ON COURT Handballer Cuileann Bourke
WHEN Cuileann Bourke won her first All-Ireland handball title, it almost went unnoticed.
Not because nobody cared, it just happened to coincide with Carnacon’s sixth All-Ireland ladies title win back in late 2017.
As the bonfires blazed to welcome home Jimmy Corbett’s heroines, it seemed to go unnoticed that two other female All-Ireland medallists were in our midst.
If the celebrations for her first and second All-Ireland medals were subdued – she won these alongside Balla Secondary School schoolmate Claire Reynolds – Cuileann’s most recent All-Ireland was a different story altogether.
A large crowd gathered recently in picturesque Belcarra for a party to toast their homecoming queen, who now has eight pieces of All-Ireland gold hanging on her mantlepiece.
“They really outdone themselves, it was mighty,” the Clogher woman recalls.
Unsurprisingly, the young Cuileann played several different sports including soccer, swimming and camogie.
Today, she concentrates on handball and camogie and has represented Mayo in both codes.
It’s safe to say she has never looked back since the day she took up the sport almost by accident.
“I was at my friend’s house and Mary Heneghan, she used to be coach in the club and all the kids played, she brought me down one of the evenings she was training. Ever since then I fell in love with it,” the 21-year-old told The Mayo News at Belcarra Handball Club.
With the encouragement of Mary Heneghan, Cuileann began playing competitively almost instantly.
Her natural winning instincts soon became obvious, particularly to her parents.
“When I was young I hated losing. I still hate losing,” she explained.
“I was a terror when I’d lose, I’d be crying and I’d be screaming, I was a terror. Even Mam and Dad would say I was terrible!” she chuckled.
Her very first competition proved quite fateful; a short trip over the road to Aughagower where she got ‘absolutely hockeyed’ by Molly Dagg from Kildare.
Fast-forward to the late summer of 2022 and one opponent stands between Cuileann Bourke and her first All-Ireland 60x30 singles title; Molly Dagg from Kildare.
There was little panic on the part of Cuileann, who avenged the rout in Aughagower by seeing Dagg off 21-13 in two games.
Her winning reaction was one of overwhelming relief, followed by an enormous sense of pride.
“Just to be able to bring a bit of gold back to Mayo, and a bit for the women, and Belcarra, because this club has done so much for me. It’s great to put it on the map and put my name on the map, especially for handball,” she admitted.
Pursuing competitive glory in any individual sport requires discipline, dedication and ‘a certain kind of mindset’, in Cuileann’s words.
Now in her third year of a degree in Deaf Studies in Trinity College Dublin, Cuileann regularly trains between five and six times a week for handball and camogie.
While in Dublin, she can be regularly found training away in the ball alley of Na Fianna GAA club.
Back at home, she arrives to this interview with her gear bag slung over her shoulder, ready to do another session as soon as our conversation is finished.
Anecdotally and statistically, the teenage years aren’t plain sailing for girls involved in sport.
When quizzed on why so many girls drop out at this age, Cuileann recalls once being part of a team who had their training session moved to a smaller pitch at short notice when a boy’s football fixture was re-arranged.
Those sorts of incidents, coupled with ‘a bit of a stigma with girls who are sporty’, is something Cuileann says a lot of girls take to heart.
“There is a lot of that and it’s very tough to take” she says.
But all that is now behind her. She won three All-Ireland medals before her 21st birthday, so who’s to say there won’t be more?
Name: Cuileann Bourke
Age: 21 From: Clogher
Occupation: Deaf Studies student
Best thing about being a handballer?
The friends you make young and old. I have friends from all around Ireland which I’m so grateful for having. It’s important to have plenty of contacts!
What’s your guilty pleasure TV show?
Probably First Dates Ireland. I got the whole family addicted to it!
What’s your most prized possession at the moment?
The All-Ireland medal is definitely up there, but I must say the English penny, Colm Larkin, gave me for my birthday is lovely.
One old handball game you’d love to watch back?
Any of Ducksy’s Walsh’s games, he was an unbelievable player.
Player you’d most like to have a game with?
I’d love to have one last game against John Kenny. He passed away a few years ago. He was a great Mayo handballer and was always someone I admired and loved to watch.
Favourite post-match meal?
Anything with chicken! Chicken and pasta or chicken curry is always a shout.
Favourite song to get ‘up’ for a match?
I was at Christy Moore the last week and the song about the airport in Knock fairly got us going. I’ll be adding that to the list.
Last book you read?
‘Success From Within’ by Brendan Hackett. A clear-out was done in the house a month or two before the competition to find it.
Thing that makes you nervous?
Watching my brother Finian play football.
I’d be more nervous than him!
Favourite sporting team?
The Irish ladies hockey team. They’re some outfit.
Best advice you ever got?
Probably was from my coach, Ollie Cass, ‘if you can only play with one hand you’re only half a handballer’. Jonathan Conroy who won the Men’s Over-35 All-Ireland this year also gives great advice ‘keep showing up’ being my favourite.
Any sporting superstitions?
Not really a sporting superstition but I always wave at magpies. My friends give out to me but now that I’ve started I can’t stop!
Sum up winning a competition in three words?
Relief, pride, thankfulness.