History of Handball in Roscommon Town
By Michael Naughton
Handball has a long tradition in Roscommon Town and County stretching back at least a century. Of course the game has changed very much in that length of time, evolving from the outdoor three-walled alley to the modern covered court. With the move towards urbanisation the game once so popular in rural areas lapsed, as is evident from the many three-walled courts, now mere relics of the past. In the thirties the three-walled game, so much part and parcel of the villages and cross roads of the county, started to wane with the emergence of the four- walled court that became standard for championship handball.
Two main urban centres for the game were Boyle and Roscommon Town and slowly over the next decade or so the principle venue for the game centred on the county town. It now has in the St Coman’s Handball Club one of the leading clubs in the country and it is to the game in Roscommon Town that this short history relates.
Unfortunately, much of the early years of the game in the town is poorly documented. Only here and there does its existence make itself known. One still has memories of capped men with trousers tucked into socks pounding the “Cock Standard” handball around three-walled with low, short sidewalls. Alleys situated at Abbeytown and later at the rear of Kilmartin’s at the Square echoed to the sound of ball on wall for many years and many fine matches were played at these two venues. Later the “Cock Standard” ball gave way to the “Elephant Ball” and then with the advent of the four-walled open court, the standardisation of the rules and the introduction of the “Dunlop Ball”, the glamorous era of the three-walled alley slowly disappeared, except for the occasional tournament. To this day part of the old alley at Kilmartin’s (the ‘School Alley’ as it was called) still stands, a mute witness to an era long passed by. In the twenties and thirties some notable players were Tom Keane, Mattie Gaynor, John Rafferty, Willie Fetherstone, John Carr, Brodie Keavey, Dick Salmon, Gerry Browne (who won a Hardball Senior Doubles All-Ireland in 1930 playing for Dublin with Garda Tom Soye), Val Browne, Toss McCourt and John McTiernan. The latter was considered one of the most skilful of that era and was a Tailteann Games contender. He lived at the Harrison Hall just around the corner from the School Alley. Many are the stories told of the players of that period and of the tournaments in Roscommon and how they travelled by bicycle to play in tournaments in Lisacul and elsewhere. Mention is often made of one Mr Geraghty who made hardballs, locally-binding the hardballs with eelskin. Many of the local hardballers of the next two decades learned their handball at the School Alley and its significance to the development of the game in the town is great.
In the late twenties members of the Gardai and interested townspeople initiated a drive to build a new ball alley. A magnificent alley was built near the Garda Barracks and was officially opened on May 18th 1930 by the Chief Commissioner of the Gardai, General O’Duffy. The contractors for the project were the Hession Brothers. To mark the occasion a ‘Gold Medal Tournament’ between champions from Connacht and Leinster took place. A large and enthusiastic crowd watched the opening of the new court which was to serve the town and county for fifty years. History does not record the result of that tournament but such players as Paddy Perry, John Rafferty, Paddy Reid and others are said to have played there that day. Certainly Paddy Perry later that year recorded a win there that was to launch him on his famous eight singles titles in a row… a record that has not been equalled. Right from the start the new alley was the venue for many top games and in later years the great John Joe Gilmartin (who worked at the Royal Hotel) played handball there. It appears to have been a buoyant period for the club and local players such as John Rafferty, Willie Fetherstone, Pakie Fullard, Pat Casey, Mattie Gaynor and many others adjusted well to the four-wall game. Of course the lack of records leaves many gaps and there are years in which scarcely anything appears about local players.
In the mid-thirties Harry O’Doherty became secretary and set about running a series of tournaments to stimulate at local level. Indeed Harry O’Doherty with Joe Hoare formed a fine partnership around that period while in 1936 citeóg John Rafferty with Jim Clarke (Boyle) won a Connacht Junior Doubles title. In 1938 Harry O’Doherty and Joe Hoare reached the All-Ireland Senior Doubles final, only to lose to the famous Hassett brothers from Tipperary. While the late thirties had some fine players such as Eugene Gannon (a very fine player), Toss McCourt, Seán Cox, Pakie and Brodie Keavey, Pakie Fullard, Brian O’Doherty, Joe and Owensie Hoare, John O’Gara, John Walshe, Frank Gaughan, Harry O’Doherty, Walter Quigley and a legion of others; the players to leave the biggest imprint were John Walshe, Harry O’Doherty, Joe Hoare, Walter Quigley and Pakie Hoare. No nationals titles came the way of the club during this period but one must remember that there were only three grades: Senior, Junior and Minor and consequently titles were extremely difficult to win.
