poems about the game of handball and its players

This collection of poems about the game of handball and legendary players has been compiled by Enda Timoney. endatimoney@gmail.com

Day and Night Handball
I think of corner shots, the 
hitting and dying like a butterfly

on a windshield, shots so fine

and perverse they begin to live

alongside weekends of sex

in your memory. I think of serves

delivered deep to the left hand,

the ball sliding off the side wall

into the blindness of one’s body,

and diving returns that are impossible

except on days when your body is all

rubber bands and dreams

unfulfilled since childhood.

I think of a hand slicing the face

of a ball, so much english

that it comes back drunk

to your opponent who doesn’t have

enough hands to hit it,
who hits it anyway, 
who makes you think

of “God!” and “Goddamn!,” the pleasure

of falling to your knees

for what is superb, better than you.

But it’s position I think of most,

the easy slam and victory

because you have a sense of yourself

and the court, the sense that old men

gone in the knees have,

one step in place of five,

finesse in place of power,

and all the time

the four walls around you

creating the hardship, the infinite variety.
by Stephen Dunn

Many thanks to Stephen Dunn for permission to include his poem. https://www.stephendunnpoet.com/
Note from Enda Timoney on the term 'english' in line 15: 'english' means to put spin on the ball so that it will jump or skip and make it harder to return. 

The Alley

Standing on the dead line
I face the pockmarked wall,
it hides the bridge above me
fond memories I recall,
the side walls mark the theatre,
the concrete floor the stage,
four players take their places
the finest of their age.
The cocker’s hopped and hardened,
Junior’s feet fix solidly
he contemplates the angle
of the first trajectory.
His swinging arm begins the game
the ball’s hit low and fast,
a signal to John Joe and Tom
this will be no soft match.
Dermot standing by his side
sees his neighbour win first toss,
a simple game to twenty one
no ace is easily lost.
I watch them from the grassy mound
behind the dead ball line
 hear the cries of older boys
cheer each one at a time
and in the space of half an hour
the ball has weaved its way
through every nook and cranny
in this battlefield of play,
the long ball to the back line
the close one to the wall
the deadly butted killer
seemed to hit no wall at all
and in end the four of them
take leave just as they came
and beckon us to take our place
and learn more of their game,
the game that gave such pleasure
the game I got to know.
when I was young and full of fun
in the Alley years ago.

by John Fitzgerald

Source: http://listowelconnection.blogspot.com Many thanks to Mary Cogan and John Fitzgerald

Memories of the ball alley in Listowel

When school was o’re, our hearts would soar,
At meals we would not dally,
With homework done, to seek our fun,
We’d wander to the alley.

To toss that ball against the wall,
And combat every rally,
With pouring sweat we’d play‘til death
Those games within our alley.

With left hand or right we’d try our might,
Until the grand finale,
But win or lose, how we’d enthuse
On those games played down the alley

Each game was fought, the prize was sought,
The marker counts his tally,
The match was won at twenty one,
‘Twas victory in the alley

But time moves on, the youth now gone,
No more do young men sally
To toss that ball against the wall
Of my beloved alley

Yet, memories hold of comrades old
Until the last reveille,
Of times gone by which brought such joy
Those days spent down the alley

by Junior Griffin

Source: http://listowelconnection.blogspot.com Many thanks to Mary Cogan and Junior Griffin

"There was a time when we literally had nothing in our pockets and handball was our main sporting outlet as it really cost us nothing. In fact as young boys during the war years some of us in the Bridge Road made a bit of money out of the handball.

On a Sunday morning the alley was packed with many young, and not too young, men awaiting their game of handball.  No emigration.  A few of us budding entrepreneurs from the Bridge Road would have picked up one old penny somewhere, when there was 240 pence to the old pound, and we would make our way to a lovely old lady named Mrs Dowling about a mile outside Listowel and buy apples from her and then go back to the alley and sell our apples. Our aim was to make a profit of 3 old pence, 2 pence for the Sunday matinee and the one penny left would buy us 2 squares of the old Cleeves slab toffee. Our week was made, we wanted nothing else. The two squares were joined together and we would break them by hitting them against the metal leg of our seat in the local cinema. More than likely a square, or maybe both, would hit the ground, but the word hygiene was not on our dictionary in those days. What a lovely, carefree life it was.

The end of the war changed all that, as most of the hand ball young men of that era emigrated to different corners of the world. As I got older I played a lot of handball myself and gave many years as secretary of the local club.. The game of handball meant a lot to us in those days and I honestly believe that as young boys and then as young men it kept us out of harm’s way as the game of handball was such a brilliant game to play". Junior Griffin, May 2020

Handball Legend

Outside the church I heard bits and pieces.
Someone told the story of Jarlath’s last day,
how he’d left his sister’s house and walked

two miles to the golf course in his pyjamas.
He’d been in bed all the previous month,
her feeding him a bottle a day, no questions.

