LOOKING TO GET BACK ON COURT Pictured are Carnacon Handball Club juvenile club members with their coaches a few years ago, front, from left: Bobby O’Reilly, James Lally, Tom Prendergast (Secretary), Aoife Joyce, Nathan Corbett and Aaron Hopkins. Second row, from left: Declan Joyce and James Lally (coaches), Colm Reilly, Darragh Joyce, Cillian Joyce, Luke Biggins, Caitríona Heneghan and John Jennings (coach). Back: Damian Jennings, Ciarán Heneghan, Nathan Moran, Noel Corbett, Shauna Corcoran, Diarmuid Heneghan. Missing from Photograph was Emily Philbin. Pic: Trish Forde
The recent news that even inter-county GAA teams cannot train collectively under Level 5 restrictions confirmed that outdoor team sports face a long journey back to normality.
However, given that the virus is potentially 19 times more effective at spreading inside, indoor sports like handball face an even longer wait.
While thousands of outdoor football, hurling and soccer games went ahead last summer with few hiccups, Ireland’s handball alleys largely remained silent.
For clubs like Carnacon, the last eleven months have been long, and the future remains as uncertain as ever.
The club reformed in 2014, and secretary James Lally says it has come on ‘leaps and bounds’ in the past seven years, despite the setback posed by Covid.
“[We have] in and around 60 members between kids and adults… from 70 down to six year olds,” he told The Mayo News.
“The adults usually have three nights a week, and the kids would usually have their own sessions where they’d be trained by a few of us. We’d all get stuck in and coax them along the way.
“If they can’t hit a ball, they come anyway and enjoy the craic, so it’s grand.”
With 15 female members, Carnacon also holds the distinction of founding Mayo’s first women’s handball club.
The club initially started after the Canon Fitzsimon Memorial Centre was constructed in the village in the early 1990s. Years later, it folded for a period after emigration and other commitments caused numbers to dwindle.
Thanks to the dedication of a group of locals, the ball alley was revamped and modernised and is now up there with the best facilities in the county. With grant assistance, the club installed a new back wall, a new referee’s box, upgraded the heating system and installed comfy cinema seats for spectators.
If the hall is packed, the action can be observed from a television screen in a nearby meeting room, which receives a feed from a camera installed in the referee’s box. Indeed, it is around this time of year, on dark, cold winter evenings, that the club is usually busiest.
As James says: “January and February would be the real hotspots. At the weekends we’d be doing tournaments. There would be a run-up for the kids from the end of September to Christmas where they go round to different allies.
“They just give a euro each to join a competition. They get the feel of what’s out there in the county, which is great, they get to play and see every alley.
“We’ve hosted the All-Ireland nationals two years in a row,” he adds. “Our [alley] would be well-wanted because of the heating. An awful lot of alleys give up with condensation if they are used all day, ours doesn’t.”
When Covid case numbers were low last summer, guidelines dictated that handball could be played, but only with strict protective measures in place. However, the stringency of these measures, combined with concern for the welfare of their members, meant most clubs did not reopen.
“There was a certain amount of guidelines, but the committee decided it was too much to keep it going,” James says.
He explains: “You could only have two players, and when they went in you had to sanitise everything inside and out. You can’t sanitise a 40 x 20 handball alley. If you go wetting it that defeats the purpose, you can’t play handball in it.
“We were so afraid, because we have a lot of older members who have underlying issues, so it just wouldn’t be safe. We called it off.”
Despite play being paused for the guts of a year, the club remains in a good financial state.
While the fun of playing has been missed by both young and old, James remains hopeful that widespread uptake of vaccines will allow the club to rise once again in the autumn.
“You have to protect them from themselves sometimes!” he remarks, referring to the club’s more senior members. “You have to be so careful. It would be terrible if a member of the club got it … It’s always a winter sport. With vaccinations and control of the virus we’ll know more come October this year.”