Senior All-Ireland Titles: 38 senior All-Irelands.
Junior All-Ireland Titles: 4
World Titles: 4
Masters: 2 (2006, 2009)
Michael 'Ducksie' Walsh, the brilliant Irish handball champion from Kilkenny, died aged fifty in August 2016. Just a couple of weeks earlier he defeated the present number one ranked Eoin Kennedy in the final of the open singles in the inaugural Irish 60x30 Singles Nationals at his home court of Talbot’s Inch. I was fortunate enough to meet Ducksie in 2010 to interview him for the book 'Sporting Legends of Ireland', for which James Fennell took the photograph that accompanies this post. The story I wrote about our encounter follows below in tribute to an incredible sportsman.
One of the most unusual citizens of Kilkenny City during the early 20th century was Ellen Bischoffsheim, the daughter of one of Europe’s wealthiest bankers. In 1881, this London-born Jewish heiress married the Earl of Desart and settled amid the sumptuous surroundings of Desart Court near Callan, Co. Kilkenny. In 1911, ‘Countess Ellen’, as she was known, became President of the Kilkenny branch of the Gaelic League. In 1922, she was appointed to the first Seanad of the Irish Free State. Her appointment stemmed from her good works in Kilkenny, primarily the establishment of the model village of Talbot’s Inch, with its woodworking and woollen industries.
One of the Countess of Desart’s other less well-known legacies was the construction of the Talbots Inch Handball Club in which was opened by President W.T. Cosgrave in July 1928. Indeed, the club has sound claims to be one of the oldest, and certainly the most successful in Ireland.
Six of Ireland’s national handball champions were created upon the hallowed grounds of Talbot’s Inch. However, none can hold a match to Ducksie Walsh.[i] At the age of 44, he is able to confound most statisticians by stating that he won 38 All-Ireland titles in the space of sixteen years. The way this works is straightforward.
Handball is played on a choice of two courts, some 60x30, some 40x20. There is an All-Ireland championship for both and Ducksie has single-handedly won 23 of them. And then of course there is the doubles championship for both, which accounts for Ducksie’s other 15 titles.
One of Ducksie’s favourite partners has been Kilkenny hurling icon DJ Carey who, when not whacking sliotars through the air at Croker, is also a dab hand at handball. DJ partnered Ducksie to three national titles. ‘He never beat me though’, smiles Ducksie, standing outside his furniture warehouse in Callan. Ducksie, it should be said, has also been a finalist in two World Handball Championships.
The Walsh family have been in Kilkenny for many eons. Their traditional demesne is the area known as ‘The Butts’, set beneath the Gothic shadow of St. Canice’s parish church. In medieval times, this was where the Earl of Ormonde’s archers practiced with bows and arrows, using mounds of earth as their targets. Ducksie’s grandfather Paddy Walsh was born here in the late 19th century and was employed as head gardener at Newtown House, one of Kilkenny’s big houses.
His other grandfather, William Burke, ran a successful drapery store in the city for years and it is through the Burke’s that Ducksie discovered his passion for handball.
‘I was inspired by my first cousin Billy Burke’, he says, referring to another All-Ireland handball champion from Talbot’s Inch. Young Ducksie, or Michael as he was then, frequently watched his cousin play. At the age of nine, he began playing at the two Corporation courts down beside St Canice’s. It was winner stays on and, with money up for grabs, Ducksie quickly became utterly hooked on the sport. ‘I’d be there all day Sunday’, he says. ‘And I’d come home with a good few bob’.
He then started playing at the indoor courts in Talbot’s Inch. At the age of 10, he won his first All-Ireland (under-12) medal. Ducksie’s hand-eye coordination caught the eye of the late coaching legend Tommy O’Brien. In 1981, O’Brien selected the 14-year-old for the first Irish team who participated in the US national junior championships. The duo became close friends and in 2001, Ducksie gave his newly won senior medal to O’Brien in appreciation for all his support.
He quickly learned that the key to success is practice. ‘I trained fierce hard’, he says. ‘And I always have. Six days a week, from two to two and a half hours each time. If you can stick with that, it pays off’. He learned how to blast his opponents off the court with a miscellany of superb serving, exquisite passing and merciless kill shots.
‘To win is the thing. I might tell my wife and friends that it's only a game at the end of the day. But, if you're in the All-Ireland, you’re there because you want to win.’
‘Its not about strength, or how fast you can get around’, he counsels. ‘It’s about technique. I write with my left hand and I brush my teeth with my left hand and I hit a hammer with my left hand, but I serve with my right and I made sure my right was as good as my left.’
