later appeared in the Nationalist and Leinster Times: “Challenge to Leinster players - George Robinson of Athy is open to play any man in Leinster on a home to home rubber of 15 games, 21 aces each for £20 a side, regulation balls to be used throughout the matches. Replies to The Hon Secretary, Athy Handball Club will be sufficient”.
Joseph Lawler later reported to the Handball Committee that he had received a response to the challenge from James Murphy of 12 Henrietta Street, Dublin, who was the manager of handball player Terry O’Reilly of Dublin. Following this, the local committee drew up the conditions and terms for the O’Reilly-Robinson match, which required £25 to be put up as stake money by each side. At the same time, a match was arranged between William Aldridge of Athy and Frank Collins, junior champion of Ireland, who had recently advertised his willingness to defend his title against all challengers. Subscriptions were taken up from 11 local men who contributed sums ranging from £4 to £1 to make up the £25 side stake for Robinson. This money was entrusted to John Blanchfield, pending its deposit with the editor of the Dublin magazine Sport.
The contest between Robinson and O’Reilly was to take place on what was referred to as a home-to-home basis, with the first seven matches to be played in the Athy ballcourt and the remainder of the matches in O’Reilly’s home court of Ballymun, Dublin. The Athy home game was arranged for Sunday 25 July but had to be postponed because of bad weather. It was refixed for the same venue on 1 August at 12.30pm sharp "to avoid clashing with the sports to be held in the Showgrounds that same day".
Immediately following the postponement, O’Reilly’s manager suggested that the entire 15 games be played in the Ballymun court, but the local handball committee refused to do this as posters had already been distributed throughout Athy advertising the contest and it was felt to be unfair on the local followers of the game to move the match in its entirety to Dublin. Joseph Lawler, secretary of the club, placed an advertisement dated 26 July 1920 in the local newspaper giving notice of the refixed match between G Robinson, Athy and TJ O’Reilly of Dublin for the ‘championship of Leinster and a stake of £50 to take place on Sunday next, 1 August, in Athy ball court commencing at 12.30pm sharp’.
A subsequent report appeared in the Nationalist and Leinster Times under the byline of ‘FJG’, whom I believe to be the earlier mentioned Frank J Geary, a member of the local handball committee. Claiming ‘Robinson v O’Reilly - Athy man wins five of the first seven games’, the report noted that ‘Athy has been one of the few places in Ireland to popularise the game of handball. However, handball does not get the support that it deserves. Some time there is a wave of enthusiasm but at the first sign of the ebb, the supporters quickly fall away. Nevertheless the prospects for the game in Athy are promising. Here in Athy, at all events, handball is in the ascendant. Every gable end and dead wall is a miniature ball court and it is to be sincerely hoped that this interest will be sustained. The Handball Club in Athy is pretty strong too.’ The report went on to give an account of a dispute which had arisen prior to the playing of the challenge between Robinson and O’Reilly. The Dublin man wanted a ball which, when dropped from a height of 8 ft, gave a rebound of 3 ft 6 ins. The Athy men wanted what had become known as the Athy standard ball, that is, a ball which when dropped from a height of 8 feet gives a rebound of not less than 2 ft 6 ins. Negotiations between the parties had almost broken down prior to the first game in Athy, but fortunately the dispute was amicably settled and with both sides compromising it was agreed to play with a ball giving a maximum rebound of 3 ft.
The match which was played for a stake of £50 and for the championship of Leinster came off before a huge crowd, with followers of the game coming from counties Carlow, Kildare, Dublin, Laois and Wicklow. Scheduled to start at
12.30pm, it had to be delayed due to bad weather, and the players did not arrive on court until 1.25pm, when the opening game, lasting 19 minutes, was won by Robinson with a score of 21-19. The next game went to the Dublin man on a score of 21-19 and lasted for 22 minutes, the longest game of the seven which was played that day in Athy.
The next game also went to O’Reilly on the score of 21-8, but all the remaining matches were won by the Athy man to give the final result at the close of the days play Robinson five games, O’Reilly two games.
Despite his win, it was reported that Robinson did not play up to the form expected and he failed on several occasions to ‘kill’ balls delivered by O’Reilly. Altogether the match took 122 minutes, or an average of about 17.5 minutes per game. Robinson’s gross score was 128, while O’Reilly registered 120 which was not a very big difference over seven games.
The concluding games of the match were played in Ballymun on 8 August, following which the newpapers reported: “The championship of Leinster went to George Robinson, when he won the first three games played in the Ballymun court”.
The handball committee at its meeting two days later passed a vote of congratulations to Robinson and agreed to give him £5 out of the gate money, in addition to the Athy stake of £25 which had been lodged with the editor of Sport. He was also to be presented with four handballs to be made by local man John Delaney. Billy McCormack, who trained Robinson for the match against O’Reilly, received £2 from the Handball Committee.
The Robinson-O’Reilly match gave rise to a controversy in handballing circles regarding the use of what was referred to as the ‘Athy standard handball’. It was an issue on which the Athy committee sought the assistance of the All-Ireland handball champion JJ Bowles from Limerick and one which I will deal with in a later article. Handball is no longer played in Athy and the handball court or alley, as it was called locally, was demolished in the early 1990s to make way for houses in Malone Court.
Can I remind the readers of the events to take place this coming weekend in Athy to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the Dominicans in Athy. The final event of the weekend is the concert in the Dominican Church on Sunday 7 October at 8pm. It promises to be a great occasion, with local singers and musicians coming together in a tribute to the many Dominican Friars who over the centuries have served the people of Athy and district. Like all the other events to be held over the weekend, admission to the concert is free.