By Paul Fitzpatrick
After years of being handball’s best supporting actor, Charly Shanks finally earned the plaudits as leading man last year. His stunning All-Ireland Senior Singles final win over Robbie McCarthy saw him ascend to the throne at long, long last.
Heavy, though, is the crown. Fast forward 12 months and Shanks is now the hunted, not the hunter – not that he chooses to dwell on the role reversal.
“I’m not thinking about that, I just want to win another one. That’s why I’m there. I feel like I’ve prepared well enough to win on the day,” Shanks said at today’s launch in Croke Park.
Shanks survived a stern test against Clare’s Diarmaid Nash in last weekend’s semi-final in a slugfest which went the distance – two hours and 40 minutes of toe to toe action. On commentary, four-time champion Tony Healy remarked that Shanks was “playing his way into the contest” and Healy’s canny analysis, more than anything, speaks to the Lurgan man’s experience.
Experience, they say, is the teacher of all things and Shanks has seen it all, sucked up the bad days and savoured the good ones. Each of them – losing finals, winning them – taught him lessons. He knows now how to adjust to the rhythm of the match, how to hear the music quickening but not get swept away with the beat.
“The more games, the more of those situations you have been involved in, you can see it coming, you can see it developing, it’s almost like an instinct. You can sense it and you know when the game’s on the line. You’ve seen this before.”
When it comes down to it, a shoot-out, a test of resolve, it’s not just a matter of seeing who can go low and do it most often. It’s more subtle than that, reckons Shanks.
“It’s not that black and white. You’ve just got to play hard,” he says with a shrug.
Players. He’s seen them come and go, too, “played hard” against a whole generation’s worth. Belfast-based for most of his career, Shanks has been operating at the elite end of the sport for a decade and a half now, regularly sparring with the likes of Tyrone’s Ciaran Curran and leading Antrim players Sean Devine, Owen McKenna and Seamus Ó Tuama.
He feels that while the competition is as fierce as ever, little has changed.
“I don’t think the game has changed. The players have changed, the same styles are there that the older generation had. I don’t see much change in it.
“I think if you look at Diarmaid Nash and compare him to previous players, you’d probably say he was like Kennedy or Healy, very methodical. You’d probably compare Mulkerrins to Brady, McCarthy is like Healy in how he controls the front court… All the players now have elements of the previous generation of players.”
Still, time moves on. Shanks is now one of the elder statesmen on the senior handball circuit.
“Those guys I trained with over the years are getting a little bit older now as well, lately I’ve been playing a lot of the young Tyrone players like Sean Kerr, Johnny Woods and Gabhain McCrystal before he went to the States so it’s been a bit of a shock going to play those guys who are maybe 10 years or more younger than me.
“When you compare to the other fellas, I was always 10 years younger than them. The changing of the guard, I suppose, will eventually come.”
Not, he hopes, too soon – and certainly not this Saturday when he takes on the latest pretender to the throne, Martin Mulkerrins of Galway. Shanks is well aware of the threat the Moycullen man poses.
“Martin is a very strong, very talented player. He plays a very high tempo game so he’s going to put his foot on the pedal and he’s going to go hard. He has a great serve with hook, he can flatten the ball from anywhere in the court and he does it with such power and strength. He’s a complete player.”
Shanks, a software developer by trade, fixed some bugs before last year’s final. He has admitted before that had he lost again to McCarthy, he probably would have hung up the gloves. That he didn’t – and delivered such a revelatory performance in ousting the holder – spoke volumes for his persistence and ability to think his way around whatever glitches stopped him closing the show in other years.
As to what exactly changed, well, you’ll have to work that out for yourself…
“I’m not going to divulge any information… My prep was definitely different last year than previous years, there’s no doubt about that. I’m just going to prepare like I did last year for this one, whether that has a say in the result or not, who knows, but it will hopefully have me playing as well as I can play.”
He may turn 35 next month but Shanks remains in tremendous physical condition, as he showed against Nash. Combining work and family life with training and competing is “not that difficult”, he reckons and he draws parallels with top level footballers and hurlers, many of whom are long retired by their mid-30s.
“I think back in my first two finals against Brady, I was in great condition. That was the best, the fittest and the strongest I’ve ever been. I was a lot younger then and didn’t have as much responsibilities. Now, I’m still pretty fit and strong.
“I don’t find it overly difficult, handball is an individual sport, you don’t have a set time to meet up with a team so you can work around family a lot easier, do your sessions in the morning and late at night whereas other GAA players don’t have that luxury.
“I think it’s disappointing that a lot of the top footballers and hurlers are retiring early and I think that’s a huge loss to the game.
“The skill level those guys have, all that experience… They don’t need to do three or four weights sessions a week, at the end of the day you only have to be strong enough and they are at a stage of their career where the strength and conditioning isn’t going to have a huge bearing on how they perform on the day.
“All that skill and talent they have developed shouldn’t go to waste in their 30s when arguably they are at their best.”
Just like the man himself!
In West Nile, Uganda, close to the border with the Congo and war-torn southern Sudan, there will be some novice handballers rooting for Martin Mulkerrins in tomorrow’s O’Neill’s All-Ireland Senior Singles final.
The Galway man, an agricultural advisor based out of Athenry with Teagasc, spent 10 weeks there before Christmas working with the Franciscan Brothers in the area.
Standing on the sixth floor of Croke Park in a gleaming corporate box, the rain teeming down, well, the contrast with Uganda – the heat, the dust, the poverty – couldn’t be any starker.