Someone on the fifth tee had seen Jarlath searching
for balls in the drain off the second fairway.
‘He would have done that a lot as a boy,’

someone else said respectfully. ‘A golf ball
is a great tool for a hard-as-nails handballer.
Toughens the hands.’ The coffin appeared then,

six massive grey brothers bearing it, all of them
weeping. We blessed ourselves, and someone said,
softly, ‘Makes shite of the hands, more like.’

by Martin Dyar

Source: Everything To Play For: Ninety Nine Poems About Sport.
Thanks to Martin Dyar

Handball Poem

Some time ago ‘twas whispered ‘round
That if we got a piece of ground
We’d spend at least five hundred pounds
to build a grand ball alley
we held a meeting in the hall
and every lover of the ball
attended there both great and small
it was a mighty rally

They said that golf had lost its fame
that football was a vulgar game
we see so many young men lame
it’s quite a serious matter
but handball as the people knew
was patronised by Brian Boru
he built a famous alley too
somewhere in Stoneybatter

The next thing was the hat went round
and fowler gave a plot of ground
it only cost about five pound
to buy it out for ever
the site was chosen on a spot
not far away from Fairview cot
you could not find a nicer spot
convenient to the river

The next thing was to clear the ground
and if some people could be found
that had some land about the town
perhaps he’d do it gratis
they searched about to find a man
they sounded Arnold, Matt and Dan
but no one could adopt their plan
and then they thought of Matthews

As soon as Jimmy crossed the style
we saw at once ‘twas virgin soil
he rubbed his hands and with a smile
said he “twill be a winner”
I’ll send the men without delay
to cart the blooming stuff away
‘Twill be of use some other day
we’ll start it after dinner

‘Twas master Reilly drew the plan
the clerk of works was patent Dan
you could not find a better man
from Derry to the Shannon
He’ll build the walls two feet thick
all lined with white enamelled brick
with granite coin from Carrick click
the architect was Brennan

He says the roads are now complete
except some potholes in the street
from now until the council meet
all work has been suspended
His men are now improving lanes
or clearing up some boggy drains
so if they want his time and brains
he’s quite prepared to lend it

The cutting of the sod was made
by that young sportsman Sam McQuade
He did it with a brand new spade
I don’t know where he got it
He’s not a man for buying tools
but when he meets some careless fools
He quite forgets the golden rules
i’m sure he never bought it

And now the work is well in hand
they’ll want to buy the lime and sand
a concert by the new string band
should be announced for Sunday
And if the day is fine and fair
we’ll hold it in the open air
and charge them half a crown a pair
then start the work on Monday

The masons came from far and near
with shining trowlers bright and clear
they said the porter was to dear
and none of them could buy it
In every place they worked before
‘twas just a tranner and no more
unless the sell it something lower
we can’t afford to buy it

McDonnell sent his foreman round
and every trader in the town
agreed to pull the porter down
they said we can’t deny it
The workman is our only friend
the farmers very seldom spend
unless to gain some selfish end
they’re not linclined to buy it

A neat contrivance fixed in place
just fifteen cubics from the base
records correctly every ace
I don’t know what they call it
But experts say that this machine
reflects the numbers on a screen
twas patented by Paddy Green
and Murray that installed it

by Jack Robinson (circa 1930)

Source: http://www.irishidentity.com/extras/gaels/stories/cavanpoems.htm. Thanks to Alan Clynch
The Alley in question is Virginia Handball Alley

Song about Handball

Smooth and Square and dry the wall
White elastic around the ball
Two on that side, two on this
Two hands each to hit or miss
What more need one possess
For good hours of happiness
Send the service slow and high
Hold your tongue and mind your eye

Turn and twist , duck and dance
Volley when you see your chance
Hit them hard and hit them low
And your score will upwards go

Aces after aces get
Shun the unprogressive let
Slowly, surely onward crawl
Set the game at twenty all
Hinder call not honour but
Honour gained by mouth well shut
From the moment you begin
Do your level best to win

Cheer your partner wipe your shoes
Keep your temper, win or lose
If you miss , don't be vexed
Bad luck this time, better next

Oft you think that after all
What is life ? - a game of ball
Partners to their partners true
Courteous to their rivals too

Here and there alike the aim
In the end to win the game
Let handball its lessons teach
Hit all balls within your reach

If you fail and feel the pain
Don't abuse your rivals gain
Everyone can win who tries
For the effort is the prize

by Arthur Ainger (1887)

Source: http://handball.tipperary.gaa.ie/club-executive/committees/history (history of handball compiled by Paddy Collins)

Handball Alley Shadowmen

Ideal companions for comely, crossroads maidens
the Sunday handballers were dancelords
in billowing white shirts and best suit trousers,
watched by older heroes in peaked caps
from behind a knowledge cloud
of Sweet Afton and Woodbine.

