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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

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The revival of handball: A Martin Mulkerrins story

Handball+coach+Martin+Mulkerrins+practices+at+the+Student+Recreation+Center.
Photo by Robert O’Brien.

Handball coach Martin Mulkerrins practices at the Student Recreation Center.

While Texas A&M is one of the most popular universities in the country for international students, most Aggies have roots buried in Texas dirt.

To unearth the story of “the Roger Federer of handball” and his connection to College Station, though, one must seek out new soil, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to a small village in Ireland.

“My father is from Moycullen, and he got a job back in Galway, so we moved back there in 1999,” Martin Mulkerrins said. “That is where a lot of my cousins and my father’s side of the family are from.”  Mulkerrins’ hometown of Moycullen, a village no larger than Shiner, held less than 5,000 people. 

Unlike the climate in the American south, Mulkerrins came from a place more cool than the sweltering Texas summers, yet warm enough to sustain his livestock. 

“I think when you’re used to the Irish weather and come off that plane for the first time, [Texas heat] was something I wasn’t used to,” Mulkerrins said. “In Texas, it’s in the high 90s, 100 degrees and back home it ranges from 50 to 70 degrees all year.”  

Mulkerrins and his family moved into his great uncle’s farm at the age of 11 and said he learned how to make use of the green pastures that surrounded him. 

“Because we don’t depend on the farm, we like to see how the new science works in practice,” Mulkerrins said. “We were interested in agriculture, we look at it as sort of an experimentation in terms of all the newest ideas there are to make farming more sustainable … it’s almost like a pastime for me.”

Mulkerrins enjoyed it so much that he decided to attend the University College Dublin to study agriculture and reminisced about the many memories he made while growing up on that farm.

However, Mulkerrins’ deepest passion isn’t nourished on Irish pastures but was constructed by man — a passion that isn’t fenced in but is rather bound between four walls. 

Ag an tús: In the beginning

Mulkerrins didn’t start playing handball until he was 11 years old. Before then, he was participating in one of the fastest field games in the world and one of Ireland’s national sports.

“Just growing up, I played hurling and Gaelic football,” Mulkerrins said. “It was my father who played [handball] and that is how I was aware of the game.”

Aware, but not yet involved.

It wasn’t until a new handball court was built in his home village of Moycullen that Mulkerrins played for the first time. 

“I remember when that court opened initially, DJ Carey was a top hurling player in Ireland and that was kind of my main game at the time,” Mulkerrins said. “My father had said [handball] will help you with hurling. Since you need to be ambidextrous in both sports.”

In the winter months when there was little hurling going on, Mulkerrins started training on the handball courts.

“I started to improve my hurling and football skills over time from playing handball and then, over time, because of how much I enjoyed playing and competing in handball; it became my number one sport,” Mulkerrins said. 

Handball became a passageway to new friendships and a part of the community. Mulkerrins spent the majority of his childhood playing hurling, football and handball with his schoolmates and teammates. 

However, these adolescent times would become much bigger than a game. Every kid growing up in Ireland had one goal: 

To play in the Irish Senior Championship.

“For us in Ireland, the GAA, from when you’re born into that culture in Ireland and you’re involved in that community, it is about the national championship, the Irish Senior Championship as we call it,” Mulkerrins said. “Representing your country or even your club, winning an All-Ireland is really the pinnacle of the sport for us.”

This event brings together the entire community. Not thousands of spectators akin to a college football game, but rather a handball court packed to the brim, Mulkerrins said.

Dúshláin: Challenges

In sports where there is more money, like tennis, individuals can afford to pay people to help coach and train them to compete at the highest level. However, for handball, athletes must make sacrifices in order to reach their goals. 

With the financial grip that being a professional handball player had on Mulkerrins, he wasn’t able to put forth all of his time and effort into the sport. 

“For me, I don’t play handball for a living; I can’t afford to play it for a living,” Mulkerrins said. “When you’re not a full-blown professional, and you’re not 100% of the time dedicated to it, there are only so many hours in the day and you’ve got to prioritize things.”

One of these priorities is having a manager.

“The big difference for me is I am an individual … so I don’t have a manager,” Mulkerrins said. “Different people do help me along the way but more often than not I have to hire those coaches … if I get advice, ‘Maybe you should try this out’ then I do it if it makes sense but a lot of that comes back to me to manage my own time because it’s an individual sport.”

These roadblocks began to pile up and there came a time in his life when he began to question if the path he took was even worth it. 

“I had times in 2014 to 2015 where I was kind of wondering, is doing these things and traveling what I want to do or maybe I am not as motivated as I need to be to perform at that top level,” Mulkerrins said. 

With a little help and guidance, he was able to overcome these obstacles and his life took a turn for the better. 

Grá: Love

In the same place where he fell in love with the sport, he caught feelings for something with more human characteristics. 

“She is from Ireland as well. She was born and raised in Northern Ireland,” Mulkerrins said. 

Eilish Owens and Mulkerrins met in 2016 at a handball tournament. Despite only playing the sport occasionally, she was no stranger to the game.

“Her family and her cousins are fantastic handballers and very well-known in Ireland and world handball circles,” Mulkerrins said.

Inevitably, the two bonded and formed a relationship that is flourishing to this day. A year later, the young couple took a trip someplace that left an indelible mark on their lives.

Mulkerrins and Owens initially traveled to volunteer in Africa for reasons unrelated to handball.

Inevitably, they set up a 1-wall court and taught the game of handball to the children of Uganda and the many South Sudanese refugees. A cheaper alternative to building a 4-wall court, which is three extra walls players can use to their advantage in order to score points. 

