FROM Albuquerque to Munich, Eden Vale to Florida, a Kilkennyman has been travelling the globe and winning titles in a minority sport. What makes this story all the more remarkable is he still is playing at 70-something years of age, with his trusty racquet the only tool he has in the box.
John Comerford, born within a hen’s kick of the Tipperary border up in the townland of Killeen near Kilmanagh, has travelled the entire continent of Europe and a little less of the North American land mass in pursuit of his dream to win as much as he can.
In the preserved comfort of his home in Eden Vale Close, located just behind the James Stephens clubhouse, I was presented with a container of medallions complete with ribbons, which one would not find in a wholesale providers depot. Now asking for the identification of many of them would be dauntless, laboriously intimidating and foolhardy. There were, quite literally, hundreds of them.
When you consider that none of these medals were captured until our subject had passed into his 37th year, you can rightly assume that there is a story worth the telling on its way.
But I needed to take the winning of them back to the starting base line.
“I went to National School in Kilmanagh, where we had a marvellous muinteoir, Mr Walsh,” said John, rolling back the years. “That’s how we addressed him, but to the adults around the parish he was known as Davy. He had a tremendous interest in all things Irish and, more pertinently, in the GAA.
“He trained county championship winning teams out there and he was involved in many county minor teams in his time. But there was a fanatical interest in handball in Kilmanagh, as there was wherever there was a gable end of a house or a barn.
“Everyone played it, during school hours, after school, at weekends and during the long Summer evenings,” he added.
“Davy’s wife, Suzie, was the second teacher on the staff of two. Both are long since gone to the Creator and are buried in Ballykeeffe Cemetry. Davy encouraged us to perfect our individual style, and above all else, to enjoy what we were doing. He was a terrific motivator.”
Handball was tremendously popular in the area.
“I remember a great tournament in the Commons in Ballingarry where the Kirbys from Clare, John and Pat Mullins and Tom McGarry from Limerick, Downey from Ballymagelligot in Kerry, Christy and Joe Delaney from Kilkenny City and Joey Maher from Louth were all in opposition,” recalled John. “Maher and Pat Kirby became world champions later on; I think both emigrated to America when they won their world titles.
“Nearly every schoolyard had a ball alley back then,” he added. “I played in Kilkenny CBS in their alley. When I went to Callan CBS for my secondary education and we played every day in the alley there. Then there were alleys here behind me in the Village club. There were two in Michael Street, the Closh and Black Mill and then we had Talbots Inch out the road.”
Now he didn’t exactly set the bushes on fire in the handball arena.
“I was just a journeyman handballer who won a few competitions, nothing that would have the press drooling over,” he said. “In fact my first such win was out in Mothel, and it was a doubles competition. There was no roof on the place at the time, so if the ball was bet out over the end wall you would have to find it maybe in two fields away, buried in thistles, sheep’s daggans, and ragwort!” he roared with laughter.
He never threw an eye on a racquetball or a racquet until he was 37. Behind the Club House Hotel, a number of people built a leisure centre as a commercial enterprise. Personal fitness, gymnasia and sporting involvement were becoming buzz topics. The centre was owned by people like Jim Brennan, Barry Ronan, Der Lanigan and Roger Ryan, and it really took off. Squash was the chosen marquee sport and it produced a number of tremendous players who became national champions among other things.
“Noel Skehan was as good as ever stood up in runners,” said John. “The game certainly complimented the demands of hurling goalkeeper. There was no surprising that he was as great as he was for Kilkenny, he had such magical reactions. The Downey twins were super players and so too was Myles McCabe.”
There were three squash courts in the centre, but there was also one racquetball court. The game in Ireland was very much in the embryonic stage of development, but it was huge in America.
The game zoomed into fast-forward mode. The leisure centre was inundated with interested takers, many of whom were excellent handball players. Not surprising when one considers that it is played on a similar court (other than the ceiling is in use) with a similar ball. The only difference being that the racquet is a simple extension of the hand.
There were very few courts in the country around the early part of the 1980s.
The first National Championships took place in 1979, the year the Pope came over here.
Great progress was made within the burgeoning leisure centre membership. It didn’t take too long for the standards to improve, given that many were such excellent handballers.
“Our members took to the game like ducks to water,” said John. “Soon we were competing on the national stage and eventually the national titles started to come Kilkenny’s way. There was also a terrific cross-over between squash and racquets. Eventually it was difficult for players to decide where their preferences lay.
Blazed a trail
“We had a mighty player in our club, John McDonald, who blazed a trail through the Nationals,” said John. “He eventually won a world title in America as a member of an Irish doubles team in the 1980s.”
The leisure centre in Kilkenny sent out players who won many national titles. We had Michael Mulhall, Stan Hallisey, John Mc Donald, Anthony Mulhall and John Comerford. Many of the aforementioned won more than one title.
The club was so successful, that its progress and title-winning menu, were the envy of the racquetball land.