Great parochial tournaments mythologising
ordinary men, even the occasional cornerboy,
Celtic gladiators in a concrete arena.

Hard earned appreciation of oldened players,
applauding quietly the clever use of angle and wall.

Hand in, hand out, hand in, hand out,
and savage laughter at a misjudged bounce,
an unanswerable butt greeted by a knowing wink.

How safe we were back then,
mere boys surrounded by a casual posse of Raleighs,
jumbled on the grassbank,
waiting our chance to shine in a Sunday game.

Sitting recently on the crumbling steps,
at the back of the alley,
I found another constant broken,
the front wall scarred by a lightning crack,
the drift of litter and leaves from corner to corner
the only movement now in this forgotten Ulster colosseum.

All the old players scattered,
leaving only handball alley shadowmen.

by Michael Herron

Source: Information Plaque at Ballyshannon Handball Alley, Co. Donegal 


Striking without hitting.
Boxing without punching.

No blows are thrown, yet the ball bounces from wall to wall,
and do not let it touch you, or forfeit a point!

With both hands I seek to make you miss.
It is the diving, running, joy of handball!

I once knew I could defeat you,
yet lacked the killer instinct.

I did not mind losing that game,
for, in my heart, I had already won!

by Ilugh

Source: https://allpoetry.com/poem/10206343-Handball-by-llugh

Thomondgate, Limerick in 1975, by Gerry Andrews

The Model School Fire

The smell of turf in the open fire.
The squeak of tin whistles from the school band.

The croaks from the choir as we practiced for the Feis.

The screech of chalk along the blackboard.

The panic as the duster made it’s way through the air towards a chattering classmate.

The tension for the first five minutes as we gauged the mood of the teacher.

The lame excuses for not having my homework done.

The box in the ear for telling a fib.

The race to be first to the handball alley at lunchtime.

The sprint to the gate at the start of school holidays.

Permission to use poem and photograph provided by Gerry Andrews, in May 2022

Intended as a Call to Arms On the Ullard Handball Players

On the boys of this parish I now wish to call, to renew their exertions at the handball.

There’s a challenge on hands if right I remember, ‘twas spoken of “amongst them” I think in September.

So rally boys rally and then we will see, as to snatching the victory from Muckalee.

And now to refer to the victories won, Ballyanne, Ballinaboola and Borris must own.

Marley also to beat us have tried, but our combination their efforts defied.

Go rally boys rally and stick to the game, that our toast to all comers may still be the same.

Of the teams we’ve met and like wise did play, it is my intention a good word to say.

When going to Ballyanne, though not too far, we went into Graig and rode on a car.

With them we had fun and refreshments galore, and when we were ready came home through The Rower.

In Marley likewise a spree and a treat, such fine jolly fellows we never did meet.

There in a barn full to the door, surely its there we go play anymore.

The boys and the girls each took a part, to ever think of leaving would break one’s heart.

The Ballinaboola boys may with practise I bet, turn the tables on the Ullard chaps yet.

But to succeed they must by the rules abide, or else the laurels with us shall reside.

Those players, to be sure, are jolly all round, though they never met us but on neutral ground.

Now to Borris with me I wish you to go, this is a small town in county Carlow.

There in a court that’s built in the town, right royally we their banners pulled down.

Though they played with skill and many a paste, but this feast our valour deterred not the least.

Now the winter is gone and some of the spring, so let us wake up and try for to bring.

To our court here in Ullard, at once a match, ‘twill help to keep all the boys on the watch.

So rally boys rally, elect a committee, draw up your accounts and give us a spree.

by ‘A Well Wisher’ Ullard, February 17th 1908 
published in the New Ross Standard on 28th February 1908

Source: https://wexfordgaahandball.ie/memories-from-1908-ullard-rallying-call-for-handball-players/

Poem for  Third Annual Metropolitan A.A.U. Handball

Handball's a game
played all over this land,
With a black little pellet
hits by hand.
It calls for speed, stamina,
and lots of skill
And you commit no crime
when you should to "kill!"

Singles or doubles
handball is fun
Even tho' you sweat
and run and run.
You hate to lose
you can't win them all
But its always a thrill
to smack the ball!

