Eoin Kennedy has high hopes for handball in Ireland
Eoin Kennedy was walking down a dusty street in the Cuban city of Trinidad one day in 2013 when he heard a familiar sound.
The thud of a bullet hitting a wall, followed by the frantic crackle of running footsteps, then skidding across the concrete.
A two-time world champion with 32 All-Ireland titles to his credit, he couldn’t help but break his vacation to participate.
We consider handball here to be the poor cousin of the GAA sports family – a sport that was once a hugely popular outdoor activity, before retreating to indoor courts, away from the public eye.
Around the world, however, the game is bigger than ever.
It is played from the United States to Japan, from the Basque Country, where professional players earn a lot of money, to northern Italy – and, of course, Cuba.
Kennedy, born in Castleknock, traveled the world collecting medals and memorabilia.
Last weekend he was in Maynooth to play his part in the sport’s resurgence in Ireland.
He took part in an exhibition match with Limerick footballer Seamus O’Carroll at one of two brand new one-wall outdoor pitches at the Maynooth GAA Club.
Then the 43-year-old reflected on a successful career that took him to random places.
Nothing could be more random than an island in the Caribbean, isolated from a large part of the western world.
“Cuba was not a competition, I was just on vacation,” he told the Irish Daily Star.
“I was walking down the road and there was a three-wall outdoor pitch and there were kids playing.
“I joined in and pretty quickly they left and brought all the adults back to come and play as well. It was great fun.
” It’s crazy. You can go somewhere like Cuba, you walk down the road and you see a group of people playing handball. It was fantastic.
“They were playing with tennis balls most of the time. They were quite practical. They obviously played a lot.
“Their rules were slightly different. The version of the game they were playing was the same one played in the Basque region of Spain.
“We went in 2002 to face the Basques and they play very hard handballs. We have been there several times. »
The Basque version is the one that can bring a lot of money to the best players.
“It’s a much bigger sport there than handball would be here,” Kennedy explained.
“It’s on TV every other night, it’s one of the most popular sports there. It would be the equivalent of our football or hurling in terms of popularity.
“It’s professional. The best players would earn a few hundred thousand dollars a year.
Would he have dreamed of becoming a pro in the Basque Country?
“Their game involves a very hard ball. We played a kind of compromise rules version when we reviewed,” Kennedy replied.
“So it’s different enough that you want to grow immersed in it.
“It would be like shinty and hurling, that kind of difference. You could play, but to be on top you would have had to play their version growing up.
First international trip
As for his other travels, Kennedy said, “I remember going to Chicago when I was 14 to play in a tournament. It was my first international trip.
“I didn’t win that year, but the next year I went to San Diego and won a U.S. Under-16 championship. That’s when I started to take handball more seriously.
“I’ve been to America countless times, all over the United States. It’s a GAA sport here, but in America it’s a standalone sport.
“They have great facilities; they would have clubs with 20 courts, because racquetball is also very popular there.
“The top players, most of them come from a Latino background these days.
“I went to Japan to play. I was in Canada, Spain and Italy too. I had many opportunities to meet people and to travel.
He added: “Japan was awesome. I played a guy from California, Emmet Peixoto. They took us both out for a week and they took us around the country.
“We played in Tokyo and Yokohama and a few other places; some exhibition games. It was great, an amazing place.
“They were looking to develop the game there and they wanted to bring us in to show the locals how it can be played at a high level.
“We spent a week there and it was great. We played two exhibition games and we did a few training sessions with a few different clubs there.
Kennedy has high hopes for the growth of the sport in Ireland.
“These outdoor courts will once again make the sport visible to people,” he said, pointing to the facilities at the Maynooth GAA Club.
“When handball was an outdoor game in the 1950s and 1960s, it was very popular.
“But once he gets inside, he becomes invisible to people. You would walk through the courts and you wouldn’t even know they were there.
“I think the outer element will help him grow.”