Orchestra conductor Grobman directing handball in Europe
By John Harrington
How does a native New Yorker working as an Orchestra Conductor in Vienna become Gaelic Games Europe’s Handball Officer?
If that’s not the first question that springs to mind when you happen on Benjamin Grobman’s bio, then you’re either pathologically incurious or just not the type to surprise easily.
Curiosity is certainly a part of Grobman’s own make-up. It’s what led to the first toe-dip in Gaelic Games that over the course of a number of years eventually lead to total immersion.
Back in the 2000s he signed up for an online Setanta Sports subscription because he was a soccer fan and became intrigued by a link on the website advertising ‘GAA matches’.
He clicked on it and found himself watching a Kerry-Cork Gaelic Football clash which he immediately thought was “great stuff”, and when he then discovered hurling shortly after he was by his own admission “hooked”.
But it wasn’t until he moved to Vienna in 2010 though, that he got a chance to play Gaelic Games himself.
A highly talented horn player who performed in famous venues like Carnegie Hall, Avery Fischer Hall, and the Kennedy Centre, after graduating with a Bachelor of Music degree from the Manhattan School of Music he moved to the Austrian capital to study conducting at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna where he is now a teacher.
He wasn’t in Vienna that long before he met a friend of a friend who played gaelic football with Vienna Gaels, and Grobman figured now was as good a time as any to try his hand at a sport he had admired from afar in New York.
“Because I never played football before and didn't play any soccer or anything growing up I was absolutely useless and I still am,” he says with admirable honesty.
“But I stayed in touch with the club and would go out every now and then for training just to have a good run around or whatever.
“Back then there was only Gaelic Football in the club, but then they started playing hurling as well that’s when I became a full time member and I went to training regularly.”
He describes his first attempt to paly hurling as “a humbling experience”, but he was a quicker learner than most, possibly because in his youth he was a very talented tennis player who competed on the national circuit before he decided to focus on music.
Vienna Gaels also started playing handball in the club around the same time as hurling, and this suited Grobman even more because he played a lot of it growing up in New York.
“Handball is actually quite popular in New York,” says Grobman. “Because we don't really have space for large football fields or baseball diamonds within the city, so actually handball is what you play in the school yard growing up.
“There are plenty of walls here and the scene is actually huge. It’s definitely one of the top three sports in New York and I was very used to it growing up.”
Thanks to the energy of Grobman and a group of fellow enthusiasts, Vienna Gaels quickly developed a vibrant handball scene in the club, showing no little ingenuity along the way to create a home for the sport.
“We have a bunch of wooden panels that we have to screw in to a wall and take out after every session,” says Grobman.
“We did what Trump couldn't do and build the wall, that's was what people were saying a few years ago!
“So now have two walls in an indoor gymnasium that we play in.
“GAA Handball to it's credit actually do have guidelines on their website about how to build your own wall, and we just followed that.
“So whenever people are emailing me about starting up with handball I have these things that I can take from GAA handball's website, pre-packaged ready to go.
“Here's how to build the wall, here the specifications, here's the size, here's a recommendation of how to do it, here's how you should make the floor markings. It's really a wonderful resource that they have on the website in addition to all the rules and everything.
“People love the handball in our club because it’s a nice laidback atmosphere. We have a guy from Mayo who puts on cheesy ‘80s tunes and everyone just has a good time.”
Unlike in Ireland where most handball is played in a four-wall court, the GAA handball played in Europe is almost exclusively ‘One Wall Ball’ because it’s much easier to set up in existing facilities like Vienna Gaels have done.
One Wall handball is an increasingly popular sport in its own right on the continent where it’s known as Wallball. There’s even a European 1-Wall Tour that some GAA club-members take part in as individuals.
Grobman was motivated to become GGE Handball Officer because he believes there’s a great opportunity to develop GAA handball as a team sport and is taking his inspiration from the Davis Cup in tennis where you have teams representing their country.
“What I would like to do is have teams of four, just like in the Davis Cup, where every player would have to play singles and doubles.
“It would be essentially a best of seven, where you would have shorter matches but more of them, so instead of playing all the way to 21 and just having the winner go through to the next round, what we would do is we would have a shorter game, but all four players from the team would have to play.
“So you'd have singles, doubles, singles, so all four players would switch. And then the ones that had previously played singles now play doubles and vice versa.
And at the end of it whichever team has four wins first wins the tie. And if it's tied three-three at the end you would have a seventh game deciding where it would just be a singles match and both teams could just choose whichever player they would like.
“I’d llike to have a championship setup where we would have three tournaments throughout the year. One in Vienna, one in Paris, and one in another European venue.
“I really want it to be a club versus club thing, not just have individuals go at each other. I want to have that GAA club feeling. Like we already do with the weekend tournaments we have for Gaelic football, LGFA, hurling and camogie.”
Grobman is currently back home in New York for a couple of weeks but clearly couldn’t stay away from Gaelic Games for too long because he popped into Gaelic Park to catch a couple of matches.
When we spoke via video call he was proudly wearing his Vienna Gaels jersey. All things considered, it’s seems the Viennese based orchestra conductor from New York has been bitten by the GAA bug in a big way.
“When people would ask me how did I get into the GAA, how did I start liking hurling, for a long time I couldn't really put my finger on it,” he says.
“It's one of those things, you know, if a woman finds out she's pregnant without taking a test, eventually she just starts seeing the bump at some point. I think that's what it was with me - eventually I just realized I love this, I love these games, I love this community.
“And I'm a big fan of the amateur aspect because one of the reasons I stopped with the soccer was because of the corruption and the money and the toxicity and the racism and the violence and all of that.
“With the GAA everyone is just there for the love of the game. And even if there are bust-ups on the pitch everyone just goes out and has a beer after it and are friends again by that evening.”
As he plans the first ever Gaelic Games European Club Team Handball Championships for Vienna next November, Grobman does so with the zeal of someone with a real vision for what he wants to build.
When you talk to those involved with young GAA clubs in Europe and further afield that’s definitely part of the buzz for them – the sense that they’re working with fresh clay they can mould in exciting ways.
“That's definitely an enjoyable part of it because we can forge our own identity,” says Grobman.
“Back in Ireland you play for your home town or village and you're playing with people you've grown up with. Whereas in our context it's mostly immigrants, ex-pats, whatever you want to call it, mixed in with some local people.
“So it really is a community that people are building on their own, it's not just something they were born into. And I think that adds another layer of identity.
“You want to play not just for your home, you're playing for the life you've built up in the city that has adopted you. I'm very proud that I'm representing Vienna or Austria really because we're the only club in Austria.
“The GAA is definitely one of the main things now in my life now. It gives you a sense of community, it keeps you healthy. It's absolutely as much a part of my life now as music is.”