“All those people were local people, living in mud huts with no electricity, no running water and included South Sudanese refugees for the most part,” Mulkerrins said. “To just see people enjoying the game, that was something special.”

What was more special wasn’t the fact they helped bring a smile to hundreds of children, but that all it took was a single game to begin closing the gap between young boys and girls.

“It was really a unique experience because the boys and girls in Uganda typically don’t play the same games as the opposing sex,” Owens said. “Both genders tagged along with each other to play handball.”

Yet, just like the rest of the world, the  pair’s plans to return to Africa had been put on hold for some time, Mulkerrins said.

“Because of the pandemic, we haven’t gotten back there to give them a bit more coaching,” Mulkerrins said. “I’ve been really encouraged to see, and it has nothing to do with us, but that another court has just been opened in Uganda this year. It looks like the game is spreading a bit in Africa.”

Comhthuiscint: Common grounds

While a student at University College Dublin, Mulkerrins had an opportunity to venture off from his native land and embark on a journey to Aggieland. 

“I was a student at Texas A&M on a study abroad program for the fall semester of 2013 through the University College Dublin, so it is not totally new to me,” Mulkerrins said. 

Mulkerrins was studying animal and crop production at his university and took a chance on an opportunity to learn and study the agronomy of Texas soil.

During his time here, he witnessed more than an A&M student normally would in their four years as an undergraduate. Mulkerrins said he was in attendance when Johnny Manziel played Alabama at Kyle Field. 

More importantly, he educated himself on the history of a program that he would be directing just nine years later. 

“Huge program and huge success at the team and individual level,” Mulkerrins said about A&M’s handball program. “A&M has won many, many national championships including women’s open national championships and one of those players, Priscilla Kojin, went on to win the national championship in 1-wall, 3-wall and even 4-wall. That is something that is unheard of even at current times.”

Since then, A&M has seen a decline in the number of attendants in the A&M handball program. This is where Mulkerrins comes into the equation.

Príomhchóitseálaí: Head coach

Since moving back to the U.S. in the fall of 2022, Mulkerrins has made it his main priority to return A&M back to its handball glory days. Any doubt of whether or not he can mentor as well as he can play should be thrown out the nearest window, David Fink, Development Director for the World Players of handball, said in an email to The Battalion.

“Having Mulkerrins on campus heading the handball program at the university would be the equivalent to having Roger Federer heading the tennis department at the university,” Fink wrote.

However, he can’t do it alone. From the time of his arrival, Mulkerrins said the program has been very fortunate in receiving donations from fellow Aggies.

“There has been great work here all over the years in raising money from former and current people involved in our handball club,” Mulkerrins said. “Former students that have graduated are really generous and other people, other handball enthusiasts, have been really supportive of the club and given money.”

One of these donors, in particular, contributed $1 million to the program.

“It’s a sport [Doug Randolph] started in university and just loves the game and wants to see more people get the opportunities that he had,” Mulkerrins said. “To just travel around the country and around the states as well to play and enjoy the sport of handball.”

Despite the current size of the program, Mulkerrins said he is very encouraged by what he has seen of the team during his first semester at A&M.

“Some of our guys and girls are already doing well with the tournaments they’ve been at, even in a short period, they’ve been actually winning their divisions and moving up the ranks,” Mulkerrins said.

One of these athletes had no plans of playing handball until he ran into Mulkerrins at the A&M Recreation Center one afternoon.

“I was a racquetball player first. I’ve played racquetball since 2014,” Trevor Austin said. “I was coming in here to the recreation center looking to find some people to play racquetball with.”

It was during that time at the Rec Center, Mulkerrins soon approached him and said, “I see you are playing racquetball, have you ever played handball?”

“No,” Austin replied. 

“We’re here Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Come play,” Mulkerrins said. 

From this point on, Austin has been competing with the handball team and has grown to admire and respect the leadership that Mulkerrins has brought to the team. 

“Martin is an overall great guy,” Austin said. “Really modest and gives praise where it’s deserved. Keeps a good eye on all of us, helps us pinpoint where we need some help and really lets us figure it out. I’ve noticed recently. He’ll help us but he’ll also help us help ourselves.”

Austin played his first tournament at the Bob Davidson Tournament, a tournament in honor of a lifelong handball supporter in College Station. He then participated in the 38th annual Bear Bash at Missouri State where he got his first win in the C Division bracket. 

Craobh Sinsir: Senior championship

In 2018, Mulkerrins finally reached his pinnacle.

“I won the All-Ireland Senior Singles that year,” Mulkerrins said. “It’s just what everyone dreams of in Ireland.”

Since then, the accolades began to pour in.

The 29-year-old just came off his third WPH Race 48, Pro Handball Tour, championship win in 13 starts at the 2022 R48LTE Portland Classic. This win marked his second consecutive R48 win after winning the 2022 Aces R48 Player’s Championship and his eighth consecutive R48 match win, which is the most current wins on the R48 Men’s Pro.

“Winning four pro handball tournaments, winning any professional handball tournament, is something that not that many Irish players have ever done,” Mulkerrins said. “A lot of those successes for Ireland have come in the last 20 years.”

Mulkerrins, now ranked second on the WPH R48 Pro Handball Tour, said he plans on continuing in the U.S. Pro Tour while he teaches the game in College Station. Mulkerrins and the A&M Handball Club are looking forward to going to Tucson next month to compete in the United States Handball Association Collegiate Nationals. 
Editor’s note: If you would like to join the A&M handball Club or are interested in learning more about it. Mulkerrins and his team practice weekly on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. His contact information is listed below:
Email: [email protected]
Instagram: @tamuhandballclub

 
 

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