Re-united with the calling card of a sporting icon

Cavanman’s Diary

I was living with a few fellas in a house in an estate outside Cavan Town. We were in our mid-20s; some of us kept late hours. One night, a lad fell asleep on an armchair and woke up to find strangers in the kitchen, opening presses and generally mooching around. Burglars.

They were each as startled as each other. As he came to his senses in the half-light, he sprang from the chair and, not being a man to stand back in such circumstances, bolted in their direction – but they made their escape.

Upstairs, the rest of us heard the racket and jumped out of bed in pursuit but the culprits got away. We rang the guards. They came out and took statements; it soon emerged that the only thing stolen was my wallet, which had been sitting on the kitchen table.

The wallet was a cheap one and there was no cash in it so, at first, I wasn’t too annoyed about its loss. It was only the next day when it dawned on me – my Ducksy Walsh callcard was in it.

Now, for the uninitiated, Ducksy Walsh was one of the most iconic handball players of all time. Ducksy came from Kilkenny City and was the Cat with the sharpest claws. He dominated Irish handball for 20 years and was arguably its most iconic, recognisable name – the nom de guerre, the relentless will to win, the incredible skill.

Ducksy was nigh on unbeatable in Ireland for a long time but it wasn’t a smooth ride. He could be wild; when he woke up one morning, in his mid-30s, with fresh cuts and bruises on his face and no recollection of where he got them, he checked into a treatment centre and took control of his alcoholism.

I played him once. He was travelling through Cavan and wanted to get a game in – this was after his time in recovery, when it seemed he had replaced that dependency on for drink with an addiction to training – and there must have been nobody else available. We took to the court in Kingscourt on a Saturday morning; Ducksy humiliated me, running me round the alley till every muscle was screaming for mercy.

It wasn’t out of meanness or spite, that was just how he approached the game. He knew no other way. I once saw him play a man a good bit older than himself in a friendly competition – although there was no such thing in Ducksy’s world – and beat him 21-0, in front of his grand-kids. In handball, we call that giving someone a doughnut. Ducksy, a wit once said, handed out doughnuts like a drunken baker.

Anyway, my callcard. There was a story to it too. In 1999, Eircom produced a limited edition run of their callcards featuring Ducksy playing against another famous player, Peter McAuley from Louth. For those too young to remember, callcards were like a credit card with a little gold chip which were inserted into a public pay phone in order to make calls. The rate per minute when using the cards was cheaper and they were handier compared to constantly feeding coins into the slot.

The Irish Handball Council celebrated its 75th anniversary that year and the card was presumably released for promotional purposes. On the back was the sport’s official logo along with the simple legend ‘IMIR LIATHRÓID LÁIMHE’ and the following text (which I wholeheartedly endorse): “The perfect lifelong game for everybody. For information on a vibrant, active sport, contact any of Ireland’s 200 clubs or the Handball Office, Páirc an Chrócaigh, Dublin” and the phone number.

Anyway, back around 2003 or 2004, I was searching eBay for some handball item or other (you may recall my earlier column on hoarding useless junk) and came across this callcard, which I had never seen. It was listed for about €20, as far as I recall, which probably wasn’t too bad considering it was a 50-unit callcard, which cost £8 in itself.

I didn’t possess a credit card, or €20 spare, but I messaged the seller anyway, telling him all about Ducksy Walsh.

He asked me did I want to buy it. I said I would but I’d have to get someone with a credit card (this was before debit cards could be used for online purchases, not that it made any difference to me) to buy it for me.

He asked me for my address; I gave it and thought nothing more of it. A few days later, the card arrived in the post. In a remarkably generous gesture, this stranger had just decided to send me it for free. Included in the envelope was a hand-written note instructing me to pass on the good deed to somebody else.

I was overjoyed and it instantly became a prized possession. I kept it behind the clear plastic part of the wallet and would produce it like a Fed at handball gatherings, flashing the callcard like ID. It never ceased to impress handball people, who are a cynical lot at the best of times.

A classic photo of Michael ‘Ducksy’ Walsh.

Once, I saw Ducksy playing at a tournament; I toyed with the idea of approaching him to show him the callcard but chickened out. I think part of me thought that maybe he would expect me, or ask me, to gift it to him (I know I would if I was featured on something like that) and the truth was, I didn’t want to part with it.

And then, suddenly, it was gone. After the break-in, people we told all said the same thing: “That was someone you knew.” And it made sense; these thieves were hardly going around just trying front doors on a whim, hoping to find one unlocked. But it turned out, that was exactly what had happened.

A year passed and I had almost forgotten about it until one day, I got a call from a guard in Longford. My wallet had been found in a stolen car. The guard listed out all of the contents – beaten dockets, old receipts, various rubbish, an out-of-date bank card and an NUJ card. My heart sank.

“Are there any other cards?” I asked. No, he said, that was it.

So, these scumbags had broken into our house, taken one item (my wallet) and from it, had pilfered just this Ducksy Walsh commemorative callcard. I put it down to a bizarre quirk of fate and made light of it. Sometimes I would tell handballers the tale, with the various twists and turns, but a story of a holy relic is not much of a story if there is, in fact, no relic.

And then, a final plot twist. Out of nowhere, a couple of months ago, I was browsing online again for old handball stuff (I am a sucker for it – I recently, and I know this is ludicrous, paid the guts of €50 for a bronze figurine-style trophy of a handballer marked ‘Central YMCA, 1949’) when I was stopped in my tracks.

There, for sale, was a Ducksy Walsh callcard! Was it my one? It couldn’t have been, surely. But I had to have it so I parted company with the princely sum of €12 and within a few days, we were reunited.

Ducksy now takes pride of place in my wallet again and this time, I won’t let him out of my sight.

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