The link was formed in the 1990s when the Brothers, who run an Agricultural College in Mountbellew, decided to establish another in one of the poorer regions of Uganda, close to the border with the Congo and war-torn southern Sudan.
Those fleeing from the civil war are put up in enormous, sprawling refugee camps there; on one occasion, Mulkerrins was in a camp which housed a greater population than that of 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 per person, usually maize and kasava and they have to ration that out over the month. That’s 300g per day, it’s not a whole lot in those conditions…” Mulkerrins told GAAHandball.ie.
“Think about it, 30 by 30 metres of rough ground. It’s nothing – and your home is on it. What we would complain about… They are trying to do their best with so little and yet they still smile and greet you.”
Mulkerrins was there to educate the locals on “vegetable production, pig production, poultry, bee-keeping, things like that, all very basic”.
“Everything is done by hand. In the college, 30pc are from the local area and 70pc are from the camps. Conditions were a real eye-opener – mud huts, thatched roof, pit toilets, no running water or electricity. The average age is 15, life expectancy somewhere in the 50s.
“And everything is done by hand. It’s very, very basic but the one thing I would say, you wouldn’t believe for the little they have and they horrific things they have seen, the positivity from them. It’s inspiring.”
Before he flew out, Mulkerrins had spoken to Brother Tony Dolan, originally from Leitrim, Minister General for Franciscan Brothers. Handball was mentioned and Brother Dolan secured some financial assistance from a contact in the States to construct “two state of the art handball alleys”.
Mulkerrins fundraised, speaking at Mass in his local church at Moycullen, whipping up support. He headed to Africa, then, laden down with handballs, plans, aid, keen to do whatever he could to help.
In the end, they built three handball courts, two of them exact replicas of the ones on Inis Mor, a little reminder of home, maybe, for the Connemara man.
“There are three courts there now within five kilometres. Some of the staff have smartphones and every now and then I get a video from them of some of the lads playing. They have kept going with it, it’s a pity we didn’t have a bit longer with them to teach them the fundamentals. But they’re sticking with it, there’s so little to do there and they have so little…”
Back in the handball court, a fuse had been lit. After losing in the third game in the last two semi-finals, he was desperate to go one better. When he did, against Brendan Fleming, the over-riding emotion was relief.
“To play in the men’s senior final is every young handballer’s dream I’d say, it definitely was mine. The semi-final performance was good enough on the day to get to the final but when you get there you obviously want to finish the job. I’ll prepare as best I can this week and I’m just hoping to perform at the weekend and see where that takes me.”
Mulkerrins’s love of the game deserted him for a while. He had played a lot of doubles as a kid, winning his first singles All-Ireland at the age of 16 and after a meteoric rise took him to a US Nationals final and saw him toppled Robbie McCarthy in the Irish Nationals, his graph levelled out.
He needed to re-adjust. After graduating from UCD, he entered the workforce and moved back home. Soon enough, he rediscovered that spark.
“I won the minor and intermediate All-Irelands by the time I was 20 and then I think the curve might have stalled, maybe I wasn’t enjoying handball as much.
“I think last year and the year before I was enjoying it again and finding it easier to train. I think I improved both those years even though I lost two semi-finals. Last year was a big disappointment, I had a great chance, I know Charly made a super comeback but let’s call a spade a spade, I made a few errors and could have finished off the game.
“He came back and he won and we know what happened after that, Charly won his first final. I suppose it was just about learning from it after that, make sure this year wasn’t the same. I remembered that feeling and I didn’t want it again.”
And, no matter where he goes, he carries the lessons of West Nile with him.
“I think it’s probably helped me a bit this year in my handball – it’s obviously more than a game to me this weekend, it means a lot to me,” he says.
“But it puts things in perspective to see people living like that.”
Only a game and more than a game. Everything and nothing at all. The stage is set. Play ball.
A Story By GAA Handball @ gaahandball.ie-
Today saw the launch of the 2018 O’Neills All-Ireland Singles Finals Festival, with the two Men’s Senior Singles Finalists Charly Shanks & Martin Mulkerrins in attendance.
This Saturday 17th March kicks off a three day bonanza of Handball with all Adult & Juvenile grades being played to conclusion, alongside the elite Mens & Ladies Senior Finals. The action takes place at the excellent three court complex at Kingscourt HC, Cavan.
Reigning champ Shanks said at today’s launch in Croke Park “I just want to win another one. That’s why I’m there. I feel like I’ve prepared well enough to win on the day,”
First time finalist Mulkerrins added that “to play in the men’s senior final is every young handballer’s dream I’d say, it definitely was mine!”
Cormac Farrell, Managing Director, O’Neills, spoke highly of their collaboration with GAA Handball:
“On behalf of O’Neills Irish International Sports Company, we are delighted to be involved with GAA Handball as a sport. Over the years we have seen a huge growth in the sport and the professionalism with which it is run. The people involved are great and very easy to work with.”
“It makes sense form an O’Neills perspective and from our brand’s perspective to be involved with GAA Handball as our customer is the GAA customer – and an Irish customer. Our brand travels well around the world like GAA Handball, so overall we are delighted to be involved and hope that the finals go off well on Saturday.”
Elite Finals Fixtures:
Saturday 17th March
Court 1 starts @ 3.30pm
- MS Kilkenny (Eoin Brennan) v Clare (Tiarnan Agnew)
- LSS Cork (Catriona Casey) v Limerick (Martina McMahon)
- MSS Armagh (Charly Shanks) v Galway (Martin Mulkerrins)
Court 2 starts @ 3.30pm
- LMS Kildare (Leah Doyle) v Clare (Caitriona Millane)