Club activities in the period 1939-1942 period fell away because of the War but 1942 saw a special meeting called to revive the fortunes of the club. Held on the 16th November, the following officers were elected: President, Surgeon O’Hanrahan; Chairman, Bro. Kennedy; Treasurer, Bro. Phelan; Secretary, Seán O’Hegarty and the Committee was Sergeant James Cronin, Sergeant Peter Mahon, H O’Doherty, J Rafferty, Seán Cox, John O’Gara, and John Walshe. It is heartening to note that members of the Gardai, instrumental in building the alley in 1930 such as Peter Mahon and Jim Cronin were still active in handball affairs, twelve years later!
With the war raging in Europe, the game ran into all kinds of problems. Handballs became almost impossible to obtain – rubber was scarce and travel curtailed. However Harry O’Doherty did win the Connacht Junior Singles and Doubles titles in 1940. Harry won the Doubles again – nine years later in fact with Walter Quigley in 1949. Patsy McDermott and Paddy Cotter, two fine handballers with the local C.B.S. won the Connacht Minor Doubles title in 1948 to give the younger players a great boost. John Walshe was an outstanding handballer and won a Connacht Doubles Senior title with S Gaughran (Boyle) in 1948.
It can be seen that the standard locally was high. Who can forget the skills displayed by Harry O’Doherty, John Walshe, John O’Gara, John Rafferty and Joe Hoare? Or the power and determination of Walter Quigley? All great players who gave the game in Roscommon such great service in a most trying period.
After the war, the game required reorganisation and with this intention Mr John Rafferty convened a meeting in mid-December of 1945. The following officials attended: Vice President, Chief Supt. Dennehy; Secretary, Seán Hegarty; Treasurer, Sergeant Peter Mahon and Committee members – T.W. Doherty, Sergeant James Cronin, Seán Cox, Walter Quigley and John O’Gara.
Also attending the meeting was John G Browne, County Manager, Roscommon County Council who stated that the ball alley was now Council property. Supt. Dennehy submitted plans for a stand and referred to the rights of the Gardaí within the club. He also outlined plans to cater for the town juveniles – a section of handballers much neglected up to this point. It appears to have been a significant meeting, awakening a new interest in handball in the town.
County trials were held at the alley and the club allocated £23 to erect new wire around the top of the alley. It is interesting to note at the time that John Rafferty was elected county Vice-President. Inter-Club matches were very popular at this time and Roscommon played many such matches with Boyle and other clubs at the Roscommon alley. We read of Joe Hoare, Harry O’Doherty and Walter Quigley having stern tussles with the top players in Boyle. In the late forties another bunch of young players were emerging , including Patsy McDermott, Paddy Cotter, Kevin McNeill (also committee member), Ray Doherty, Stanley Cronin, Gerry Healy, Pascal O’Rourke, Jack Fennelly, Mick Dolan and others.
In 1950 a young boy from Castle Street, Ray Doherty was to herald in a new era for the club by winning the Connacht Minor Singles Softball title. Later Ray, in 1970 was to turn his hand to writing and publishing a fine handball booklet aptly name “Handball” – but that was in the future! Ray, a fine handball tactician, with an easy style, was coached by Pakie Hoare and went on to win the All-Ireland Minor Singles title in 1951 and to retain it the following year (1952) by beating Mossie O’Connor (Kerry) 9-21, 21-11, 21-16. In that period other fine minor players were Leo Coyle, Willie Healy, Gerry Mahon, Benny Naughton, Kevin Fullard, Pakie Joe Penny and Larry Fennelly. The secretary of the cub in the early fifties was Seán Cox, who did great work to ensure that players got adequate as did Brother O’Dwyer who was later to become club Chairman.
In 1951, Joe and Pakie Hoare were to the fore, winning a Connacht Junior Doubles title and the following year Pakie Hoare teamed up with his pupil Ray Doherty to retain the Connacht Doubles for the county and club, with the same pairing making it three in a row in 1953. Willie Healy, a splendid minor, won four Connacht Minor titles in the early fifties. Another good minor player was Larry Fennelly who captured a Minor Connacht title in 1954. In the mid-fifties Benny Naughton and Pakie Hoare represented the county at Junior Doubles level and continued to do so for many years until 1962. In that period they played the cream of the province, narrowly losing in epic matches to All-Ireland winning partnerships from Galway and Mayo.
