Motivated Mulkerrins planning to move in for the kill
All-Ireland senior handball champion bids to end Brady’s remarkable reign
Reigning handball world champion Paul Brady, Martin Mulkerrins, Team Ireland captain and world champion Aisling Reilly. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Chicago in the year 2000 and Mick Dunne, a renowned Gaelic games scribe of the old school, is putting pen to paper.
Having just watched the great American, David Chapman, trounce the field at the World Handball Championships, Dunne suggested that the only way Chapman’s foes – and, by inference, the Irish – could beat him was if they “lassoed his legs together”.
The veteran journo’s thoughts reflected the common belief. As a skinny 17-year-old in Canada in 1997, Paul Brady recalled watching the best Irish players getting “hammered, beaten before they went into the court”.
“I was thinking that someone or some group has to change that at some point,” he said.
They did. By 2001, Brady and Cork’s Tony Healy were making inroads on the pro scene in the States. First they qualified, then consolidated. The Americans were spooked.
In 2015, Brady strolled through to a fifth World Championships title, the latest renewal of which serves off again next week in Minnesota. He looked like he could reign forever
And when Brady beat a Californian wizard named Vince Munoz to win a tournament in freezing Milwaukee, the handball world almost spun off its axis.
Once he had ascended to the throne, Brady stayed there. He sent Chapman into retirement aged 29 while eschewing the old defence-first game for a serve-and-shoot style which revolutionised the sport.
In 2015, Brady strolled through to a fifth World Championships title, the latest renewal of which serves off again next week in Minnesota. He looked like he could reign forever.
The years, though, move on; the landscape has changed. Young gunslingers have emerged, mostly Irish, yearning to wear the crown; Galway man Martin Mulkerrins leads the pack.
On a raucous St Patrick’s weekend, Mulkerrins (25) brought the All-Ireland Senior Singles title back to Moycullen. Flames licked the sky; home was the hero.
“The club put on a great homecoming. The place was packed,” the quietly-spoken Mulkerrins recalled last week. “There were bonfires, Seán Bán was out...”
After overpowering Armagh’s Charly Shanks to win his first title, Mulkerrins delivered his acceptance speech entirely as Gaeilge. Onlookers sat up. This was different.
“I would take great pride in the language,” he says. “Why not? I think I’m fortunate that I can speak it.
“I was going to do the start of the speech in Irish but then I thought, if I revert to the English now, that’s just being tokenistic. Why not be like Dara Ó Cinnéide, Sean Óg Ó hAilpín or John Connolly and do the whole thing in our own language?”
The cast of characters for the Worlds reads like a novel. Brady, the legend, Diarmuid Nash, the actuary who plays the percentage game. Daniel and Luis Cordova, brothers from Juarez, Mexico who made a new life across the border in the pre-Trump days.
Then there’s three-time Irish champ Robbie McCarthy, a 31-year-old naval recruit, and Killian Carroll, a Mallow man who moved to Boston chasing a dream forged when he was 11 and wrote in his homework diary that one day, he would be the best in the world.
Of them all, though, Mulkerrins’ story may be the most engaging.
An Ag graduate, before Christmas he spent 10 weeks in a college run by the Franciscan brothers in Uganda.
Those fleeing the Sudanese civil war are housed in sprawling refugee camps there. One camp Mulkerrins visited housed a greater population than that of county Galway.
“They are given 30 metres by 30 metres, they are expected to put their house on that and grow vegetables. They are given 12 kilos of food a month, usually maize and cassava, and they have to ration that out.
“Think about it, 30 by 30 metres of rough ground. It’s nothing - and your home is on it. What we would complain about...”
I would consider myself an offensive player, I would go for the kill if it’s a 50-50 call
The trip inspired him. He travelled laden with handballs and gloves and helped build an outdoor court, springing out of the red clay. The children loved it, and him, and in his head, he carried West Nile home with him and into the All-Irelands.
