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History and nostalgia abound as Cully Bally Alley bounces back

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Members of the Cully Ball Alley Committee pictured at the newly constructed ball alley with veteran handballer, Jim Conway, and aspiring young handballers – l-r, P.J. Durkin, Jim Conway, David Kilcoyne, Ambrose Fleming, John Henry, Padraic Caferty. Front: Roisin Colleary, Cliona Fleming and Sorcha Fleming.

Members of the Cully Ball Alley Committee pictured at the newly constructed ball alley with veteran handballer, Jim Conway, and aspiring young handballers – l-r, P.J. Durkin, Jim Conway, David Kilcoyne, Ambrose Fleming, John Henry, Padraic Caferty. Front: Roisin Colleary, Cliona Fleming and Sorcha Fleming.

Members of the Cully Ball Alley Committee pictured at the newly constructed ball alley with veteran handballer, Jim Conway, and aspiring young handballers – l-r, P.J. Durkin, Jim Conway, David Kilcoyne, Ambrose Fleming, John Henry, Padraic Caferty. Front: Roisin Colleary, Cliona Fleming and Sorcha Fleming.

Cully ball alley in the parish of Curry is located at perhaps the most southerly crossroads of the county halfway between Charlestown and Banada and approx. 2 miles...

Cully ball alley in the parish of Curry is located at perhaps the most southerly crossroads of the county halfway between Charlestown and Banada and approx. 2 miles from Curry leading to Swinford.

The ball alley, which has stood there for almost 100 years, has in recent years fallen into decline.

All is about to change, however. Through the strenuous efforts of a very active committee the Ball Alley is well on its way to full restoration. Indeed the state of recent dilapidation has meant that a new ball alley has to be built. A renewed interest in handball locally and a halt in the numbers of young people leaving the area have provided the impetus for the present reconstruction. This coupled with a very sentimental attachment to the Ball Alley by the community, at home and overseas, helps drive the ambitious plans of the local committee.

Looking back over the years the ball alley and its crossroads evokes memories of competitive sporting occasions where on Sundays a young handball enthusiast might have to wait hours before getting the opportunity to play. Often time and daylight would run out before that chance was realised. Aside from handball this area was renowned for all sorts of leisure activities including story telling, romance, pitch and toss and general community activity.

Early days

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In the early days the population of the area was such that there were two shops within 200 metres of the ball alley, Michael Cahill’s Shop and Egg store and Jimmy Cahill’s Wee Shop. Indeed Jimmy Cahill’s dance hall was renowned for entertainment value for many decades in the early 20th century. It was seen as a modern alternative to dancing at the crossroads and to house dances. The community was also serviced by a modern forge in Sargura, Jimmy Duffy’s, and, of course, the numbers attending the nearby Cloonaugh National School through the first half of the century were substantial.

With the decline in population due to emigration and mortality all of this infrastructure was to gradually disappear. It is however, worth recalling some of the notable events and characters that produced great handball at Cully Ball Alley.

Jim Cafferty (Caff), Sargura was in his hey day in the 1920’s and 1930’s together with school teacher Mike Francis Swords, and Father Duffy,Sargura, Tommie Marren of Sonnagh, Luke Groarke,Cloonfinish and Pat McVann, Rathmagurry, all provided thrilling entertainment for the galleries of grass-stretched spectators.

Medals from this era are still retained by family members at home and abroad. It is said that Jim Caff possessed hands that would leave “The Claw” Clohessy of current Rugby fame in the shade.

It is worth noting that it was primarily the efforts of Father Duffy of Sargura that kept tournaments at Cully Ball alley going right up to the mid-forties. This was done during his return trips home from his missionary work in Nigeria. While the above were participating in tournaments as far away as Ballisodare and Ballymote and more locally in Cloonfinish and Banada a new crop of ambitious handballers were coming on stream in Cully. Tom Cahill, Pake Duffy, Louis Weaver, Jim Conway, “Left-handed” Johnnie Stenson, father of young Johnny (Senior Connaught Medal holder for Sligo footballers from 1975.) Bill Cafferty of dance-band fame and Martin Robinson, Martin Conway (Rooskey), Tommie and Jimmy Duffy, Sargura.

Spectacular

In 1940, Tommy Fleming from nearby Broaka who was playing spectacular handball, was beaten by Father Matt Marren of Cloongoonagh in the first round of the County Championship in 1942. Fr. Marren went on to win the county senior singles that year.