The arrival of Bro. P.H. O’Dwyer to the Christian Brothers School and his subsequent chairmanship of the club from 1962 into the seventies brought even greater success for Roscommon handballers. Certainly, Bro. O’Dwyer with the help of Pakie Hoare, Gerry Mahon and Felix Kiernan gave the juveniles of the club greater attention with outstanding results.
1964 brought the club and county the All-Ireland Junior Hardball Doubles through the magnificent efforts of Kevin Fullard and Gerry Mahon, one of the finest partnerships ever to represent the club or county. Citeóg Gerry Mahon, a player who combined power with skill, had the ideal partner in Kevin Fullard and in 1964 they beat a fancied Cork pair in the All-Ireland final. In 1968, Ray Doherty, after many attempts finally landed the All-Ireland Junior Softball Doubles title with Pat Clarke (Boyle) and it’s interesting to note that Joe O’Brien, then resident in Dublin, won a Junior Doubles title with Dublin in 1969. In 1966 A. Jameson and Mickey Walshe won the U-14 Doubles All-Ireland, with Mickey capturing the Singles title too. Connacht titles came in abundance in many grades through Joe O’Brien, Pakie Hoare, Paddy Joe Hoare (a fine player in hardball or softball), Dermot Doolin, P.J. Moran, Michael Costello and Jerry Browne.
Reflecting on the lists of titles won in the fifties, sixties and later in the seventies and eighties it must not be forgotten that men like Mike Geraghty (a baker who worked in town) who had the foresight to make hardballs for the local lads finished with eel-skin, Michael Beirne (shop assistant in Dolan’s), Joe Dalton from Ballybride, Michael Conry (another shop assistant in Dolan’s), Michael Donnelly from Ballymurray and others previously mentioned, together with a host of players and officials sadly forgotten kept the interest alive and laid the foundations for a glorious future.
The seventies was a golden decade for the club with successes in every grade except the Senior Championship. In this decade Mickey Walshe made a tremendous impact on the handball world. Paddy McCrann and Noel Mannion won every Juvenile All-Ireland Doubles title possible! The St Coman’s Inter-Club Senior team of M. Walshe, Brian Colleran, Joe O’Brien, Dermot Doolin and P.J. Moran won the All-Ireland in 1977 and 1978. With P.J. Moran replacing B. Colleran and Michael Naughton filling the substitute slot the club won the titles again in 1979 and 1980 – to establish an all time record of four Open Club titles in a row - a feat unlikely to be ever equalled.
Sadly this decade saw the end of the Old Ball Alley at the Courthouse. The old alley has served for nearly half a century but for a number of reasons it was not considered feasible to modernise and so after much soul searching a decision was made to build a new modern court beside the swimming pool. In the late sixties and all through the next decade several secretaries of the club such as Joe Donnelly, Joe McGrath, Andy Finnerty, Benny Naughton, Gerry Mahon and Edmund Matthews all realised that a new modern court would have to be built. Fr. Raymond Browne, C.C. the Club President and Pakie Hoare the Chairman were the two people instrumental in formulating plans and on their shoulders fell the mammoth taks of spearheading the drive to the new 60x30 court.
This was an intensive period for Pakie Hoare because in the end much of the worry involved in the building a court that would cost £40,000 had to be faced by him. He was also involved in setting up a Ladies Handball Council in Connacht and Roscommon, coaching all over Ireland and serving as one of the top handball coaches at the national coaching courses held each August at Gormanstown. In 1978, the new court was officially opened by Mr. Thomas Walshe, President of the Irish Handball Council. Shortly after P. Hoare set up the Ladies Section of St Coman’s Handball club in 1970, the girls true to St Coman’s spirit, started to win provincial and All-Ireland titles. Members of the club in that inaugural year were Anne Gannon, Geraldine Egan, Mary Hoare, Marie Carey, Mary Derwin, Beatrice Lennon, Joan Burke, Anne Naughton, Prudence Morris, Patsy Smith and Marie Keher. In 1971 and 1972 Mary Hoare won the All-Ireland Minor title. In 1973 Nancy Hoare won the U-16 Singles title and Marie Carey and Kay Igoe won All-Ireland Minor Doubles titles in 1971 and 1972. In 1973 D. Gordon and M. Fitzgerald won the U-12 All-Ireland Doubles and the U-16 was won by M. Muldoon and M. Gordon in 1974. Aine Hayden and Mary Guillane won the All-Ireland Novice Doubles in 1980 and Nora Brooke, a native of Taughmaconnell – the club’s best player, won All-Ireland titles in 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1983 in both 60x30 and 40x20. In 1983 Lisa Fetherstone and Doreen Igoe won the U-14 Doubles (60x30) and beat Collgreaney of Wexford at Croke Park in the semi final. They lost narrowly to Kingscourt in the final. The girls also fared well in Tailteann and Community Games. The Club Secretary was Anne Naughton and Chairperson Catherine Gannon.
