Eoin Kennedy is still enjoying the game
By Cian O’Connell
Much has changed during the past two decades, but Eoin Kennedy’s passion for the game endures. For the 18th time in 19 years Kennedy returns to contest the 60x30 All Ireland Handball final at Croke Park.
The last ever occasion, against the splendid Westmeath player Robbie McCarthy, at the complex before the new centre opens will be a poignant affair, but there is no shortage of memories for Kennedy from the iconic Drumcondra venue.
“Even growing up I used to go in to watch the big matches there with Ducksie playing, when Ducksie was winning all those years,” Kennedy wistfully recalls.
“I got to play him first in an All Ireland final in 2001, I've been lucky. This will be my 18th final now in 19 years. It has been great. I haven't won all the time there, but it is always nice to be part of a big occasion.
“It is something to look forward to every year to play in the Championships. When you get to a final it is always a big occasion, especially the last one in Croke Park, the last singles final in the old Croke Park with the history that is there.”
Family history and the fact that St Brigid’s constructed a couple of handball courts at the end of the 80s helped steer Kennedy down the handball path.
“It was in the family, my dad was from Boyle in County Roscommon,” Kennedy says. “My grandad won a Junior All Ireland back in 1938 for Roscommon. My dad played, he was a very good player.
“We were living in Dublin, but we weren't playing that much. We were living near St Brigid's GAA club in Blanchardstown. They built a new clubhouse and two new courts in 1989. I was 10 at the time and I started playing then. There was a bit of history in the family which helped too.”
Kennedy stayed the distance with handball becoming his chosen code, but did many of his vintage play in Brigid’s?
“There was a good few playing there which helped,” Kennedy admits. “I had a little bit of success early on, and it is like anything when you are doing fairly well. I was playing a lot of sports, I was playing every sport under the sun at the time.
“I particularly liked the individual sports, I played tennis and handball. I was having a bit of success, getting trips to America when I was 14 or 15. That was a big thing in those days, to travel out to the States to play in tournaments. Really that spurred me on to want to do more.”
So too did watching Ducksie Walsh during the salad years of his decorated career. “The big nights in Croke Park, my dad would bring me in September to watch Ducksie playing,” Kennedy adds.
“I always wanted to try to get to that stage. A lot of the lads I played with in Brigid's at that time at 10, 11, 12, 13 they fell away from it as they got older. That happens when people get to 15, 16, 17 they stop playing or do other things. I was always pretty focused on playing.”
Kennedy certainly appreciates the opportunities afforded to him through handball. The trips abroad, the fact that so much of the world was seen. “Even around Ireland, I have been all over the country playing,” Kennedy reflects. “That was great to see parts of the country, I have been all over America and in Canada, I have played in Japan, Spain, and Italy - all these places playing, which is fantastic.”
Home, though, remains central to Kennedy’s ambitions. “I've always put huge respect towards our own Championships here which I think are the best Championships in the world,” Kennedy remarks.
“They are kind of unique. Most of the time you go away you are playing tournaments that are played over a couple of days which is quite different. Here the Championships are one game a week, similar to the football or hurling.
“So it is special in the sense that you can prepare completely for one match, play it and then get time to recover properly for the next match.
“For someone getting a bit older like me it is a good thing as opposed to playing three, four or five matches over the space of two or three days which is pretty tough.”
Ultimately it means Kennedy has altered and adapted his training regime. Balancing work, family, and sporting commitments is a challenge that must be embraced.
“When I was younger, up until maybe seven or eight years ago I used to train very hard,” Kennedy states. “I'd be training every day, pushing myself to the limits. When you get a bit older you have to watch your body and be more careful. So I don't do anywhere near as much on the physical side of it.
“I play a couple of days a week and I try to do a bit off the court also. I'm busy with work and have two kids, who are three and a couple of months old, so life is busy. At the moment you fit it in when you can. It isn't the sole focus that it used to be when you were in your 20s.”
In a strange twist the change in circumstances enables Kennedy to simply enjoy the pleasure sport can bring. “Exactly and actually I'm more relaxed playing,” Kennedy replies.
“Going into Saturday - obviously I've been there many times before which helps - but I wouldn't be one for getting all nervous or worked up about those kind of things.
“I'm much more relaxed about where it sits in my life than I was 15 years ago when it was super, super important. Don't get me wrong, I still want to win on Saturday. The sun rises the next day, you have to get on with it one way or another.”
Throughout his time spent in courts all over the world Kennedy is adamant about the spirit and respect that exists.
“There is a real community to it,” Kennedy acknowledges. “Dublin is a little bit different because handball wouldn't be as popular in Dublin as it would be in other counties.
“It does thrive in the smaller communities around the country, places like Wexford where you have 30 or 40 clubs, who are really strong. I think Dublin probably doesn't have that to the same extent.
“As a game people are really passionate about it, they really love it, and support it. In many ways it is similar to the likes of boxing where you have little clubs around the place. People are really into it, but only a couple of times a year would you see anything in a newspaper. It is slightly different in boxing at a high profile level, but there are a lot of sports like that.”
Kennedy highlights other sports battling away for attention and recognition, but joy can still be found in the journey.
“Irish tennis is huge, particularly in Dublin you have massive amounts of people playing tennis,” Kennedy continues. “You don't really see that much about Irish tennis players or badminton or squash players.
“They are all very passionate about their sports. I think sport is there to be played, to be enjoyed, and the main thing is that we keep young people playing these games, participating. Handball has a bright future, particularly Ladies Handball, it has really taken off in the last few years.”
That process has been helped by how Kennedy and others have simply led the way.