Ducksie won his first senior All-Ireland title in 1985 when he was 18. ‘And I went unbeaten for thirteen years’, he says matter-of-factly. ‘Then I was injured but I played anyway and I was beaten and that was the end of that run.’
Christened Michael, he was by now much better known as Ducksie. ‘A lot of Walsh’s in Kilkenny are called Ducksie’, he says, but he is at a loss as to why. ‘My father was called Ducksie and my brothers were called Ducksie and when I started winning, they had me down as Ducksie too. And so the day I got married, even the priest called me Ducksie!’
Ducksie’s father Sean worked as a security guard, while his mother Vera raised him and his seven siblings in the Butts. After he left school, Ducksie became an apprentice cabinetmaker for Bill Rafter of Deane Furniture [sic]. He then spent eight years with Paddy Sinnott before opening his own business, manufacturing and installing kitchen and bedroom interiors.[ii]
By 2001, Ducksie was struggling with alcoholism, sustaining his habit with the ritualistic drinking sessions that accompanied his every victory. One morning he awoke to see that the man in the mirror had a very battered face. He had no memory of its cause. As the doctors stitched his chin and patched up his eyes, he accepted his predicament, checked into the Aiseiri Treatment Centre in Co. Tipperary and began following the 12-steps. Seven years later, he remains dry.
Aiseiri suggested he use his handballing skill to help his regeneration. In August 2006, he became World Over-40 champion at the Handball World Championships in Edmonton, Canada. The following year, aged 41, he earned considerable applause when he returned to contest the 2007 All-Ireland final. In 2009, he and his partner Michael Clifford narrowly missed out on a place in the All-Ireland senior doubles final. He still trains on four or five nights a week, running, skipping, cycling, and is going strong at Masters level. ‘One of the great things about handball is that you can keep on playing forever.’
The game has become increasingly international and, with sixteen countries on board, including Papua New Guinea and Puerto Rico, this ancient Irish sport is looking gradually more assured of a place at the Olympic Games. It undoubtedly helps that the requirements are so rudimentary - three walls, a pair of hands and a small ball is a promising start.
Ducksie has also made his mark as a fund-raiser. In 2008, he orchestrated a 72-hour handball marathon which raised over €50,000 for the Aislinn Adolescent Addiction Centre in Ballyragget. In 2009, he joined forces with DJ, Noel Skehan and others for a charity walk up Croagh Patrick in aid of the Kilkenny O’Neill Centre for Cerebral Palsy. He has also organised a series of Aiseiri benefit tournaments. His son Dylan won the Under 15s handball in Los Angeles in 2010. ‘He has it alright’, says Ducksie. ‘But like every young fellow in Kilkenny he also likes to hurl’.
Ducksie lived in Bennetsbridge, Co Kilkenny. He is survived by his widow Sheena, son Dylan, daughters Megan and Niamh, brothers John, Billy and Jimmy, and sisters Vera and Regina. See also his obituary in The Irish Times.
[i] The club can boast of having produced players that have won over 100 Senior All Ireland medals. As well as Ducksie’s 38 titles, the club was home to Joe Gilmartin who won 24 senior crowns.
[ii] Michael 'Ducksie' Walsh, Kitchen & Bedroom Interiors, manufacturers and installers of Fitted Kitchens, Wardrobes, Sitting Room Units, Dressers and Free Standing Units for our customers. (http://michaelducksiewalsh.com/)
[iii] In 2012, I recieved an email from Tom Carew which included the following details: "My late maternal grandfather, Michael Davin, was the Countess of Desart's Steward in Talbots Inch until she died in 1933 and very involved in Handball. he was born in South Tipperary 1869 and spent his life in Kilkenny. He was the first national Vice-President of the Irish Handball Council from his election in Croke Park in Jan, 1924 until 1929. Handball was organised under the GAA only from late 1922, starting with the GAA Leinster Council; he had been involved in the game long before that. He was also President of the Leinster Handball Council in that period [having been Secretary at the first Leinster Handball Council meeting on May 5, 1923], and its Vice-chair in 1930 before the Provincial Handball Councils were abolished from 1930 to 1950. He was also the first Chair of the Kilkenny County Handball Board from Nov 1922 [the first established in Leinster] to 1929, and Vice-Chair from 1936 to his death in Sept 1942 and while Chair, his London-born employer, the first Jewish parliamentarian in Ireland, a Senator from 1922 to her death in 1933, Ellen Lady Desart, President of the Club, gave a site for the Talbot's Inch Alley, which was one of the few covered alleys in that era, and opened in July 1928 by President William T Cosgrave."