The seventies may well have been the peak period in the club. Players like Mickey Walshe, Joe O’Brien, Dermot Doolin, Brian Colleran, P.J. Moran, Gerry Mahon, Kevin Fullard and Michael Naughton brought provincial and All-Ireland honours to the club. There is no doubt that the outstanding players in the club was Mickey Walshe, who combined a hectic playing career with his duties as club and county secretary. He only needs to win a Senior title to put the seal on a brilliant career. Some of his wins were outstanding, not least a Top Ace victory in 1979 over club-mate Joe O’Brien. Joe had been beaten the previous year by John Kirby (Clare) in the final.
Into the eighties the club started to think about a 40x20 court. This game – the International game – had become very popular and if St Coman’s were to compete successfully a court must be provided. Once again Pakie Hoare led the drive to build. His trojan efforts saw the court completed and the new 40x20 court was officially opened in August 1983 by Mr John O’Gara. On that day Mickey Walshe played Dermot Doolin in an exhibition. Joe O’Brien and Mick Doolin played N. Mannion and M. Naughton and John Casey and P. Fetherstone played K. Doolin and T. Hill. The contribution of engineer P.J. Moran to the building of the new court was great as he did most of the engineering side of it with help from N. Connaughton. The actual building was done under an AnCO scheme. Many others such as Cyril McSharry did enormous work in connection with the building of the court. Numerous fundraising efforts such as mini-marathons, concerts and auctions were organised by Pakie Hoare, Mickey Farrell, Felix Kiernan, Mickey Walshe and their committee. Today not one splendid court but two are adequate proof of the magnificent work done by just a few dedicated people. Recognition of Pakie Hoare’s efforts came with his winning of the 1983 “Roscommon Sportstar Award for Handball”.
The eighties, with Chairman Pakie Hoare and Secretary Mickey Walshe, saw the success story of the club continue. The juvenile scene was re-vamped with Michael Naughton and Felix Kiernan at the head. Michael Naughton was elected P.R.O. for the club and also for the County Board and his election brought about an improvement in this area. Mickey Walshe defended his Top Ace title but had to settle for third place in 1980. The Senior Inter-Club team from St Coman’s had won the All-Ireland for a fourth successive time. In 1981 and 1982 they lost in the Inter Club final to Talbot’s Inch (Kilkenny) and Clonmel respectively. However the St Coman’s team of Mickey Walshe, Joe O’Brien, Dermot Doolin, P.J. Moran and Noel Mannion regained the Senior Club title in 1983 with a super win over Talbot’s Inch in the semi final and beat Clonmel at Crinkle, Co. Offaly to win their fifth title in seven years. Also in 1983 the Novice Inter-Club team of Kevin Doolin, Jimmy Menton, Tim Hill, Michael Doolin and sub Connell Cannon won the Connacht title in fine style, only to lose to Na Fianna in the semi final at Croke Park.
So many major games were contested by the club that it is nearly impossible to list them all. However, a few important matches stand out such as P.J. Moran’s gallant attempt to win the 40x20 Junior Singles title in 1980 losing to John Fleming (Wexford) in the final. Mickey Walshe contested two Hardball finals in the eighties, losing to Pius Winders (Kildare) and Peter McGee (Mayo) narrowly. He also done extremely well in the 40x20 competition in Singles and Doubles. Also to the fore were D. Doolin in Junior, Joe O’Brien in Senior and Michael Naughton with a Connacht Novice Softball Singles title. The forgoing are only a few of the titles contested by members of the club during this decade.
While titles are important, it must not be forgotten that many players achieve fulfilment by just playing for fitness or pleasure and these players make up the bulk of the club and in the end their interest and enthusiasm is what will keep and game alive in the town. In this very short history not every event is covered; not every prominent player is mentioned. It is not intentional that events or personalities are left out. It is due to the fact that this history does not pertain to be a complete or comprehensive history of the club’s long history which would take a volume to relate and many months, even years to complete.
This history will have served its purpose if it somehow stimulates interest among the public in the activities of the club. Strange to say, the town with two handball courts needs more!
Taken from ‘Roscommon Town GAA by Michael Cassidy. Published 1984
Pictured above is Ray Doherty, one of the earlier members of the club.