Having won them, earning the right to captain Team Ireland, his focus hardened. To take down Brady and the rest, he will need to be aggressive, he says. It’s kill or be killed in this case.
“I would consider myself an offensive player, I would go for the kill [the riskiest shot in the game] if it’s a 50-50 call.
“If an attacking opportunity arises, you have to go for it. In this tournament, we are going to see a lot of low, hard power play and players looking to finish games quickly.”
Mulkerrins and a few others have helped breathe life into a sport which had threatened to become, in the public eye, something of a faded relic. At the top level, the standard has never been higher and there is a new national arena in the works. At the bottom, there are more children playing than ever.
“The numbers have gone through the roof. In Galway, when I started, there were a lot of older and recreational players but very few juveniles. But we opened a court in Moycullen in 2004 and it spread to other clubs – we have 13 or 14 clubs with strong juvenile numbers now.”
But challenges remain. The sport has been likened to a secret society, 15,000 registered players operating in the shadows.
The governing body, based in Croke Park, have focused on branding and embraced online innovation but have yet to crack the code in terms of mainstream publicity.
The top players have grown used to that and appreciate what coverage comes their way (Mulkerrins speaks fondly of a back page spread in the Connacht Tribune following his All-Ireland success) but all are aware that it’s an issue.
The standard is extremely high, we’ve an exceptional group of Irish players at the minute. The game’s in a good place
Contemporaries of his – in age and athletic ability – are household names with the Tribesmen in football and hurling. He meets them in the gym or at awards nights and there’s a mutual respect there. But as for media profile? He shrugs. What can you do?
“As a sport it, doesn’t get the same publicity. Maybe that’s down to numbers, but if you talk to the older generation, they’d all know of different handballers, they’d name-check [Pat] Kirby or Ducksie [Walsh] .
“Is that changing again? I think it is. The standard is extremely high, we’ve an exceptional group of Irish players at the minute. The game’s in a good place.”
Head west from Galway city next week and you will find the handball families huddled together, watching the live streams from Minneapolis as the fighting pride of Connemara throws hands with the best. The bonfires are being readied again.
Can he mark a changing of the guard? Neosfaidh an aimsir, he says. Time will tell.
The latest renewal of the World Handball Championships serves off next week at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. The triennial event has been running since 1964 and rotates between Ireland, Canada and the USA, with one championship, 1988, being staged in Melbourne.
This year’s tournament has attracted a field of 850 players, ranging in age from Under 11s to Over 75s. While the 19-strong official Irish squad, under the guidance of head coach Michael Finnegan (Cavan), fly out on Tuesday next, an estimated 300 further Irish players will also make the trip.
Team Ireland is jointly-captained by Galway’s Martin Mulkerrins and Limerick’s Martina McMahon. Also included are reigning world champions Paul Brady (Cavan) and Aisling Reilly (Antrim), who are gunning for their sixth and third Open Singles titles respectively.
Among the other leading contenders from these shores are former Clare underage hurler Diarmuid Nash and three-time Irish champion Robbie McCarthy of Westmeath, who will be defending the Open Doubles title they won in 2015 in Calgary, Canada.
The ladies field looks the strongest ever, with McMahon and Reilly joined by former Irish number one Caitríona Casey of Cork and Galway ladies footballer Ciana Ní Churaoín.
The Team Ireland squad: Mairéad Fox (Tyrone, U15), Niamh Heffernan (Galway, U17), Megan McCann (Armagh, U19), Josh Kavanagh (Wexford, U15), Eoghan McGinnity (Monaghan, U17), Shane Dunne (Kilkenny, U19), Robbie McCarthy (Westmeath, Open), Paul Brady (Cavan, Open), Martin Mulkerrins (Galway, Open), Diarmaid Nash (Clare, Open), Aisling Reilly (Antrim, Open), Martina McMahon (Limerick, Open), Conor McElduff (Tyrone, One Wall). Coaches are Michael Finnegan (Cavan, head coach) and Frances Curran (Galway, female liaison officer).