The game has appeal
for the young and old,
Played the year round
in hot weather ... or cold
Win or Lose
it has kicks for all,
And that 21st point
makes you 7 feet tall.

Exercise and diet
will get you in condition
But handball's more fun
to accomplish this mission
Play this game often
play it with vim
And you'll round into shape
athletic and trim

Though handled with "gloves"
you give your all
To chase and swing at
that bounding ball.
The front wall's your target
you aim and shoot,
Most times you make it
sometimes you boot!

Punch with your left,
drive with your right
You've got to use your head
as well as might,
Hit 'em where they ain't
shoot high, shoot low,
Keep your man on the run
with every blow!

Men who play handball
belong to a fraternity
That love of the game
right up to eternity,
Like "old Generals",
they may fade away
But they never quit
until that "day!"

Invented in Ireland
handball knows no creeds,
Its players are sportsmen
judged only by deeds
Popular in the U.S.A.
this pastime has grown
Dominated by those Irishmen
Hershkowitz, Jacobs, Obert and Sloan!

I propose a toast to you gentlemen
one and all,
For your devotion to the
grand sport of handball
Let's drink to health
and the game we hold dear
'Til – God-willing ...
we meet again ... next year!

by Al Stein

Source: p.81 in book by Pakie Hoare entitled, Old Handball Alleys. History, Player's Stories, Co.Roscommon.
Permission to include here by Hoare family 

A poem read at the  First Annual Metropolitan A.A.U. Handball dinner

A little black ball in a game of skill
That has a variety of shots, including a "Kill"
Truly putting you to the acid test
Of producing only your very best!

A little black ball – that can sting like a bee,
And travels with the "speed of the jet", to that we agree
And who will question this terrific thrill,
Of driving a shot for a perfect "Kill!"

Just a little black ball, if it only could "talk"
Would call for an "out", so it could stall and squawk
If no longer can take the abuse and the grind
But we just don't pay it no never-mind!

Help - Murder - You might hear it cry – 
As shot after shot bounces "low" and "high"
Smack - crack - it explodes off the wall
Gosh, what a beating for the little black ball!

We swear and growl at the poor little ball
When a shot we hit never reaches the wall
And yet we are happy for its "ups" and "downs"
For it has given us pleasure, more so than frowns!

It fills us with cheer,
From the very start,
And age not withstanding,
Keeps us young at heart!

It has opened the door to friendships
Both old and new
And the way I see it, my friends,
They are lasting and true!

Win or lose, is incidental we know
The game's the things – keeping our spirits aglow
Good fellowship too – and sportsmen all
Hail to our game - and the little black ball!

Tho' others may rave about their sport - so dear
We all know that handball has no peer
And so - here's a "toast" - from "one" and "all"
Long may it "bounce", the little black ball! 

Source: p.82 in book by Pakie Hoare entitled, Old Handball Alleys. History, Player's Stories, Co.Roscommon.
Permission to reproduce by Hoare family 

A poem read at the Second Annual Metropolitan A.A.U. Handball dinner

Hail to handball the Sports of Sports,
A fascinating game on one and four-wall courts,
Young or old we love to play,
Any old time - night or day.

Once you're in a game of singles or doubles,
Cares are forgotten - what matter your troubles;
You're always a winner because it's fun,
Playing under lights or out in the sun.

What a challenge it is to run, swing and sweat,
Retrieving a shot mighty tough to get;
And breaths there's a player whose soul doesn't thrill,
Hooking an ace or blasting a kill.

Huffing and puffing in a long-winded rally,
You score the point for the twenty-first tally;
The winning shot gives you a tremendous kick,
Be you just a player or a champ like Vic.

When you duck into the courts – through the door,
Tensions are forgotten and aches are no more;
The game is on - you serve the ball,
That's heaven to handball's one and all.

An action packed sport demanding skills,
That practice perfects – with workouts and drills;
Yet guts is an item important to all,
Who play the game with the little black ball.

The game of handball attracts a breed,
Of sportsmen true – in word and deed;
Fair play is his code – and the vital key,
That makes life worthwhile and his spirit free.

Whether handball you play - for fun or fame,
Win or lose - you're ahead of the game;
'Cause lasting friends won on the courts,
Make our magnificent game – 'The Kind of Sports'.

To handball and players – I propose a toast,
It's only a game - yet we love it the most;
And to every player – man and boy,
May our cup always be filled with health and joy. 

Source: p.83 in book by Pakie Hoare entitled, Old Handball Alleys. History, Player's Stories, Co.Roscommon.
Permission to reproduce by Hoare family 
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