John Comerford set out on his own journey to national and international fame when he won the Irish over-40s doubles championship with a Dub called Philip Duignan in 1986. As events panned out, the All-Ireland final that year was played in the Kilkenny Leisure Centre. His first national singles title was won also won in the same year, but he had to travel to the St Mary’s club in Sligo to topple a local. With Ray Kearney from Callan, he won the Irish Intermediate title in Coothill in ’87.
“A hugely enthusiastic club had been formed in Callan in the old 40x30 handball club alley,” said John. “It produced great players like Ray Kearney, Paul Roche, Martin Cuddihy, Liam Glennon, and John Walker. There were some great ladies players there too, like Lorraine Donovan, my daughter Carmel, Claire (Henriques), Cathy Cuddihy (RIP), Majella Mackey and Anna Norris. I won somewhere in the region of 13 All-Ireland titles with Ray, but for some unknown reason, while we were unbeatable at home, we played with different partners when we played in the Europeans. Ray won European titles with Paddy Kennedy from Templederry, while I had a different partner when I won my ten European titles.”
Having mentioned the acquisition of men’s racquetball titles, we enquired about the lady players within the county.
“The Downey twins, Anne and Angela were terrific players as was Mary Quigley. Mary actually won three All-Ireland titles in the same year, which was quite an achievement. I remember another classy player too at the time, a girl that you would have known quite well in the Radio Kilkenny time. Her radio name was KB, but we knew her simply as Kay Brennan,” he told us.
Courts were now the new sport and a brand new one was built out in the Community Centre in Muckalee by the great Fr Martin Ryan. There were some fine players playing out there too. So now we had four courts in the county and increasing.
Talking about national titles, I ventured to enquire just how many national titles John Comerford has won. Wait for it...
“I have won 28 Titles,” he said without a hint of conceit, or boastfulness. It sounded to me like a guy taking the wrapper from a chocolate Kimberly biscuit before taking the first sup of tea.
Racquetball was the all-consuming sport in the Comerford household. John’s wife Kathleen was a great player until her talent was subsumed by family life. His two daughters, Carmel (until suffering a dreadful injury in the late ’80s) was a great talent who garnished her talent with national titles. His second daughter, Bernadette, won many more titles but her biggest win was winning the Irish National Ladies singles Open Championship in 1999 and 2002.
Believe me, that was some achievement, when you see the word, OPEN.
Such successes as those enjoyed by John Comerford do not come cheap. I am well aware that it is as strenuous, and physically demanding as any court game one could mention. The winning on a grand scale as enjoyed by John demanded a strict discipline, a steely determination, and great sacrifice.
Did he do much training?
“I would pop out over the wall at the bottom of the garden and do 14 rounds of the James Stephens grounds. They were very good to me, and they never objected once to my using their premises. Every day of the week I would do a daily dose of 1,400 skips with a rope. I needed to be doing that to stay at the top of my game.
“My first title win in Sligo needed 15 games to win the championship over the same weekend,” he recalled. “I left Kilkenny on a Friday evening and returned with the title on the Sunday night, and was clocking in to work on Monday morning at eight bells. You needed to be fit for that schedule.”
Travelling around Ireland was energy-sapping, but racquetball took John Comerford to lands far away.
He has played in Zootermeer in Holland and won. He has won too in Antwerp in Belgium. Paris, Bad Tolz (Bavaria) and Hamburg have seen the style, skill, and winning determination of the man from Eden Vale Close. He has cut a swathe through much of the US where there is a tremendous admiration of the game - they call it racquets over there.
He played in Albuquerque as a member of the Irish singles team of 13.
“Wearing that Irish singlet was something so special,” he said with a proud glint in his eye. “I will cherish that memory and take it to my grave.”
John played in the Nevada Senior Olympics in Las Vegas where he won gold silver and bronze. He has also played in the Huntsman World Senior Games (Utah), where again he has won much medals and great acclaim. Those games are held annually in a place called St George in the Mormon State. This is a World Series for competitors over 50 years of age who compete in 30 different sporting disciplines, one of which is racquetball. The number of competitors is in excess of 10,000 and brings, apparently, more than $40 million into the local economy.
John spent some time out of the game some four years ago. He needed surgery on his back, which the renowned orthopaedic surgeon, Padraig O’Neill did in the Mater Hospital.
With a dogged determination, John Comerford laboriously worked his way back onto the court in O’Loughlin’s. The rest is history.
A month ago John played in the Hamburg over-50s singles championship and won an open singles competition.
Now in his seventh decade (and well into it!) John Comerford is a shining example to many people - some much, much younger than he. He certainly is a devotee to the hard work syndrome. He has proved that nothing worth challenging for is ever easy. He went into his chosen sporting discipline with his eyes open. He took it on the chin, and when he fell, he got straight back up, and got on with it.
The great Lance Todd lived by the idiom that it is not whether you are knocked down, it is whether you want to get up.
John Comerford didn’t stay down too long, and he never needed anyone to pick him up either.
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