In 1943, Tommy Fleming and Pake Duffy went on to beat the famous Bergin brothers in Coolooney in the county doubles finals.

Tommy’s brother John Patrick, retired assistant Garda Commissioner, was also a note worthy handballer and continued to pursue this interest in Garda Headquarters and in Croke Park.

In other tournaments people recall that Louis (Lewis) Walsh and Tom Fleming narrowly beat Martin Cahill and Jim Conway in yet another great day's handball at Cully.

At Carane, Thomas Duffy and Tom Fleming took the medals by beating Kevin Swords and Kevin Kilroy.

Tommy Fleming of Sargura, who emigrated to the United States in the fifties after promising early trials in handball, went on to excel in the sport in San Francisco and further afield. Joe Jennings of Cully, author of “The Big Stone” and recently deceased, played handball in Dublin right up to the late eighties and was the longest serving President of the GAA Irish handball Council in Croke Park.

While this area was alive with handball heroes, the famous Collerarn family of 7 brothers from Curracunane were achieving great heights on Gaelic football pitches nationally.

Acclaim

At the same time in the early fifties, Johnny Clarke - O’Brien from Sargura was winning his All-Ireland medal in Handball and once again emigration forced him to leave Ireland even before the presentation of this medal was to be made. In the past couple of years, the medal was recovered and formally presented to him by Jackie O’Donnell, Charlestown on Johnny’s short return visit to his roots.

The next decade saw Mickie Walsh of Charlestown receive All-Ireland acclaim in Handball and Mickie often gave exhibition games in Cully.

History and sentiment abound in Cully and the last tournament to be held there was about 1964, co-ordinated by Padraic Cahill of the Shop assisted by youngsters such as the Henrys, Caffertys, McGoldricks, Brian Haran, PJ Durcan, Joe Colleran, Pete McIntyre and Padraic Weaver to name but a few.

In brilliant sunshine, the large crowd was enthralled by the standard and competitive nature of the handball served up. Memory will recall that the overall victors on the day were Fr. Sean Durcan of Cashel and Fr. Tom Colleary with Jimmy Brennan (who recently died in London) and James Colleary of Cully narrowly losing out.

What a great sporting occasion was had. It was to be the end of the tournaments and once again emigration continued to take its toll.

Today the local communities of Cully, Cloonaugh, Cloonrawer, Cloonaughill, Curracunane, and Sargura are fighting back and with financial support from many sources at home and away it is hoped to recreate the magic of the past and to pay homage to the great handballers living and deceased who went through Cully.

While work on Cully Ball Alley is proceeding to plan, thanks in large measure to the Kilkoyne brothers, PJ Durcan, Pake Joe Kennedy, Ambrose Fleming and the O’Donnell brothers and others, finance is now required to complete the project.

The committee has decided to present families with the opportunity to have their names permanently engraved on a commemorative stone at the ball alley for the sum of ?1200 or its equivalent in other currencies. In addition it is planned to remember the deaths of two local sons of the Cahill families of Cully who tragically lost their lives in the World Trade Centre on September 11th 2001.

Magazine

A magazine published to coincide with the opening of the ball alley in late summer will give further and more extensive testimony to all the people who played their part over the years not just in handball but also in maintaining the ball alley at different stages of its history.

This magazine will also acknowledge all contributors to the rebuilding of this important landmark. The holding of a Cloonaugh school reunion is under active consideration for Summer 2003. More information on this will become available shortly.

If it weren’t for the deep interest of our local Parish Priest, Father Martin Jennings perhaps this project would not be at its present advanced stage of development.

The committee therefore encourages all families in the community to circulate a copy of this week’s issue of the Sligo Champion far and wide in order to highlight the merits of this restoration project and to enhance the prospects of achieving the financial targets set.

Cheques payable to Cully Ball Alley Restoration should be sent to Secretary Tom Doherty, Cloonaughil, Charlestown, Co. Mayo to be received before end of April 2002. The committee is also keen to receive any relevant information, memorabilia, old photographs etc concerning Cloonaugh School and Cully Ball Alley, these should be sent to Padraic Cafferty PRO, Sargura, Charlestown P.O., Co. Mayo, Fax: 353 –1 8325972, Email padraiccafferty@eircom.net


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